Büyülü Dağ, Troldfjeldet, La montaña mágica and many more

Before starting to write about my own translation of "Der Zauberberg", I think it's important to recognise just how popular this novel has been in other languages – thanks to the skill of many different translators – almost from the very beginning.

Thomas Mann was always a consummate promoter of his own work, and he had started to hype up his new "novella" from 1913 onwards. In the four years after the novel's publication in German in 1924, it sold 100,000 copies – "Buddenbrooks", cited as the principal reason for Mann's 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature, took 20 years to sell that many. Not only was "Der Zauberberg" an immediate hit on Mann's home market, but work on the first translations actually started while he was still writing the novel.

The photo shows 25 different translations of the 26 held by the Thomas Mann Archive at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich (I missed the Chinese translation, "Mo-shan", in the stacks). Additionally, Karolina Watroba references the first Arabic translation in her Ida Herz lecture in 2020, and work is apparently ongoing on the first Icelandic translation.

It's interesting to look more closely at the covers of the novels in the various languages to see which aspects of the novel they highlight. The French edition here (a new translation by Claire de Oliveira in 2016) is straightforward: a mountain. The Brazilian Portuguese one shows a man in the foreground who appears to have turned his back on a shadowy, despairing figure closer to the peaks.

Fronting the Dutch edition: a picture of skiers slaloming down a hillside (one seems to have crashed into a tree!). Incidentally, 1913 – the year after Katia Mann's six-month stay in Davos for suspected tuberculosis – was apparently the year when the number of tourists coming to Davos for winter sports first outstripped the number of patients in treatment for TB there. The former developed out of the latter, with the building of a bobsleigh run down from the Schatzalp sanatorium, and regular races organised by the cosmopolitan consumptive community.

An earlier Dutch edition features a strange amalgam of mountain and sanatorium, whereas the Italian edition presents the mountain from the point of view of a patient on a trademark "Liegestuhl" or lounger. Readers in Georgian have been treated to a cubo-futurist composition of Hans Castorp, the hero, holding up an X-ray image, and Clavdia Chauchat, the object of his fascination, one hand characteristically raised to the back of her head.

And the Romanian cover has a strikingly abstract depiction of the novel's subject matter. An image of disease? Reflections on ice? Flickering flames? Human figures? In any case, doubt, dissolution, and a suggestion of something sinister.

There are two existing English translations by Helen Lowe-Porter (1927), and John E. Woods (1995). Susan Bernofsky is also working on a new English translation for Norton in the States at the moment. (A brief digression: John Woods sadly passed away last year in Berlin. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude because he was Christoph Ransmayr's first translator and gave the thumbs-up to my sample from "The Flying Mountain" back in 2008, leading to a wonderful friendship with Christoph and the recurring pleasure of translating his books.)

I have set myself a few guidelines for my translation:
1. Don't look at the other English translations until after my penultimate draft.
2. Work steadily – 5 pages per day on average – and preferably in the mornings as a nod to Mann's famous nine-to-noon schedule (!).
3. Build up a head of steam without leaving all the revision and editing till the end. So: a block of 200 pages, revise, and repeat until the end.
4. Collaborate closely with my editor, Ritchie Robertson, an expert on Thomas Mann.
5. Read as much of Mann's other work as possible this year.
6. Consult specialists, e.g. a doctor about TB, a naval architect for the dockyards at the beginning of the novel, a period fashion expert for the strange collars and matinee dresses . . .
7. Discuss tricky terms and passages with colleagues, especially at our monthly translators' meetings at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich.
8. Write this blog to keep track of thoughts, research, comments and conversations, and to make the task even more fun.

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