Book Review: The Tin Drum

Günter Grass and Tin Drum 2
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  December 15, 2009

THE ONION MAN: Any way you peel him, he’s still one of the 20th century’s great writers.

The Tin Drum [Die Blechtrommel] | by Günter Grass | Translated by Breon Mitchell | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 592 pages | $26
There are — and have always been — two Günter Grasses. There's the Grass who was born in Danzig and the Grass who was born in Gdansk. There's the German Grass and the Polish Grass, the Polish Grass and the Kashubian Grass, the East German Grass and the West German Grass, the Protestant Grass and the Catholic Grass. There's the Grass who narrates in the first person and the Grass who narrates in the third (often in the same paragraph). There's the Grass who understands men and the Grass who doesn't (most famously in The Flounder) understand women. There's the Grass who's an artist (novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, illustrator, sculptor, stonemason) and the Grass who's a politician ("Take my advice: vote SPD," ends one poem). Most recently there's the Grass who, until 2006, we all thought had been drafted into the German army during World War II and the Grass who, we now know, was actually drafted into the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of Hitler's Schutzstaffel. Astrology buffs will not be surprised to learn that the man is a Libra.

Now there are two English-language Tin Drums. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original publication of Grass's first, and by far his most widely read, novel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt commissioned a new translation by Indiana University professor Breon Mitchell. The idea came from Grass himself: in 2005, in the spirit of his 1979 novella The Meeting at Telgte, he gathered translators from all over the world in his native Danzig/Gdansk.

So, "What was wrong with the old one?" — the 1961 groundbreaker by Ralph Manheim, who was the English-language translator for all of Grass's novels until his death in 1992. That's the question Mitchell says everyone asked him, and he answers it at length in his "Translator's Afterword." His new version, he claims (and fairly), hews closer to the original's syntax and sentence structure and rhythm, breaking rules in English that Grass breaks in German. Thus, against Manheim's "He was also the Formella brothers' boss and was glad to make our acquaintance, just as we were glad to make his," Mitchell gives us "He was also the Formella brothers' boss, and was pleased, as we were pleased, to meet us, to meet him." Mitchell renders details (many of them geographic) that would have meant little to an American reader in 1961; he also restores a few passages involving sex, and numerous specific references to left (as opposed to right), underlining the point that protagonist Oskar Matzerath, like his creator, is left-handed.

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