Knowing Helen Lowe-Porter translated Thomas Mann’s extensive output piques our interest from the moment young Helen Porter arrives in Germany to further pursue German language and literature and devote herself to her own novel writing. We watch her develop from this gifted, independent young woman determined to avoid wedlock to one diverted not only by translating the 800-page Buddenbrooks and decades more of Mann’s works, but also by marriage to a demanding, brilliant man and raising three daughters. Mann wins the Nobel prize in 1929, largely on the strength of her translations (still available on used book sites), opening his books to a wide readership—not that the Nobel announcement credited her or Alfred Knopf, the publisher. Helen pours all her creative energy into making Mann’s masterworks into lucid English, short-changing her own works. Her husband Elias Lowe can be a great companion, but he personifies gender relations of the day and lands a bombshell on their honeymoon. Mann, too, a dear friend over the years, can be autocratic.
Helen’s struggles with these two men define her life, even though she’s a suffragist with an intense personality. Stifling so much isn’t easy, and our hearts go out to her, fitting challenging translations with family responsibilities as she yearns for more. Jo Salas fictionalizes family members—she married Helen’s grandson—but the characters and their difficulties through WWI and WWII ring true, as do the gender attitudes. I admire Salas’ writing, especially a lyrical chapter on the art of translation and several on writing, including Helen’s poems. Most of the book is chronological but early on skips forward to 1963, shortly before Helen’s death, to give perspective on the arc of her life. A literary book in the best sense: about literature and its creation, and artistic in itself. Highly recommended.