Buddenbrooks – A Literary Conversation (Part Three)

Yesterday, in Part Two of our discussion on Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Lizzy and I discussed some of the character flaws evident among the family members.  Today’s post sees us moving on to take a look at Mann’s technique and, something close to our hearts, the use of language and dialect. So, without further ado…

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LS: As you read Buddenbrooks in the original, are there other elements of Mann’s technique that you’d like to comment on?

TM: There are a couple of areas that stand out.  One is very simple, and I do wonder if it made it into the English version, namely the characteristic use of ellipsis (…) at the end of his paragraphs.  It’s something he does far more often than any other writer I can think of, and I have to admit that it’s rubbed off on my own work as I constantly have to edit for this when I write my posts!

I also think that Buddenbrooks can be fairly melodramatic at times, verging on the kitsch.  While Mann can opt for the understated on occasion, there’s a tendency to use a thick brush, particularly when life-changing events are happening.  I’d agree that some of the later sections (Hanno at school, the final scenes) are more realistic and perhaps more successful than many of the more hand-wringingly emotional sections.

However, what I’d like to know about your version is something you touched on at the very start, the handling of dialect.  Did you get the feeling that the novel dealt with people from rather different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, or did it all blend together?  In the original, it was an integral part of the text… (see, ellipsis!)

LS: Well, of course, Christian is the one who spends most time on foreign shores; his travels taking him to Venezuela and Britain, where he spends his time being an unsuccessful businessman and a very successful prodigal.  As such behaviour is no different from how he behaves at home, I don’t think Mann is being derogatory about the nations Christian visited.

However, what he is intending with his almost caricaturish portrait of Tony’s second husband, Permaneder, from Munich?  Bavaria really does come across as a foreign country.  But, before I go any further, let me confess I have a bit of a soft spot for Permaneder. You see, Munich was the first place I ever visited in Germany, I stayed for a year and I left under duress. So it and Bavarian ways are close to my heart.  So I don’t blame Permaneder for spending so much time in the Hofbräuhaus.  There really isn’t a North German beer to match the beer served there (and I did extensive research on this earlier in the year, so I am making an informed statement…). Neither do I castigate him for taking early retirement, when Tony’s dowry made it possible.  I did exactly the same when I got the opportunity last year. Unfortunately I can’t afford to return to Munich to live, so in many ways I actually envy him.

I do realise he’s a bit of a slob, a rake when drunk, and without ambition.  Characteristics that are anathema to the hard-working ethos of Tony’s Buddenbrooks mentality. His informality contrasts sharply with the correctness of North German society, and he is looked down upon, certainly by the Buddenbrooks, hopefully not by the author (I can’t make my mind up about that). Tony only marries him because she is desperate ! Still for all his faults (and bad language), he is a more honourable man than many a North-German business man.  He did return the dowry for starters. He never pretended to be something he was not, even when he first visited the Buddenbrooks.  Mind you, you could argue that he was speaking Bayerisch, and that the Buddenbrooks didn’t understand him.  

“München is koane G’schäftsstadt … Da will an jeder sei’ Ruh’ und sei’ Maß.”

I don’t speak Bayerisch either, but I do understand that.

“Munich is no commercial town.  Everyone wants his peace and quiet and his beer.”
(H. T. Lowe-Porter, 1924) No ellipsis by the way.

Or for those who want something with more Permaneder flavour:

“Munich ain’t no town for business. Folks want their peace ‘n’ a mugga beer.”
(John E. Woods, 1993) No ellipsis either.

You mentioned reading parts of the novel in other languages.  How did they cope with Permaneder’s dialect?

TM: By other languages, I meant the various dialects!  With all due respect to the two translators mentioned above, what they’ve brought into English is light-years away from the original Bavarian.  Permaneder is Exhibit A of the importance of linguistic variety in the book, and the scene where he visits the Buddenbrook house and reduces Tony’s mother to helpless nodding and smiling is one that will stick in the memory a while.

Of course, Bavarian isn’t the only dialect highlighted in the novel.  There are several passages where the local north-German variety of the language is used (perhaps most famously when Johann Buddenbrook addresses a restless crowd in the middle of the 1848 season of revolutions), and we even get the odd smattering of Prussian from the few characters from Berlin who make it to Lübeck.  What’s more, even the ‘Hochdeutsch’ used is littered with French expressions, far more so than would be the case today, and taken as a whole, these variations add a little flavour to the story, which (I’m sorry to say) doesn’t sound like it made it through to the translation 😉

One of the reasons for this multitude of tongues is the historical background.  With the story beginning in 1835, a generation or so after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and wrapping up about forty years or so later, by which point Germany had actually become an independent country, there’s a case to be made for the ‘Verfall’ being just as much about a certain way of life as simply restricted to the Buddenbrook family.  It’s a novel chronicling the unstoppable advance of the modern world, and Thomas and co. find themselves on the wrong side of history…

LS: Before I continue with that last thought, I have a few more thoughts about the translation of dialects. Translation has come a long way since H. T. Porter-Lowe translated Buddenbrooks in 1924.  Contemporary translators cannot get away with stating … the author has recorded much dialect.  This difficulty is insuperable.  Dialect cannot be transferred.” as she did in her translator’s note. It is now expected of them to invent dialects, which I can argue both for and against.  When can an invented dialect ever be anything other than an approximation? And I have to say the lack of an invented dialect in her translation didn’t interfere with my reading enjoyment in any way. Her old-fashioned sense of propriety sometimes did, but that is another issue. There is enough context to know and appreciate what is going on.  John E. Woods’s version is closer to the spirit of the original, but I am actually irritated by that ‘mugga beer’.  I’d never say that, even if it’s an accurate translation of ‘Maß’. If I was being colloquial, I’d say ‘pint’, and that’s so wrong on all accounts in this context!

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Ah, translating dialects – a very tricky business…  Anyway, tomorrow takes us back over to Lizzy’s Literary Life, where we’ll be closing off our discussion by considering the book from a particular angle, as a 20th-Century novel in 19th-Century clothing.  Intrigued?  Do join us 😉

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