The Tin Drum. Translated by Breon Mitchell

The Tin Drum” has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the moment it was published. In English its success was helped along by an excellent translation by the late Ralph Manheim, to whom the young Grass was rightly grateful, despite a few reservations. In recent years, however, Grass has grown increasingly involved in the foreign versions of his work, going so far as to organize Übersetzertreffen — short convocations of his translators — at which he fields questions about his various books. From his experience of these meetings, Grass persuaded his publishers to commission a new English version of “The Tin Drum” from the distinguished Germanist Breon Mitchell.

In his afterword Mitchell explains that great books demand new versions because translations, no matter how fine, eventually grow dated. “The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.” In this instance, he underscores his deep admiration for Manheim, who was something of a mentor, while making clear that this new version has benefited from the inestimable help of the author and that it aims to reflect as closely as possible the rhythms and intricacy of Grass’s German. “Each sentence in the new ‘Tin Drum,’ ” notes Mitchell, “now faithfully replicates the length of the sentence in Grass’s original text, and no sentences are broken up or deliberately shortened.” As Mitchell concludes, “The new version I offer is meant for our present age, one that is increasingly open to the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language.”

Michael Dirda

Links: Interview with the translator, Washington Post

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