John Woods, Masterly Translator of Thomas Mann, Dies at 80

John E. Woods, an award-winning translator of the works of Thomas Mann, one of Germany’s greatest novelists, and of the lesser-known Arno Schmidt, whose complex fiction has been compared to James Joyce’s, died on Feb. 15 in Berlin, where he had lived since 2005. He was 80.

Francesco Campitelli, his husband and only immediate survivor, said that the cause was a lung ailment and that Mr. Woods also had skin cancer.

“The nirvana of what I can do is to capture for an English-speaking reader, let’s hope, most of the aesthetic and intellectual charm, delight and beauty of the original,” Mr. Woods told The New Yorker in 2016 about translating Mr. Schmidt’s “Zettel’s Traum” (1970), known as “Bottom’s Dream” in English. A nearly 1,500-page doorbuster, the novel is loosely about a couple seeking help to translate Edgar Allan Poe into German. The task took Mr. Woods a decade. “More,” he added, “I can’t do.”

Mr. Woods translated some of the best-known novels written by Mr. Mann, a Nobel Prize winner: “Doctor Faustus,” “Buddenbrooks,” “Joseph and His Brothers” and “The Magic Mountain.”

In his review of Mr. Woods’s 1995 translation of “The Magic Mountain,” the story of a young engineer’s visit to see a sick cousin at a tuberculosis sanitorium, Mark Harman, a translator of Kafka, wrote in The Washington Post that Mr. Woods had rendered Mr. Mann in English far better than had Helen Lowe-Porter, who translated the books while Mr. Mann, who died in 1955, was still alive. The publishing house Knopf hired both translators, decades apart.

“Mann would undoubtedly be far happier with his new translator, John E. Woods, who succeeds in capturing the beautiful cadence of his ironically elegant prose,” Mr. Harman wrote. “Woods’s English sentences are also wonderfully lucid — an important criterion in assessing translations of Mann, who, for all his piling on of circumstantial details, writes luminously transparent German.”

He added that “the aesthetic effect of Woods’s translation is comparable to that created by the original.”

Breon Mitchell, professor emeritus of Germanic studies and comparative literature at Indiana University, said in a phone interview that Mr. Woods was “one of the most important German translators of his generation.” The Lilly Library at Indiana University houses Mr. Woods’s archives and those of other translators.

Mr. Woods knew that it was impossible to translate a book perfectly from one language to another, and that knowledge, he said, allowed him to apply his literary skills, his sense of humor and his passion for etymology to the fiction of Mr. Mann and Mr. Schmidt. He did the same to books by authors like Günter Grass, Ingo Schulze,  Christoph Ransmayr and Patrick Süskind.

“He found the funny side of Thomas Mann and the funny side of Arno Schmidt,” Susan Bernofsky, the director of literary translation at the Columbia University School of the Arts, said in an interview. “He had incredible linguistic flexibility and made his translations shine.”

For Mr. Woods, translating was lonely work.

“You sit there with a text, with two languages fighting each other in your head,” he said in 2008, when he accepted the Goethe Medal for his work in translation.

John Edwin Woods was born on Aug. 16, 1942, in Indianapolis and spent the first seven years of his life with a foster family in Fort Wayne, Ind.; during the last two of those years, his birth mother lived with him and his foster family. He later lived with both birth parents.

After graduating from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, with a bachelor’s degree in the mid-1960s, Mr. Woods studied English literature at Cornell before attending the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. In the 1970s, he continued his theological studies in West Germany, where he also learned German in a language immersion class at the Goethe Institute. He married his teacher, Ulrike Dorda. (They would later divorce, and he would come out as gay.)

In 1976, when he accompanied his wife to Amherst, Mass., where she was in an exchange program with the University of Massachusetts, they brought along a copy of Mr. Schmidt’s “Evening Edged in Gold.” Mr. Woods decided to abandon his frustrating attempt to write a novel and to try translating the Schmidt book instead.

“I hit writer’s block and looked at a wall and said, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” he told The San Diego Reader in 1997.

The main subject of Mr. Schmidt’s book is the confrontation between a household and a band of hippies, although Kirkus Review said taht this was “only the barest framework for a free-associative, nonassociative barrage of wordplay.” The use of language becomes a story, as it does in Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”

“And everyone said it was untranslatable,” Mr. Woods said. “Then, just to have something to do to justify my existence as a writer, I sat down and started to translate ‘Evening Edged in Gold’ and found, much to my surprise, that I could do this.”

He showed some of his work in progress to Helen Wolff, whose imprint at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published translations of European authors. She was impressed and decided to publish it — even after Günter Grass had warned her that it couldn’t be done.

Mr. Woods won translation prizes from both PEN America and the National Book Awards in 1981 for “Evening Edged in Gold.” Six years later, he received a second PEN America prize for translating Mr. Süskind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.”

In 2014, Mr. Woods reflected on the difficulty of translating Mr. Schmidt’s books, telling the Dalkey Archive Press, which published “Bottom’s Dream,” that “the density of his prose is sui generis, even in German, which can be intimidatingly dense.”

“Then,” he added, “there’s the wordplay, the dance of literary references, the Rabelaisian humor, all packed into what I like to think of as ‘fairy tales for adults.’ So, what does a translator do? He puts on his fool’s cap and plays and dances and hopes he amuses.”

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