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Death in Venice

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Death in Venice first editionFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
Der Tod in Venedig

First publication

Literature form


Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 20,000 words

Approaches to Death and Sex

As always for translations of Thomas Mann, we start with H.T. Lowe-Porter. Her translation of Death in Venice, as might be expected in the 1930s, soft-peddles the sexuality. It's there but somewhat coded and the chaste, platonic aspects of Aschenbach's attraction to Tadzio are more prominent.

But Lowe-Porter is the great popularizer of Mann and she does make the story accessible, perhaps more than later translators, more concerned with accuracy and with capturing Mann's subtleties, could. One of her great innovations, often followed by later translators, was to break Mann's German sentences, which tended to be long and complicated, into shorter English bites.

Her very readable version can be found in several volumes, including Stories of Three Decades (1936) with a preface by Mann himself and twenty-three other stories arranged by the author, as well as Death in Venice: And Seven Other Stories first published in 1954, I believe.

The first English translation of Death in Venice wasn't Lowe-Porter's however but by literary critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke. His Death in Venice and Other Stories was published in 1925. His translation of the novella may be the version that many baby boomers are most familiar with since it was widely re-issued in paperback in 1971 in concert with the release of Luchino Visconti controversial movie adaptation, starring Dick Bogarde as Aschenbach.

Burke's Death in Venice is more sensually explicit. W.H. Auden called it the definitive translation. To my ear though, it is still too heavy-handed. His sentences are sometimes long and ponderous and other times short and punchy. One hears the German from time to time through the English, which one may or may not think is a good thing.

Five translations of passage compared ▽ Five translations of passage compared △

A passage by five translators:


Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad's perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity. Yet with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen, either in nature or art, anything so utterly happy and consummate.


With astonishment Aschenbach noted that the boy was absolutely beautiful. His face, pale and reserved, framed with honey-colored hair, the straight sloping nose, the lovely mouth, the expression of sweet and godlike seriousness, recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period; and the complete purity of the forms was accompanied by such a rare personal charm that, as he watched, he felt that he had never met with anything equally felicitous in nature or the plastic arts.


Aschenbach was amazed to see that the boy was absolutely beautiful. His face, pale and of a graceful reserve, surrounded by honey-colored curls, with its straight nose, lovely lips, earnest expression, sweet and godly, all recalled Greek statues of the noblest era; but despite the pure and consummate form, his features exerted such a unique personal charm that the observer felt he had never encountered such perfection in nature or in the arts.


Aschenbach observed with astonishment that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His face, pale and gracefully reserved, was framed  by honey-colored curls. He had a straight nose and a lovely mouth and wore an expression of exquisite, divine solemnity. It was a face reminiscent of Greek statues from the noblest period of antiquity; it combined perfection of form with a unique personal charm that caused the onlooker to doubt ever having met with anything in nature or in art that could match its perfection.


With astonishment Aschenbach observed that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His face, pale and charmingly secretive, with the honey-colored hair curling around it, with its straight-sloping nose, its lovely mouth and its expression of sweet and divine earnestness, recalled Greek statues of the noblest period, and, along with its extremely pure perfection of form, it was of such unique personal charm that the onlooke thought he had never come across anything so felicitous either in nature or in art.

For a younger generation, so many translations are available now that it is difficult to know which to review. Here are some picked off the shelf more or less at random:

1994: The Norton Critical Edition of Death in Venice—compete with maps, Mann's notes and essays—features a surprisingly sprightly translation by academic Clayton Koelb who also edited the book. Sentences are often short and to the point, somehow American sounding, though without missing any of the profound material.

1995: For a translation that goes against the trend, you can check Stanley Applebaum's rendering of the story. Applebaum makes a virtue of not popularizing Mann, by retaining the long sentences and translating Mann very literally. The translation is also available in the double volume Death in Venice & A Man and His Dog. If you have any German you can check for yourself how close he sticks to it, as he also includes the original German text on facing pages in this volume.

1998: Joachim Neugroschel translated the twelve pieces found in Death in Venice and Other Tales. Almost worth the price of admission is the Translator's Preface which provides insights into translation in general and translation of Mann in particular. And Neugroschel's translations do indeed flow very nicely in English. He displays a poetic rhythm that sounds just right for the subject matter. It's interesting how changing or moving a few words here and there can make the work feel more natural so it feels as though it were originally written in English. Not casual but fitting the thoughts. This may not be how Mann's work sounds in German, but it does give him an appealing voice in English.

2004: I haven't had a chance to explore the more recent prize-winning translation by Michael Henry Heim but I am mentioning it here because it has been so acclaimed. This is supposedly the most sexually clear English version of Death in Venice yet. Moreover, critics have said Heim humanizes Aschenbach, who previously has come across as a stuffy intellectual, and he does it with a lighter literary touch and greater rhythmic sense than previous translators.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • Translations • At the movies

See also:

The Way of All Flesh

The Secret Agent

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