John Woods, masterful translator of Thomas Mann, dies at 80

John E. Woods, award-winning translator of the works of Thomas Mann, one of Germany’s greatest novelists, and the lesser known Arno Schmidt, whose complex fiction has been compared to that of James Joyce, died on February 15 in Berlin, where he had lived since 2005. He was 80 years old.

Francesco Campitelli, her husband and only immediate survivor, said the cause was lung disease and that Mr Woods also had skin cancer.

“The nirvana of what I can do is capture for an English speaking reader, hopefully, most aesthetic and intellectual charm, fun and beauty of the original,” Mr. Woods told The New Yorker in 2016 of Mr. Schmidt’s translation of “Zettel’s Traum” (1970), known as of “Bottom’s Dream” in English. A nearly 1,500-page doorbuster, the novel is loosely about a couple seeking help translating Edgar Allan Poe into German. The task took Mr. Woods a decade. “More,” he added, “I can’t do.”

Mr. Woods has translated some of the best-known novels written by Nobel Prize-winning Mr. Mann: ‘Doctor Faustus’, ‘Buddenbrooks’, ‘Joseph and His Brothers’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’.

In his review of Mr. Woods’ 1995 translation of “The Magic Mountain,” the story of a young engineer’s visit to see a sick cousin in a tuberculosis sanitarium, Mark Harman, a Kafka translator, wrote in the Washington Post that Mr. Woods rendered Mr. Mann in English far better than Helen Lowe-Porter, who translated the books while Mr. Mann, who died in 1955, was still alive. The Knopf publishing house hired the two translators, decades apart.

“Mann would no doubt be much happier with his new translator, John E. Woods, who manages to capture the beautiful cadence of his ironically elegant prose,” Mr. Harman wrote. “Woods’ English sentences are also wonderfully lucid – an important criterion in evaluating the translations of Mann, who, despite all his pilings of circumstantial detail, writes luminously transparent German.”

He added that “the aesthetic effect of Woods’ translation is comparable to that created by the original”.

Breon Mitchell, professor emeritus of German studies and comparative literature at Indiana University, said in a telephone interview that Mr Woods was “one of the most important German translators of his generation”. Indiana University’s Lilly Library houses Mr. Woods’ archives and those of other translators.

Mr. Woods knew it was impossible to translate a book perfectly from one language to another, and this knowledge, he says, allowed him to apply his literary skills, sense of humor and passion for etymology to Mr. Mann’s fiction. and Mr. Schmidt. He did the same for books by authors like Günter Grass, Ingo Schulze, Christoph Ransmayr and Patrick Suskind.

“He found the funny side of Thomas Mann and the funny side of Arno Schmidt,” Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation at Columbia University School of the Arts, said in an interview. “He had incredible linguistic flexibility and made his translations shine.”

For Mr. Woods, translation was a lonely job.

“You are sitting there with a text, with two languages ​​fighting in your head,” he said in 2008, when he was awarded the Goethe Medal for his translation work.

John Edwin Woods was born August 16, 1942, in Indianapolis and spent the first seven years of his life in a foster family in Fort Wayne, Indiana; for the last two of those years, his birth mother lived with him and his foster family. He then lived with his two biological parents.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, in the mid-1960s, Mr. Woods studied English literature at Cornell before attending Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In the 1970s he continued his theological studies in West Germany, where he also learned German in a language immersion class at the Goethe Institute. He married his teacher, Ulrike Dorda. (They would later divorce and he would come out as gay.)

In 1976, when he accompanied his wife to Amherst, Mass., where she was on an exchange program with the University of Massachusetts, they brought a copy of Mr. Schmidt’s “Evening Edged in Gold.” Mr. Woods decided to abandon his frustrating attempt to write a novel and try to translate Schmidt’s book instead.

“I hit writer’s block and looked at a wall and said, ‘I have to do something,'” he told the San Diego Reader in 1997.

The main subject of Mr. Schmidt’s book is the confrontation between a family and a gang of hippies, although Kirkus Review said it was “only the simplest setting for a barrage of free-associative puns and non-associative”. The use of language becomes a story, as in Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”.

“And everyone said it was untranslatable,” Mr. Woods said. “Then, just to have something to do to justify my existence as a writer, I sat down and started translating ‘Evening Edged in Gold’ and found, to my surprise, that I could do it.”

He showed some of his work in progress to Helen Wolff, whose imprint at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published translations by European authors. She was impressed and decided to publish it – even after Günter Grass warned her that it couldn’t be done.

Mr. Woods won translation awards from PEN America and the National Book Awards in 1981 for “Evening Edged in Gold.” Six years later, he received a second PEN America Award for the translation of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Mr. Süskind.

In 2014, Mr. Woods reflected on the difficulty of translating Mr. Schmidt’s books, telling the Dalkey Archive Press, which published “Bottom’s Dream,” that “the density of his prose is sui generis, even in German, which can be intimidatingly dense”. .”

“Then,” he added, “there are the puns, the dance of literary references, the Rabelaisian humor, all wrapped up in what I like to think of as ‘adult fairy tales’. “So what does a translator do? He puts on his crazy hat and plays and dances and hopes he’s having fun.

nytimes Eur

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