Obituary: Ralph Manheim

John Calder
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:58

Ralph Frederick Manheim, translator, born New York City 4 April 1907, died Cambridge 26 September 1992.

Ralph Manheim was a legendary figure among translators. It was late in life when he realised that he was, as a professional who concentrated on literary translation, 'a rare bird'. The reason is simple: translating good literature takes more time and care than can be justified by the payment involved, and nearly every literary translator has another profession, usually teaching. But for Manheim it was a master-craft, and he did little else, translating well over 100 books, mainly from German and French, but also from Dutch, Polish and Serbo- Croat; they include many of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature and thought.

Manheim was born in New York in 1907 and started writing at an early age. He was one of the youngest students ever admitted to Harvard, where he studied and, in spite of taking a year off to travel to Germany and Austria and learn the language, he was only 19 when he graduated. He did further studies in Vienna and Munich. He began translating work that he admired, for pleasure and as a discipline, often finding it had already appeared in another translation, took a few odd jobs, did some teaching, and then worked in the Thirties for the WPA Writers Projects, writing books on commissioned subjects, such as Who's Who in the Zoo. The arrival in New York of many German writers after 1934, refugees from the Nazi regime, created a need for German translators, and with relief Manheim switched from the technical translations that had kept him alive to new work by authors who paid him in order to have an English manuscript to submit to publishers. One of them was Thomas Mann.

Manheim's first major commission was Mein Kampf, which he translated in 1943 for Houghton Miflin. He found it a very difficult task as Adolf Hitler's illiterate style and jumbled metaphors had to be rendered in a similar English. The translation was, however, well received, and led to his transfer, after being drafted into the army, to US Military Intelligence, where his duties included translating German military documents and dispatches. The knowledge of military terminology thus acquired was useful later when he tackled the work of Gunter Grass and Alfred Andersch.

After the war Manheim translated art books and books by artists, including the writing of Jean Arp (On My Way, 1948), Paul Klee (The Thinking Eye, 1956), and Erich Neumann (The Origins of Consciousness, 1954; The Great Mother, 1955; Amor and Psyche, 1955; Art and the Creative Unconscious, 1959). Commissions came in to translate Karl Jaspers (The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, 1949; The Way to Wisdom, 1954; The Great Philosophers, volume I, 1962; Three Essays, 1964; The Great Philosophers, volume II, 1966), Martin Heidegger (An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1959), Emile Durkheim (Montesquieu and Rousseau: forerunners of sociology, 1960) and other philosophers. An English translation by Georges Duthuit, the French art critic who revived Transition (the most eminent English-language literary journal published in Paris before 1939), was submitted to Manheim for his approval, and he criticised it adversely: the piece turned out to be by Samuel Beckett.

Then came Erich Maria Remarque (The Night in Lisbon, 1964), younger post- war German writers and, above all, Gunter Grass. Manheim's translation of Grass's The Tin Drum gave him great difficulty until he had caught the feeling of the style. It was published in 1962 and won him an American PEN award. Manheim translated the large bulk of Grass's fiction and had recently completed work on The Call of the Toad, which will be published later this year. Manheim also began to translate from French and other languages, most notably the work of Louis- Ferdinand Celine, Slawomir Mrozek (from Polish; Tango, 1968 and Vatzlav, 1970), Aime Cesaire (The Season in the Congo, 1968; The Tragedy of King Christophe, 1969), and Michel Tournier (Friday and Robinson, 1972; The Four Wise Men, 1982).

As these authors achieved international fame, the demands on Manheim's time grew. He was offered higher fees and was able to pick and choose what he wanted to translate. Besides literary fiction and books on art and philosophy he did many plays, starting with Grass (Four Plays, 1967, and The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, 1966). This led him to Bertolt Brecht, many of whose plays he translated, including Coriolanus (1972), The Trial of Joan of Arc, The Visions of Simone Machard, The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1974), The Good Person of Setzuan, Puntila, and Arturo Ui (1976). Some of Manheim's American versions had to be modified for British performances, a problem of idiom that occurs for translators more often in the theatre than with fiction. Some of the Brecht renderings were made in collaboration with John Willett, with whom Manheim co-edited several volumes of Brecht's Collected Plays, in particular Volumes Two and Six.

It is not possible to list all Manheim's translations, which range from Freud, Jung and Wilhelm Reich to best-selling writers like Tournier and Marie-Claire Blais (St Lawrence Blues, 1974) and to such avant-garde figures as Peter Handke. Manheim was working on a set of Handke's essays at the end of his life, and other Handke translations include Short Letter, Long Farewell (1974), A Moment of True Feeling (1977), Across (1986), Repetition (1988), The Diary of a Writer (1989), and Absence (1990).

Manheim translated much correspondence and found a special enjoyment in the way he was able to enter the lives and minds of those who wrote the letters. Writers seldom take great care in private correspondence and often reveal things about themselves that they are careful to conceal elsewhere. The problem is whether to improve, correct or clarify the originals; Manheim claimed that he could smell Freud's cigar smoke (he translated his letters to Jung, 1974), feel the aging ailments of Mann and Hermann Hesse (his translation of their correspondence with Hermann Hesse was published in 1975), and share the agonies and social euphorias of Proust (Letters 1880-1903, 1983). Manheim also translated Hesse's Rosshalde (1970), If the War Goes On (1971), Knup (1971), The Stories of Five Decades (1972), Reflections (1974), and Tales of Student Life (1976).

The diversity of the work he encountered helped Manheim in many ways to understand the psychology of writers and their characters, and the technical knowledge that an author might give to his creations out of his own experience, which is not that of the translator, who often has the opportunity to make some facet of a literary work clearer to the reader because he is himself primarily a reader.

Manheim frequently attended conferences on the subjects which he translated and his conscientiousness was famous; he often repeated actions and itineraries that he had to put into English so as to understand them better. He won all the big translation prizes including the American PEN Award, the Bollinger, the Schlegel-Tieck (for Grass's Dog Years, 1965, and The Flounder, 1979), the National Book Award (for Celine's Castle to Castle, 1970), and the PEN medal for translation (1988). In addition he was the recipient of a special grant from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. This award is given on informed advice to an American for some special achievement and consists of dollars 1,000 for each year of the recipient's age; it continues annually and is increased by dollars 1,000 for each year of life thereafter. Although it gave Manheim financial security, he never stopped translating until his final illness.

Manheim lived most of his life in Paris from the early Fifties until the death of his third wife, Mary, an American, after which he moved to Cambridge with his British fourth wife, Julia, in 1985. He made new friends there, and was helpful at theatre rehearsals and to younger translators.

(Photograph omitted)

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