All novels are translations, even in their original languages. This has been revealed to me over time, as I’ve worked with the various dedicated (and inevitably underpaid) people who have agreed to translate my own books. When I started working with translators, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the problems that vexed them—questions of nuance, resonance, and tone, as well as the rhythms of the sentences themselves—were familiar to me. I’d worried over the same things when I wrote the book in the first place. It dawned on me, gradually, that I was a translator, too. I had taken the raw material of the book in question and translated it into language.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few. A novel in its earliest form, before it begins to be rendered into language, is a cloud of sorts that hovers over the writer’s head, a mystery born with clues to its own meanings but also, at its heart, insoluble. One hopes—a novel is inevitably an expression of unreasonable hopes—that the finished book will contain not only characters and scenes but a certain larger truth, though that truth, whatever it may be, is impossible to express fully in words. It has to do with the fact that writer and reader both know, beneath the level of active consciousness, something about being alive and being mortal, and that that something, when we try to express it, inevitably eludes us. We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceeds that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can’t help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know. All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can. Some of us do better than others.

My own translators, the best ones, seem always to battle a sense of failure—the conviction that while they’ve come close they’ve missed something in the original, some completeness, some aliveness, that refuses to quite come through in French or Italian or Japanese. This, too, is familiar to me. I always feel the same when a novel has finally exhausted me, and I feel compelled to admit that, although it doesn’t seem finished, it is as close to completion as I’m capable of getting it. Some wholeness isn’t quite there. While I wrote, I felt it hovering around me. I could taste it, I could almost smell it—the mystery itself. And even if the published novel has turned out fairly well, there is always that sense of having missed the mark.
Fiction is, then, at least to me, an ongoing process of translation (and mistranslation), beginning with the writer’s earliest impulses and continuing through its rendering into Icelandic or Korean or Catalan. Writers and translators are engaged in the same effort, at different stages along the line.

For a handful of the greatest writers, Thomas Mann among them, the process of translation continues even further. Occasionally a book like Death in Venice speaks so enduringly to readers that it is translated not once but again, and sometimes again and again. This is as it should be. It respects the fundamental nature of literature as a mutable and ever-unresolved business involving writers’ and readers’ ongoing attempts to get to the heart of the matter, to complete that which can never be completed. A great book is probably, by definition, too complex and layered, too intricately alive, to be translated once and for all.

Michael Henry Heim’s new translation of Death in Venice subtly but clearly extends and alters previous translations. What we have here is the same book, and a new book. Before I talk about the particulars of Heim’s translation, though, I should briefly mention something else I’ve learned by working with translators. Good translators (and here they differ from the writers of the original text) agonize over a fundamental question. To what extent should they render, to the best of their ability the words as written, and to what extent should they reinterpret them to suit the particulars of the language and culture into which they are being conveyed? Every language has its own cadences; a sentence that snaps and sparkles in one language is likely to go flat if conveyed slavishly, word by word, into another. How much license, then, should a translator take in rewriting the sentences so that their music, the pure sound of them, comes through? And how, if at all, should the translator accommodate the fact that certain images and phrases, and even some basic vocabulary resonate differently from culture to culture? Russian contains no term for “privacy” at least not in the Anglo-American sense of privacy as a desirable and even necessary refuge. To the Chinese, the fact that a man is wearing a Bill Blass suit means nothing at all, while to an American (well, to some Americans) it implies a good deal about the man’s outmoded, rather clueless sense of style.

Reading Heim’s translation, I was struck by a fine but pervasive difference between it and the Death in Venice I remembered. It goes without saying that the basic events are the same. In both versions Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated German author who finds himself, as Dante put it, “In the middle of the journey of [his] life…in a dark wood, where the right road had been lost sight of” (from Seamus Heaney’s 1993 translation), goes on a holiday in hope of reviving his fading enthusiasm for life. He travels to Venice, where he becomes first enamored of and then obsessed by a fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, who is, in fleshly form, the very ideal of youthful human beauty with all youth and beauty can imply to the no-longer-young about yearning, mortality and the extravagant carelessness of a god who gives us life and then, by slow degrees, takes it back again. Aschenbach is increasingly consumed by his passion, until he dies on the beach at the Lido, done up in a grotesque parody of youth, rouged and lipsticked, watching Tadzio from afar.

And yet, the tone of Aschenbach’s decline felt different in Heim’s version. I remembered Aschenbach as a figure of pure pathos. I’d always thought that Mann was telling us, in part (a great writer is always telling us many things at once, some of them contradictory), that if we aren’t careful, we, too, could end up dying alone on a beach, our love unrequited, wearing too much jewelry, our hair unnaturally black. In that regard, Aschenbach has long been a perversely mythic figure to me. As I approach the age at which Aschenbach expired I’ve fallen into the habit of asking, every now and then, when I’m uncertain about a sartorial gesture, whether the scarf or ruffle in question makes me look a bit Death in Venice-ish.

Although the Aschenbach of Heim’s translation ends up every bit as gaudily dressed and made up, and every bit as alone, he felt to me this time less clownish and more tragic; more like a man whose desperation and delusion are not only sad but also heroic. This time around, Mann seemed to be saying that yes, we all fade, we’re all going to the same place, and so we might as well go down in a blaze of love, however we may degrade ourselves in the process, however ill-advised our taste in clothes and makeup. This Aschenbach felt larger, and at least a little bit more profound. This Mann seemed to say, via Aschenbach, that if the alternative is to age gracefully, to gray and wither quietly, untroubled by absurd or perverse passions—if the other option is to shuffle offstage without attracting undue notice—it might in fact be better to do ourselves up like dandies, to discard our precious dignity, to worship what we know we cannot have right up until the moment of our demise. If I say that this Aschenbach put me in mind of Divine in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, I mean it as a tribute. In the Genet book, Divine, a drag queen of a certain age, is carrying on at a bar when his faux-pearl coronet breaks. The pearls scatter everywhere, and Divine’s rival queens, exquisitely attuned to the faintest hint of blood in the water, proclaim him uncrowned, the Fallen One. Divine simply takes his dentures out and plunks them onto his head, declaring. “Dammit all, ladies, I’ll be queen anyhow.”  The Aschenbach of the Heim translation shares some of Divine’s heedless heroism. All our coronets will break, sooner or later. When that happens it’s probably best to just put our false teeth onto our heads, have a laugh, and continue. Aschenbach can hardly be said to have a laugh (it’s hard to imagine a more humorless great writer than Mann), and he does not of course continue, but in this version he seems less a figure of pure sorrow and more a very distant relation to Divine. This version seems to suggest that Aschenbach may be doing the best he can—the best anyone can—with the whole business of decay; the fact that, since mortality always wins, we might as well go down in our full colors, wracked by longing, with our false teeth on our heads.

When I’d finished reading the Heim translation, I couldn’t tell whether the difference resided in the new version or in my own mind. There is this, too, about the mutability of literature—the books we read at twenty are not the books we read at fifty, because we are not the same people. Figures like Huck Finn, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary are likely to seem very different to us at different points in our lives, though who they are and what they do changes not at all. I wondered if Aschenbach struck me as grander and braver simply because I am now more or less his age, and more subject than I once was to my own questions about whether or not a little strategically applied dye or rouge might help me feel more vital.

I compared Helm’s version to the one I read in college, which was done by H. T. Lowe-Porter in 1930. There have been a couple of other attempts, made relatively recently, but Lowe-Porter’s translation is the one with which most of us grew up—the definitive Death in Venice for those who can read English but not German. I’m relieved to say that, as far as I can tell, this altered Aschenbach is not merely a figment of my own aging imagination. Heim’s Death in Venice is, generally, a more lyrical, sympathetic book—a slightly more intimate and personal book—than Lowe-Porter’s rather stern, disapproving one. Lowe-Porter gave us a clownish, foolish Aschenbach—a figure who would not seem out of place in a Fellini movie. Heim also gives us a man in the throes of passion, and treats him with the respect that passion deserves.

A comparison like this summons up the mother of all questions regarding different translations of the same book: How can we possibly decide, unless we’re fluent in both languages, which is more faithful to the author’s intent? Readers who know English and German (I am not one of them) have long complained about certain inarguable mistakes in Lowe-Porter’s translation. I assume Heim has corrected them. Still, a handful of blunders does not seem likely to alter the fundamental tone of a book, or seriously subvert its meaning. Any assertion that a translation can be rendered “accurate” if its blatant errors are corrected underestimates the art and magic of translation. A translation, any translation, is filtered through a particular sensibility, and so the discrepancies, as they accrue, must be, at least to some extent, an expression of whatever the translator brought to the job. However multilingual we may be as readers, we find ourselves faced with a fundamental, inescapable responsibility. We must understand that any book, and especially a great one, is a complex and highly personal exchange between its writer and its readers. None of us reads precisely the same book, even if the words are identical. Readers, too, are part of the ongoing process of translation, the one that originates in the author’s mind. My Death in Venice, whichever translation I read, is slightly different from anyone else’s. My Mann is, to a certain extent, my own private, personal Mann, as is everyone’s. We agree about his basic qualities and intentions, but spin them according to our own natures. There is, in a sense, no definitive Death in Venice. We must, all of us, decide for ourselves what Mann meant to give us, and what we are willing to receive.

That said, a comparison of the two versions suggests that Mann in the original tends toward a Wagnerian stateliness that is generally magisterial and elevating but also, occasionally, rather rigid and chill. There is the sporadic feeling that in writing this particular tale of doomed love, Mann comes off a bit like a giant trying to manage a porcelain tea set. He laid a heavy hand upon the world. He never intended to dart around like a dragonfly. He was, in all his work, Herr Professor, every bit as august and severe as Aschenbach himself, and his language reflects his nature. He was, in a certain sense, among the last of his kind. Although he was a contemporary of writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, he was distinctly a member of the previous generation. Woolf, Joyce, and others would change not only the form of the novel but the relationship between novelist and reader. The novelists of the later twentieth century would, by and large, do away with the whole notion of lofty authority and offer in its place a kind of egalitarianism. The novelist would be less the distinguished lecturer and more the fellow student; he or she would be more determined to write about everyday life and to say, in essence, to readers, Here it all is, here are its mythic resonances, here are its smells and tastes, you tell me what it means. Mann’s sense of moral responsibility and the stentorian prose appropriate to such a sense, would be shrugged off by those who came after him. Language itself, in fiction, would become a more fluid and vital part of the whole. We would, for the most part, dispense with the notion of the author as architect, carving sentences out of granite and setting them one atop another in support of a great theme. We revere the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and others, but we do not remember and cherish individual lines, not the way we do lines from Joyce or Woolf. We aren’t meant to. After Mann, language would receive a promotion. Sentences would be musical and meaningful in and of themselves. They would not be asked to serve primarily as columns or pedestals. They would be encouraged to draw a certain degree of attention to themselves.

We can probably tell a good deal about an era by its most prominent literary characters. The twentieth century gave us Leopold Bloom, Clarissa Dalloway, Humbert Humbert, and Jay Gatsby, among others, and it gave us Gustav von Aschenbach. They are, on one hand, a rather motley crew. Here is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers. Here is Gatsby staring at the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock. And here is Aschenbach, our Icarus, flying too high, melting, and crashing down on a beach. For all their differences, though, these characters have a certain commonality. They are, all of them, small figures in an immense landscape. They are all undernourished, though the world has given them everything they need to survive, at least in terms of food and shelter. They are all on quests, and if the objects of their desire seem rather modest—one wants to give a perfect party another wants his childhood sweetheart back—it is the very modesty of those wishes, conjoined with their unattainability, that breaks our hearts. Most of the heroes of twentieth-century European and American literature are striving not against marital constraints or humble origins or political systems, but against loss itself. Some of them end up better than others, but none of them wins.
Aschenbach is, to me at least, the most devastating of the lot. Like any enduring literary figure, he is both of his time and beyond it. He is descended from King Lear, the most glorious of all misguided spirits, though before Heim’s translation we might not fully have understood that. By fine-tuning certain details, by reconsidering word choices, Heim’s translation achieves a startling effect. It rescues Aschenbach from the realm of the cautionary and places him where he belongs, in the pantheon of fictive men and women whose impossible yearnings make them as deeply human as characters can be. It’s a dark gift, what Heim has given us. Here we have an Aschenbach who is harder to dismiss, whose fate is larger and nobler, if not exactly more comforting. Here is an Aschenbach who is more clearly and unavoidably all of us, who wants more than life is willing to provide, whose defeat is so bound up with his heroism that the two can’t be easily separated. That may or may not be exactly what Mann had in mind. There’s no way of knowing. But it is, for my purposes at least, the grander and more humane book that Mann meant to give us all along.

1 Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers (NewYork: Grove Press, 1976), 193. Reprinted with permission of Michael Henry Heim. All rights reserved.