Michael Scammell in the NYRB reports on what he correctly calls a “remarkable discovery” by Matthias Weßel while examining the papers of the late Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht — the original German text of Arthur Koestler’s famous novel Darkness at Noon, labeled “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.”

The implications of Weßel’s discovery are considerable, for Darkness at Noon is that rare specimen, a book known to the world only in translation. This peculiar distinction has been little discussed in the vast critical literature about Koestler and his famous novel. In my lengthy 2009 biography of Koestler I barely touch on it, yet the phenomenon is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the novel has been translated into over thirty other languages, every one of them based on the English edition, meaning that they are not just translations, but translations of a translation. This includes the German version, which Koestler himself translated back into German in 1944. […]

American and British critical assessments of Koestler have been very different, of course, but it’s surprising how little attention has been paid to the issue of translation, for Darkness at Noon sounds awfully wooden in its present English form. It is full of Germanisms and awkward formulations, showing that the translator was unfamiliar with the Soviet reality and Soviet terminology that inspired it; but it has not been possible to document this until now. Given the helter-skelter way Koestler conceived and wrote his novel and the chaotic conditions in which it was translated, it’s not surprising that the results were so unsatisfactory. […]

Having acquired and studied a copy of the German manuscript myself, I can confirm the English translation as the source of most of the errors, omissions, and mistranslations that Weßel found in Koestler’s translation back into German. Since it’s virtually certain that most of those errors and omissions have been reproduced and multiplied in the thirty to forty translations made from English into other languages, I’ve been able to form a pretty good idea of what readers of Darkness at Noon have been getting. A spot check of passages from the beginning, middle, and end of the English translation reveals an uncomfortably close adherence to German word order, syntax, and grammar; German cognates are regularly substituted for more apt and accurate English synonyms; and unnecessary inversions of verb form occur on almost every page. There is also an excessive use of the pronoun “one” (in place of “he” or “you”), a symptom of the way the colloquial tone and plainspokenness of the original have been replaced by the stiff language of polite society and by fussy, Germanic circumlocutions that slow the narrative down.

This woodenness is intensified by several other problems. The most glaring is the misleading presentation of Rubashov’s prison regime, which starts on the contents page. Here we learn that Koestler’s novel is divided into four sections: “The First Hearing,” “The Second Hearing,” “The Third Hearing,” and “The Grammatical Fiction.” It’s obvious to anyone with knowledge of the Soviet Union that these are not hearings, but interrogations, and they are carried out not by two “examining magistrates,” as the English would have it, but by two interrogators: Ivanov, acting as the good cop, and Gletkin, the bad cop. Rubashov, at the novel’s opening, is taken to prison not by a “chauffeur,” as in the translation, but by a police driver, and he is watched over not by civilian “warders,” but by secret police guards. Rubashov has been consigned not to the mercies of a civilized and rational system of justice, as the British terminology cozily suggests, but to a militarized secret police apparatus not in the least bound by the niceties of habeas corpus or the rule of law.

There are many examples of the bowdlerization involved. some morbidly hilarious (Rubashov’s “our leadership [is] more grotesque than that jumping jack’s with the little mustache” becomes “more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships”) as well as a riveting account of the origin of the book and the fate of the manuscript; I urge everyone with even a passing interest to read the whole thing, and of course I heartily agree with Scammell’s conclusion: “It’s not only possible, but in my view imperative, that someone undertake a new translation that will communicate the book’s artistic qualities more accurately and offer a richer and more nuanced account of Koestler’s complex narrative.[…] I am speaking of the English, of course, but just imagine the possibilities if translations from the original German into two to three dozen other languages followed suit.” It’s been decades since I read the novel, and I look forward to reading it again in a fresh translation of the original text. (Via MetaFilter.)


  1. Unfortunately I can’t fnd any indication on the web that anyone is preparing to print an edition of the original German manuscript. Presumably there must be some interest.

  2. How could there not be? Surely it’s just a matter of the legal and financial stuff being worked out. I can’t believe Koestler has dropped out of the common culture to the extent that everyone’s just going “Huh, the original text of Darkness at Noon? Mildly interesting!” and going on with their lives.

  3. It wouldn’t surprise me particularly. While they were once quite famous, Koestler and Darkness at Noon have all but vanished from the publish consciousness (at least in America). I had not even heard of the book until a couple of years ago.

  4. This novel was useful when there were only a few books about the soviet union. Now that we have first rate accounts such as those by Gustav Herling, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Varlam Shalamov and many others, Koestler should be regarded as third rate. Even Solzhenitsyn is better.

  5. Sigh. Once again I realize how far I have fallen behind the zeitgeist…

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    American and British critical assessments of Koestler have been very different, of course,…

    Of course, if you say so, but could anyone be more explicit? I only know of British critical assessments, and those from very long ago. I quite liked Darkness at Noon, but it was a long time ago that I read it (probably before 1960). I thought The Sleepwalkers was OK, but not as good as it was said to be, and The Act of Creation pretentious. Now that we know what a supremely nasty person Koestler was in real life — certainly a serial rapist, possibly a murderer by some criteria — it is difficult to dissociate that knowledge from hs work.

  7. Difficult for some, but not for me; thanks perhaps to my early love for Pound, I do not have the slightest problem dissociating the author from the work.

  8. When I read Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, which wasn’t a bad book, I was puzzled by the implications that I picked up (from somewhere; in those pre-Internet days it wasn’t so easy as looking up Wikipedia) that Durrell wasn’t considered to be as wonderful as he once was… although at that time the incest insinuations had only just begun to surface.

  9. Koestler was a major public intellectual in Britain for decades. That probably kept affected the perception of his work and kept it in the public consciousness longer than over here.

  10. I’m trying to think of other famous books only known from translation, but I’m drawing a blank, except for some Really Old Things like the Apocrypha.

    I’ve not read Durrell, and I don’t think I’ll be able to without giggling. His image, in my mind, will always be as his brother Gerald depicted him (especially in My Family and Other Animals).

  11. Trond Engen says

    Same here. Rosie Is My Relative was one of the first books I read in English. My Family and Other Animals followed shortly after. Probably a little too early for me to fully appreciate the description of his older brother, but still.

  12. other famous books only known from translation

    Problematic in lots of ways, including being not particularly famous, but there’s (what might be) Wilde’s Constance.

  13. From 1924 to 1941 Zamyatin’s We was available only in translation, and even when it was published in Russian, it was in New York, four years after Zamyatin’s death. It was not openly published in the Soviet Union until 1988. There are doubtless similar examples.

  14. Wikipedia gives a few examples here:

  15. Kobi: This novel was useful when there were only a few books about the soviet union.

    That’s not quite the point – Darkness at Noon is only about the Soviet Union in the same way Animal Farm is about the Soviet Union. It remains admired, canonical even (if the canon is broad enough), not as a documentary of Stalin’s purge but as a definitive account of the experience of imprisonment while awaiting death, which Koestler knew from Spain rather than the USSR. Yes, once the Cold War was on Koestler was in full Cold Warrior mode, which inevitably meant his fiction would be read as politics first, art second; but that was then, etc.

  16. Thank you, that’s exactly right.

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    I vaguely recalled some previous discussion of Koestler and the current status of his reputation/prominence, and it seems to have turned up part way through this thread:

  18. Ian, Languagehat,

    A a very account of the experience of imprisonment while awaiting death is Nabokov’s Invitation to a beheading. It is (for me) a first-rate novel. Darkness at noon wasn’t good enough as a novel.

  19. FWIW, here’s the Wikipedia article on Prison Literature:

  20. It was news to me that the title Darkness at Noon was not Koestler’s, but was (in Scammell’s telling) “thought up” by his lover and translator, Daphne Hardy, at the English publisher’s “prompting,” in Koestler’s absence. I would not have trivialized the re-naming in that way, as I believe the title is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. The choice of that phrase seems to me to have an extraordinary creative act.

    I read Darkness at Noon perhaps thirty years ago, and I would not remember it nearly as strongly as I do if it had not had that title, with its powerful biblical allusion. Now I wonder if the title has colored my understanding of it in a way that Koestler did not intend. At any rate, on reflection it seems to me that it’s one that Koestler would have been unlikely to choose.

  21. Titles generally “belong” to the publisher anyway, who chooses them for marketing considerations. Few if any of Cordwainer Smith’s stories were published under his original title: the titles were chosen by Ben Bova, the editor of the magazine where they were published. Bova usually took them from phrases in the stories, and a wondrous lot they are: “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”, “Think Blue, Count Two”, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons [sic]”, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, to mention just a few. If you can read those titles and not wonder about the stories, you have no romance in your soul.

    I’m currently reading two books on the programming language Scala from different publishers. One is named Programming In Scala, the other Programming Scala. Confusing.

  22. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii wrote a whole book about titles, which is described in some detail (in English) here; the book is online here, and I recommend it to anyone who reads Russian — it’s very lively.

  23. January First-of-May says

    I’m currently reading two books on the programming language Scala from different publishers. One is named Programming In Scala, the other Programming Scala. Confusing.

    At one point a few years ago, I found that I had two books right next to each other on my bookshelf that were both named Приключения Алисы (Adventures of Alice).
    One of them was a volume from Bulychev’s Girl from the Future series. The other was the Yakhnin translation of Alice in Wonderland.

  24. @John Cowan: I found it interesting that the titles used for Norstrilia seemed to become less interesting over time. The novel was originally split in two (for no reason other than ease of publishing) as The Boy Who Bought Old Earth and The Shop of Heart’s Desire. The later two-book edition was The Planet Buyer and The Underpeope, which seems to me quite a bit less evocative (although more indicative of the content for second volume, at least). The final title of the recombined novel seems the least compelling of them all (although by the time the one-volume Norstrilia was published, the story was a recognized cult classic).

    My favorite Smith title, by the way, is “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” which I assume was Smith’s own invention.

  25. You’re so right! The Boy Who Bought Old Earth and The Shop of Heart’s Desire are brilliant titles, whoever came up with them; Norstrilia just makes me think of nostrils.

  26. It’s a portmanteau form for (Old) North Australia in a broad Ozite accent.

  27. I would never have guessed the first i was /aɪ/, but I’m not sure what would have been a better spelling.

  28. Yes, unambiguous and context-free spellings for /aɪ/ are few. Norstrighlia looks vaguely Italian, and Norstreyelia vaguely Modern Greek, making both of them horribly misleading.

    Old North Australia, by the way, is a planet. The original continent of Australia on Earth is covered from edge to edge by the ruins of “the Chinesian [sic] city of Aojou Nambien”, i.e. 澳洲南边 Àozhōu nánbiān ‘Southern Australia’. The city’s peak population has been estimated (not by Smith) as 30 billion, but it was destroyed by the manshonyaggers, autonomous death machines whose purpose is to destroy all opponents of the Sixth Reich, and consequently take orders only in German, a very dead language.

  29. David Marjanović says

    I’m currently reading two books on the programming language Scala from different publishers. One is named Programming In Scala, the other Programming Scala. Confusing.

    I routinely have to cite Palaeontology, the Journal of Paleontology, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.


    Menschenjäger = “human-hunter(s)”.

    take orders only in German, a very dead language

    Judging from their name, it’s specifically a Rhineland accent, where the ä remains [æː] rather than [eː]!

  30. Very dead Rhinelanders are the worst Rhinelanders!

  31. David Marjanović says


  32. We are dealing with an anglophone mishearing of the machine’s own name for itself, plus the English plural ending. In the story “Mark Elf”, the heroine, a “good Prussian girl” who has been in orbit in frozen sleep since 1945 (it’s now the year 4000 or so), meets a manshonyagger and sees “WAFFENAMT DES SECHSTEN DEUTSCHEN REICHES / BURG EISENHOWER, A.D. 2495 / MENSCHENJÄGER MARK ELF” written on it: because she has a “German mind”, it does not kill her. Later she meets a telepathic bear:

    Her clothes were dry and seemed to be falling off her in shreds. She felt so bad [she has all kinds of new allergies] that when she noticed the bear, she did not even have strength to run.

    She just closed her eyes again.

    Lying there with her eyes closed she wondered all over again where she was. Said the bear in perfect German, “You are at the edge of the Unselfing Zone. You have been rescued by a Moron. You have stopped a Menschenjäger very mysteriously. For the first time in my own life I can see into a German mind and see that the word manshonyagger should really be Menschenjäger, a hunter of men. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Middle-Sized Bear who lives in these woods.”

  33. David Marjanović says

    Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Middle-Sized Bear who lives in these woods.

    This is just perfect.

  34. It is. Although I think “Burg Eisenhower” (not even “Eisenhauer”) is even more perfect in its way.

  35. Does that 4000 year date actually come from anywhere in the stories? It seems like J.J Pierce’s timeline (which puts “Mark Elf” at around that time) is the only source, whereas either “Mark Elf” or “Queen of the Afternoon” (although the latter may be non-canonical) actually quotes a date which is at least ten thousand years in the future. I’ll have to look when I get home, but I don’t think much weight can be given to Pierce’s timeline.

  36. No, it’s from the Pierce timeline. “Mark Elf” is explicitly dated 16,000 years after 1945, but Norstrilia is just as explicitly dated 15,000 years after the fall of Earth. There is no reconciling those dates. Trying to get the Instrumentality stories to fit a consistent timeline is as hopeless as Darkover’s geography, where Bradley can’t even make up her mind whether the Dry-Towns are east or west of the Domains. Neither of them is anything like Tolkien, who carefully revised his text to make sure that the phases of the Moon are the same on the same day when the story is happening in different parts of Middle-earth. And Smith seems to have wanted it that way. How long ago is “Once upon a time”?

    [W]e shall never know what empire once conquered Earth and brought tribute up that fabulous boulevard; nor the identity of the Robot, the Rat and the Copt, whose visions are referred to in Norstrilia and elsewhere; nor what ultimately becomes of the cat-people created in “The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal.”

  37. I started out as the kind of person who wants consistency and strict adherence to timelines, and have turned into someone who glories in messiness.

  38. “K is a consonant that we get from the Greeks, but it can be traced away back beyond them to the Cerathians, a small commercial nation inhabiting the peninsula of Smero. In their tongue it was called Klatch, which means “destroyed.” The form of the letter was originally precisely that of our H, but the erudite Dr. Snedeker explains that it was altered to its present shape to commemorate the destruction of the great temple of Jarute by an earthquake, circa 730 B.C. This building was famous for the two lofty columns of its portico, one of which was broken in half by the catastrophe, the other remaining intact. As the earlier form of the letter is supposed to have been suggested by these pillars, so, it is thought by the great antiquary, its later was adopted as a simple and natural — not to say touching — means of keeping the calamity ever in the national memory. It is not known if the name of the letter was altered as an additional mnemonic, or if the name was always Klatch and the destruction one of nature’s puns. As each theory seems probable enough, I see no objection to believing both — and Dr. Snedeker arrayed himself on that side of the question.” —The Devil’s Dictionary

  39. The rat’s name, apparently, was R’obert (which doesn’t quite fit the usual pattern for underperson names), and Smith had recorded long lists of Coptic names, but it’s not clear if he had chosen one for the Copt. (There was probably going to be a whole Coptic planet.) And the robot likely didn’t even have a name before he met Jesus in space-3.

    Returning to his story names: One of the early collections of some of Smith’s stories was entitled Space Lords, which I thought was a rather poor description of the Lords of the Instrumentality; it makes the stories sound like shlocky space opera. However, Linebarger’s widow took the title as canonical in the only one of the posthumous “Cordwainer Smith” stories that (so far as I am aware) has ever actually been published, “Down to a Sunless Sea.”

  40. I agree that there is no name quite like “R’obert”, but there are names that don’t seem literally meaningful (E’telekeli), that make sense except for the species prefix (C’mell), and a few that make sense both ways (T’ruth). So a name that is recognizable only with its prefix isn’t all that improbable.

    Other posthumous stories:

    — “Queen of the Afternoon”: only the beginning is by Smith, and the rest was written by Genevieve, and it lacks Smith’s own pragmatic (but not sadistic) жестокость.

    — “Himself in Anachron” is actually from the “Scanners Live In Vain” era of Smith’s life, but wasn’t published until 1993, thanks to Harlan Ellison’s shenanigans with The Last Dangerous Visions (I love the links at the end of the WP article on TLDV: “Development hell” and “Vaporware”. Exactly.)

    — “The Colonel Came Back From The Nothing-At-All” is a beta version of “Drunkboat”, sans Artyr Rambo, that probably wasn’t meant to see the light of day.

    — “War No. 81-Q” now has two published versions, the second one posthumous. It brings the story into the Instrumentality timeline, and may also have been a result of tampering by Genevieve.

    ObPersonal: Back when I was running the Conlang mailing list, I would sign any administrative post “John Cowan, Lord of the Instrumentality of Conlang.” Occasionally I referred to my Strange Powers, a trope I’ve recycled a few times, including on this blog.

  41. Consider Genevieve.

    I meant that “Down to a Sunless Sea” was the only story that she made up out of whole cloth after Paul Linebarger’s death. The other posthumous publications were a finished work that had (through pure happenstance) never seen the light of day, drafts that were probably never intended for publication, and a story that Genevieve completed. In contrast, she wrote all of “Down to a Sunless Sea” and (apparently) “The Saga of the Third Sister.”

    My perception was that only the second part of an underperson’s name was expected to resemble a normal human name. Hence, C’mell, who was named after an actual cat named Melanie. In this light, the name “T’ruth” was an ironic combination of prefix and given name. I’m not sure what to make of the E’telekeli, except to note that he was not named according to the usual procedures, having grown up in the Deep Down Deep, away from humankind.

    I actually had a crush on a girl named Genevieve in high school. After another girl, Melanie, had made it clear she was not interested in me, I had gone on a couple of impromptu outings with Genevieve, and I was going to ask her for a more official date. I brought Quest of the Three Worlds to school, to read her the introductory paragraph about Genevieve before I asked her out, but I couldn’t go through with it, because my spacesuit was too itchy. (Actually, she arrived at school with a stunningly unattractive change in her hair style, and I was too surprised to go through with it.)

  42. Okay, so by posthumous you meant something like pseudepigraphical?

    I suppose I should mention the proper names in Smith’s stories that are based on words for ‘fifty-six’ or ‘five-six’ (what this number may have meant to him is not known): Fisi, Panc Ashash, Limaono, Englok, Goroke, Femtiosex, Veesey-koosey. You can look up the source languages in Wikipedia, but this crowd may have more fun figuring them out. In “Think Blue, Count Two” (full text) alone there are four characters named ‘thirteen’: Tiga-belas, Trece, Talatashar, Sh’san.

  43. I suppose I used the word “posthumous” because I think of those stories as analogous to Derleth’s posthumous collaborations with Lovecraft—with whole stories drawn out from a few words scribbled in a (possibly water-damaged) notebook.

    I was under the impression that the “five six” names were a reference to the year 1956, when (I believe) he was very seriously ill. While he was sick, he had a religious experience, and he was much more pious after his recovery. The greatest number of those names occur in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” in which all the lords and ladies (except Arabella Underwood, but including the dead lady herself, obviously) have “five six” names. That is also the story that is the most explicitly a religious allegory (since the tale of the robot, the rat, and the Copt was never told).

    As to the number names, there is also StoOdin from “Under Old Earth.” (I always wondered what became of the Lady Alice Moore after that story, but that was the last story Linebarger wrote.) Back in the 1990s, there was an electronic music hobbyist I conversed with on UseNet whose handle was StoOdin101. Alas, I can find no evidence of his compositions (including “Congohelium Conga”) on the Web today.

  44. (For the benefit of non-Russophones, StoOdin means ‘hundred and one.’)

  45. I have been re-watching some stories from the 1980s relaunch of The Twilight Zone. Unlike the classic Rod Serling series, I had only seen most of these stories once, when they first aired. Some of them I still remember, some I don’t. The one I just watched, “Red Snow” features a KGB colonel sent to investigate mysterious deaths in a village north of the Arctic Circle. It alludes to Darkness at Noon explicitly by name, although in-story only as a reference to the lack of sunlight in the boreal winter.

  46. I just found out that Noel Field’s foster daughter Erica Wallach, who was imprisoned by the Soviets from 1950 to 1955, spending part of her imprisonment working in the Pechora coal basin in the Arctic, wrote a memoir called Light at Midnight after her return to America.

    The story of Field himself, if you are not familiar with it, is pretty bizarre. He was a Soviet spy, who worked for the State Department, later the League of Nations, and then various relief organizations and the OSS during the Second World War. In 1948, he was denounced by Whittaker Chambers and he, still living in Europe, moved to Prague. That’s when things get weird. He was arrested by the Communists as an American spy; his extensive contacts with Soviet agents were reframed as a network for collecting information to be passed to the West—the exact opposite of the truth. Members of his family—his wife, his brother, and Wallach—who were searching for him were lured behind the Iron Curtain and also detained. Eventually, Field was induced to testify in the post-war show trials in eastern Europe, as they moved to purged the authentic local Communists in favor of the most loyal Stalinists, many of whom had spent years in exile in Moscow. Yet through all the lies and his (and his family’s imprisonment), Field apparently remained a devoted Stalinist.

  47. I will never understand people like that.

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