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Günter Grass — The Tin Drum

This isn’t going to be a particularly long review, mostly because I don’t feel as though I’m really qualified to speak much about The Tin Drum, written by Nobel-prize winning Günter Grass. It is easy to see WHY he is a Nobel prize winner, but I’ll get into that in a bit.

First of all, the story. Narrated by Oskar, who from the moment of his birth was a totally conscious and fiendishly smart “adult,” decided that instead of growing up, he would simply stop growing at the age of three. Trapped in a small body and possessed of the titular tin drum, Oskar drums his views on the world, throwing tantrums and shattering glass with his voice when anyone attempts to separate him from his instrument of choice. Growing up in Danzig on the eve of the Second World War, Oskar’s first “presumptive father” is his mother’s husband, the Nazi Matzerath, and the second is man he truly feels is his father, the Pole Jan Bronski. Throughout the war, Oskar’s life plays out in as chaotic a manner as the fighting around him. He ends up in a mental institution, though you won’t find out why until much later in the book.

I’m going to say right out that this book took me ages to read, and I can normally read a book in an hour or two. This took three or four days at least of dedicated reading. Normally when I read, I can look at a page and absorb the words (this is the best way to describe it, it’s hard to put it in proper phrasing). Grass’ writing, or Breon Mitchell’s translation, I’m not sure which, forced me to read word-by-word, which was a frustratingly new experience. And a very slow one. It was partially because I did not want to miss anything and partially because Grass writing is so dense and fiendishly clever and lyrical that I HAD to slow down or I found my eyes just jumping from word to word without understanding what they said at all.

I wrote in a previous post that I had previously owned and read a translation by Manheim. While that edition preserved a good literal translation of the work, reading Mitchell’s The Tin Drum was an entirely new experience and, judging by the fact that he worked closely with Grass to produce it, is closer not to the literal translation of the words but to Grass’ voice, his intention. And it did read very differently, much more poetic and musical, and much more humorous and profane. I can understand why Manheim left certain things out for an American audience in 1959–there were a few passages where I both laughed and cringed (post-coital fluids described as snot dropping to the floor, for example). Oskar’s voice (or Grass’ voice) is totally unique to anything I have read in literature, though the closest I can come to comparison is Joyce.

This is not light reading, but it is a fiendishly funny, bizarre, and strangely modern story. It was a challenge, but one that I am glad to have stuck out.



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A note on translation

I’m usually very picky about translations of books that I read, especially when I find a translator or translation that I really love. For example I rarely read any other translations if Pevear and Volokhonsky have done one (though I do own two editions of War and Peace but that’s mostly because I had my first one before theirs was published). I hadn’t even thought about another translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum because I was perfectly satisfied with Manheim’s. Even went so far, when I picked up Breon Mitchell’s new translation, to think: do I really need to read this? So far, though, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. It’s almost like reading a totally new book. A team of translators of all different languages worked closely with Grass to try and restore his voice (I hadn’t even known that Manheim had left out a lot of things and done a more “literal” rendering.) Also, this section in Mitchell’s afterword really made me rethink branching out into other translators of different works that I love:

It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of the existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it–becuase the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

It’s always a good thing to widen your horizons, especially when you haven’t even realized how close-minded you’d been.

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