Compare Translations.

Via XIX век, what looks like it could be a fantastically useful resource: the website Compare Translations. When it works, as for Proust, Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), or Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes), the effect is magical; you see the original, and below it all available translations, which you can compare to your heart’s content. Of course, it’s frustrating when you click on an author or title and there’s nothing there, or only the original text, but presumably that will be remedied in due course. Bookmark it and wish it well!


  1. Very useful ! Whenever I feel like indulging in rage against incompetence, I can inspect translations of Thomas Mann. This is how one Lowe-Porter starts off with Doktor Faustus:

    I wish to state quite definitely that it is by no means out of any wish to bring my own personality into the foreground that I preface with a few words about myself and my own affairs this report on the life of the departed Adrian Leverkühn. What I here set down is the first and assuredly very premature biography of that beloved fellow-creature and musician of genius, so afflicted by fate, lifted up so high, only to be so frightfully cast down.

    I mean, like … This is the style of the Magician, the Great Panjandrum of German prose ? Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t do it better – so I wouldn’t even try. In cost-benefit terms, it would be more effective to spend several decades learning German and read the originals. Trouble is, Mann’s prose often resembles what I would expect from a brilliant but smug and show-offy teenager. It’s not just the elevated register that is hard to translate, but also the unstinting adolescent archness. Taking one of his novels to bed in a hotel is like snuggling down with a Schwarzwälderkirschtorte. The cleaning ladies are likely to misconstrue tbe red-and-white cream stains on the sheets,

  2. For non-adolescent archness, see many of Fay Weldon’s earlier novels.

  3. As a misguided youth I once slogged through the five or six hundred pages of Doctor Faustus, very possibly in that same translation. The only thing I remember now is that towards the end of the book there enters the story one of those angelic children composed entirely of high-Victorian mush (though half a century late in this case), the kind whose only function is gaze around doe-eyed and lisp beatitudes, beloved of all, until they expire tear-jerkingly of tuberculosis or of being generally too good for this world. And the name of this seraphic young will-o’-the-wisp?

    Nepomuk Schneidewein.

    Now, that’s an excellent name for an evil wizard or a mad scientist, or maybe the Gargamel figure in the German version of the Smurfs. But a saintly child named Nepomuk? What was he thinking?

    (But then maybe you shouldn’t expect much of a language in which schöner Götterfunken means “beautiful spark of the gods”, rather than “an intestinal disease affecting sea slugs”.)

  4. TR: in Germany they are the Schlümpfe. Only this week I was horrified to discover, at the beginnning of a bootleg internet film starring one of the guys in How I Met Your Mother, that they are of French provenance and christened Smurfs. I had always imagined that their Ur-tweeness was Ur-German, and that they were animated Gartenzwerge for children.

  5. No, I’m wrong, they were born in a Belgian brain !

  6. St. John of Nepomuk (often called “St. John Nepomuk”), the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

  7. Stu: if it’s any consolation, the original name, (LES) SCHTROUMPFS, is quite Teutonic-sounding in French, although their creator, Peyo, claimed that the phonological identity of their name with the German noun STRUMPF is purely accidental.

    And I quite agree that there certainly is something, if not Belgian, at least very “Northern European” about them. For instance I remember one of the short stories, “La faim des schtroumpfs” (A pun on the homophony between “faim” and “fin” in French: I wonder how the translators handled that one?) as a child. This involved a famine (after a fire destroys their food warehouse) in the midst of what to me seemed a very realistic-looking winter (*SPOILERS* If you never read it, don’t worry, they don’t starve to death!)

    Like most francophone Canadian readers of comic strips from Europe I often had to mentally adjust for certain things, such as the considerably milder weather most of my comic strip heroes had to endure (this could lead to amusing cognitive clashes, such as when I had to walk to school in winter enduring a much lower temperature and much greater quantities of snow and ice than what some brave fictional comic strip hero or knight whose exploits I had been following had to endure in the midst of his perilous adventures). But in the case of this story the winter looked very much like what my experience of a “normal” winter was, and thus I could easily have believed that Peyo was Canadian. So, Stu, I understand why you thought they were German in origin.

  8. The Mann family and friends took Nepomuk Schneidewein to be “modelled” on Frido Mann, a nephew whom Thomas Mann “idolized”. Here is a 2008 interview in Die Welt on the occasion of the publication of Achterbahn (roller coaster), Frido Mann’s autobiography. The article is titled “When Thomas Mann died, his nephew was relieved”).

    The interviewer brings up many features of the suicidal, depressive, drug-addictive and homosexual (!) lives that the tyrranical Magician made possible for his children. I knew only some of this from having read a lot of Klaus Mann in the 90s. The old man was a real assoholic.

    What always irritates in his novels is what I am calling adolescent archness. What always fascinates is the grandiloquence. In Mann you can’t have the latter without the former. So, folks, either learn German and read other authors, or cast the Mann translations aside and consider yourself lucky.

  9. tyrannical

  10. “Archness” is an English noun for which no satisfactorily familiar German noun exists. This is not a problem. Of course the behavior that we call “archness”, in particular that knowing glance and tone of voice, exists and can be described or referred to in German. There is merely no single German word at hand used as frequently as “archness” to characterize what we know from drag queens and Thomas Mann.

    The internet is infested with an MT and all-too-human assumption that Durchtriebenheit is a satisfactory approximation to “archness”. But durchtrieben means “shifty/cunning”. This is not way out in left field, but it still doesn’t catch the archball. I find such near-misses very interesting, because they give me an opportunity to think carefully about how I use the words involved, and how I might use them in a more effective way.

  11. I rate the Proust translations with Scott Moncrieff at the top, then Kilmartin, with Enright and Davis tied in last place. I’d characterize the decline as a drift from natural English towards mannerism. Guess I must be getting old. Davis’s cause is admittedly not helped by a major typo.

    The typo is one reason that I think it’s too early to take this site seriously. The Aeschylus translations are a bit of a motley crew – not that there’s anything wrong with motley crews, but if the site aspires to include translations of Aeschylus that are widely read (as per Proust) then it surely ought to have Vellacott (Penguin 1961) and Sommerstein (Loeb / Penguin, 2009) . Maybe those aren’t so easy to source online, but there’s no such excuse for omitting my favourite, the spirited John Stuart Blackie (Everyman 1906):



    Ye citizens of Cadmus! he who sits
    Holding the helm in the high poop of state,
    Watchful, with sleepless eyes, must, when he speaks,
    Speak words that suit the time. If we succeed,
    The gods will have the praise; but should we fail
    (Which may averting Jove from me avert,1
    And from this Theban city!), I alone
    Must bear the up-heaped murmurings of the whole,
    A motley-voiced lament. Ye men of Thebes,
    Not manhood’s vigour only, but ye also
    Who lack ripe years, and ye whose green old age
    Nurses unwithered strength,* arm, and redeem
    Your country’s honor from a cruel blot.
    Let not the citadel of your ancient sires,
    The altars of your native gods, your children,
    Nor the dear mother Earth, that nursed you, blame
    The slackness of your love—the nurse who bore
    Your creeping childhood on her fostering soil,
    And through your slow growth up to firmer years,
    Toiled that the strong arms of her faithful sons,
    Might shield her need. Up to this hour the god
    Inclines to us; though close hedged in by the foe,
    The vantage hath been ours. But now the seer,
    The shepherd of prophetic birds’ revolving
    In his ear and inward sense deep-pondered truths,2
    By no false art, though without help from fire,
    Even he soothsaying sings that the Argive camp
    Holds midnight council to attack the city.
    Therefore be ready; mount the battlements;
    Top every tower; crown every parapet;
    Fence every gate with valiant-hearted men,
    Well harnessed for the fight: and never fear
    This trooping alien foe. The gods will give
    A happy issue. Myself have sent out scouts,
    Sure men, not wont to linger. Their advice
    Shall shield us from surprise.


    Most excellent lord of Thebes! what I have seen
    With mine own eyes, no idle unvouched tale,
    I bring thee from the camp Seven warlike chiefs
    I saw, in solemn sacrifice assembled:
    Holding the head of the devoted ox,
    Over the shield with iron rimmed they dipped
    Their hands in the steaming blood, and swore an oath,
    By Mars, Enýo, and blood-loving Terror,3
    Either to raze the walls of Thebes, and plunder
    The citadel of Cadmus, or else drench
    This soil with Argive blood. Then, as for death
    Prepared, they decked the chariot of Adrastus4
    With choice love-tokens to their Argive kin,
    Dropping a tear, but with their mouths they gave
    No voice. An iron-hearted band are they,
    Breathing hot war, like lions when their eye
    Looks instant battle. Such my news; nor I
    Slow to report; for in the camp I left them
    Eager to share among their several bands
    Our gates by lot. Therefore, bestir thee; fence
    Each gate with the choicest men: dash all delay;
    For now the Argive host, near and more near,
    All panoplied comes on; the dark-wreathed dust
    Rolls, and the snowy foam of snorting chargers
    Stains the pure Theban soil. Like a wise pilot
    That scents the coming gale, hold thou the city
    Tight, ere the storm of Ares on our heads
    Burst pitiless. Loud the mainland wave is roaring.
    This charge be thine: myself, a sleepless spy,
    Will bring thee sure word from the hostile camp:
    Safe from without, so ye be strong within


  12. Ah, the high poop of state!

  13. Yes that’s wonderful isn’t it 🙂

  14. narrowmargin says

    @ Stu Clayton = Have you made any comparisons of the Lowe Porter translations of Mann (specifically “Buddenbrooks” and “The Magic Mountain”) with the new ones by James Woods?

    I’d heard that Lowe Porter made awful mistakes and simply didn’t understand a lot of nouns/idioms. And Woods’ translations are being hailed.

    Since I have no German, I’m unable to compare the two.

  15. A consequence, no doubt, of the high colonic of empire.

  16. narrowmargin: no, I haven’t compared English translations of Mann’s novels. Thanks for the tip about James Wood. The next time I’m in a well-stocked English-language bookstore I’ll take a look.

    I have no hard and fast criteria for the quality of translations in general. I place only one non-negotiable demand on translations from German into English: that they not read as if rendered by Prof. Dr. Katzenjammer von Kids. That means, at the very least: no Germanicisms (apparent tyranny of nouns over verbs), no convoluted page-long Germanic-seeming syntax.

    Translations should not taste like plastic. They should be like the expensive vegetarian hamburgers you can get in Germany, made of soya beans and spices and god-knows-what-all, and roasted so as to look like the real thing. They’re not meat, but they’re the closest a vegetarian can get to meat, so hey, why not ?

    One basic problem, I think, is that German and English have many sort-of “structural similarities” and share cognates. When translators just don’t understand the original, they imitate the syntax and copy the cognates.

    Translations of Thomas Mann might be better if they were first translated into Chinese, then into English. Here I am assuming that the English-German similarities would get lost in the Chinese. When then translated into German, Mann would sound like a mandarin, which he was !

  17. Oops – “when then translated into English, Mann would sound like a mandarin”

  18. Mann’s style resembles that of Trollope in many ways. Here might be Mann writing about Mr Slope instead of Naphta and Settembrini:

    Mr Slope, in commencing his sermon, showed no slight tact in his ambiguous manner of hinting that, humble as he was himself, he stood there as the mouthpiece of the illustrious divine who sat opposite to him; and having presumed so much, he gave forth a very accurate definition of the conduct which that prelate would rejoice to see in the clergymen now brought under his jurisdiction. It is only necessary to say, that the peculiar points insisted on were exactly those which were most distasteful to the clergy of the diocese, and most averse to their practices and opinions; and that all those peculiar habits and privileges which have always been dear to high-church priests, to that party which is now scandalously called the high-and-dry church, were ridiculed, abused, and anathematised. Now, the clergymen of the diocese of Barchester are all of the high-and-dry church.
    Having thus, according to his own opinion, explained how a clergyman should show himself approved unto God, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, he went on to explain how the word of truth should be divided; and here he took a rather narrow view of the question; and fetched arguments from afar. His object was to express his abomination of all ceremonious modes of utterance, to cry down any religious feeling which might be excited, not by the sense, but by the sound of words, and in fact to insult the cathedral practices. Had St Paul spoken of rightly pronouncing instead of rightly dividing the word of truth, this part of his sermon would have been more to the purpose; but the preacher’s immediate object was to preach Mr Slope’s doctrine, and not St Paul’s, and he contrived to give the necessary twist to the text with some skill.
    He could not exactly say, preaching from a cathedral pulpit, that chanting should be abandoned in cathedral services. By such an assertion, he would have overshot his mark and rendered himself absurd, to the delight of his hearers. He could, however, and did, allude with heavy denunciations to the practice of intoning in parish churches, although the practice was not but unknown in the diocese; and from thence he came round to the undue preponderance, which he asserted, music over meaning in the beautiful service which they had just heard. He was aware, he said, that the practices of our ancestors could not be abandoned at a moment’s notice; the feelings of the aged would be outraged, and the minds of respectable men would be shocked. There were many, he was aware, of not sufficient calibre of thought to perceive, of not sufficient education to know, that a mode of service, which was effective when outward ceremonies were of more moment than inward feelings, had become all but barbarous at a time when inward conviction was everything, when each word of the minister’s lips should fall intelligibly into the listener’s heart. Formerly the religion of the multitude had been an affair of the imagination: now, in these latter days, it had become necessary that a Christian should have a reason for his faith–should not only believe, but digest–not only hear, but understand. The words of our morning service, how beautiful, how apposite, how intelligible they were, when read with simple and distinct decorum! But how much of the meaning of the words was lost when they were produced with all the meretricious charms of melody! &c &c.

  19. narrowmargin says

    Correction = the translator’s name is John E. Woods, not James Woods. Mea culpa.

  20. It would be a fine service to the public to translate the works of Thomas Mann into German, actually.

  21. Mann’s novels are nougatory. If they were translated into everyday German, there wouldn’t be much left. It would be like Nutella sandwiches without the Nutella.

    This comment will make sense only to those familiar with Nutella,

  22. Stu, unfortunately western-language translations into Chinese tend to be rather poor and full of errors. Chinese translators seem to be prone to ignorance and sloppy research when it comes to English.

  23. Bathrobe, do you think that might be, in some individuals, the result of overcompensating for a feeling of “national inferiority” ? The overcompensation consists in an untutorable conviction of having mastered the foreign language, no matter what the evidence. I have met several young Germans like that. These are the ones who ask me a question about English phrasing, then tell me my answer is wrong.

  24. The thoughts behind this seem to be: English is a world language, it belongs to nobody in particular, so everybody in the world can have a go with impunity.

  25. These are the ones who ask me a question about English phrasing, then tell me my answer is wrong.

    I have had Germans do this to me. It is not a winning trait.

  26. Stu: Who is not familiar with Nutella?

  27. marie-lucie: the fact is that I have no idea whether Nutella is widely known in the USA. I also don’t know whether people think of it as resembling nougat. If the answer is “few people” or “hardly anyone”, my pun on “nougatory” falls flat.

  28. As a data point, I have never tasted Nutella and basically know it only as a word for stuff that some people spread on toast (?).

  29. In an attempt to break big into the US market, Nutella made a huge endorsement contract with Kobe Bryant in 2001. Of course it didn’t quite work as planned, ahem.

  30. marie-lucie says

    Stu, LH: I first tasted Nutella in France, where it is very popular, and I have bought Nutella in both Canada and the US, although it may not be available in every grocery store. It is made of hazelnuts and chocolate (and sugar, among other things, but no chemical preservatives) and has the consistency of smooth peanut butter. It is very different from le nougat, which is very hard and contains bits of almonds. Some grocery chains make their own spread similar to Nutella, under a different name.

  31. It’s a chocolate spread made with cocoa and ground hazelnuts, with palm oil and lethicin replacing the cocoa butter for spreadability.

  32. After checking the German WiPe on Nougat, I see that I (and many Germans, it bet) think that it is just another word for Nougatcreme. Both dunkler Nougat and weißer Nougat are hard(ish), not creamy. The French WiPe shows this as Nougat.

    German food and candy advertisers are forever touting stuff as creamy, for instance Rittersport “Nougat” chocolate squares. That may be one reason why I think that Nougat is creamy. One of the Nutella competitors makes something they call Nuß-Nougat Creme.

  33. I see no reason why my last comment should have to “await moderation”. It is a perfectly moderate comment.

  34. Stu, I have an example at my blog, about the translation of a short passage from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m a bit scathing, but the problem seems to be all too common in Chinese translations.

  35. Bathrobe, you write there: “Sometimes translation is not just a matter of having a mellifluous, natural style; it’s a matter of getting it right.” I agree, with one addition: mellifluousness should not be sacrificed for the purpose of getting it right.

  36. mellifluousness should not be sacrificed for the purpose of getting it right

    I would say that anything which must be sacrificed to get the translation right, can be sacrificed — except for those things which, if sacrificed, would cause the translation to be wrong. If a harsh, spiky, unnatural style is part of the original, then the translation should be harsh, spiky, and unnatural too.

  37. My comment about mellifluous style refers to what I see as a common feature of Chinese translations, especially Mainland Chinese translations. Translators in China appear to be quite good at producing a pleasant, smooth-reading literary style, but are lazy when it comes to finding out the real meaning of the original text. There seems to be an attitude that ‘looking up the dictionary is enough’, that literal translations of unfamiliar words or expressions are ok, or that puzzling expressions can be glossed over. The end result is nice readable passages that distort the meaning of the original.

  38. David Marjanović says

    German food and candy advertisers are forever touting stuff as creamy

    And as having cream in it, no matter how absurd. Cream Tea, teabags with cream aroma, isn’t really a thing in England, is it!?!

Speak Your Mind