Frau Stöhr, a star of a previous post about the seating plan at the Berghof sanatorium, is a source of immense irritation to Hans Castorp, but she also gives him cause to chuckle because of her mangling of various words.

At the recent Solothurn literature festival I looked at some of her wonderful malapropisms and discussed some ideas I had for translating them.

Before anything else, though, it's worth discussing her name again. A "Stör" is a sturgeon, but her name has an "h" in the middle. As Christophe Fricker pointed out in a reaction to my LinkedIn post, this is like a flaw or imperfection in that most refined of delicacies, caviar or sturgeon roe. The verb "stören" also means to disturb, so we concluded our back and forth by agreeing that if we were to translate this character's name into English, she would be Mrs Disturgeon.

Anyway, back to Frau Stöhr's speech imperfections, which Hans Castorp and his cousin Joachim Ziemssen view as proof of her lack of education. Indeed, her mishaps are one of the first things Joachim tells HC about over dinner on the newcomer's first night in Davos.

In Solothurn I explained how I was minded to translate the first occurrence – "desinfiszieren" instead of "desinfizieren"; more a slip of the tongue – by simply inverting the letters in English to get "difinsect" instead of "disinfect".

And someone in the audience was clearly inspired by this because yesterday I found this in my letterbox:

It's quite something to receive a postcard from a fictional character, and for that someone (there was an accompanying card signed by a real person!) to then continue the wordplay.

What's more, when thinking about the whole topic of retranslating the classics – the title of the event – I had said that in a certain sense "Hans Castorp c'est moi" because the translator has to mirror the way Thomas Mann explores different fields of study (philosophy, anatomy, astronomy, botany, etc.) in their research. So the sender picked up beautifully on that notion too.

Frau Stöhr's malapropisms take a variety of forms. Some, as I have noted, are due to misspeaking, while others are failed attempts to use big words.

"Fomulus" – an assistant and specifically a medical student who does a hospital internship under the guidance of a qualified doctor – should be "Famulus", and I've chosen so far to use "untern" as a play on "intern", with an additional undertone of inferiority because in German "unten/unter" means "below/beneath".

But it's also fun to turn things on their head, for example when Frau Stöhr uses the word "Tournee" ("tour") instead of "Turnus" (turn") in reference to the doctors taking turns to sit at the head of the different tables during mealtimes at the sanatorium; here I put the Latin word "rostrum" in her mouth rather than the correct term "roster".

Some of her slip-ups are harder to figure out. For example, it was only when I came across a chat forum discussing John E. Woods 1996 translation of The Magic Mountain that I understood that when Frau Stöhr says that Frau Iltis "trägt ein Sterilett" that she is carrying a stiletto – a sharp knife. John Woods invented the word "stirletto", whereas I have gone for "spiletto" in the hope that readers will see the words "spill" and perhaps "hospital" shimmering through. (Long odds, maybe!) Neither of us truly captures the nuance of "sterile" – I was misled at first by the French word "stérilet", which is a contraceptive coil, something not available in the 1920s – but I don't think that's actually the point with Frau Stöhr. She is to be taken seriously, not literally.

One last point to bring us back to that postcard: one of the true delights of retranslating a novel that is so dear and so familiar to so many people, and writing a blog about it, is that experts and fans of the book like Christophe Fricker, Karolina Watroba and this person who happened to have a postcard of a Philadelphia public health campaign in their drawer get in touch with tips and comments ... and jokes.

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