March 23, 2016
Scholar discovers Darkness at Noon in the original German, translators the world over sharpen their pencils
by Chad Felix
Since its publication in 1940, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler‘s finest novel, has arrived at the hands of readers with a sizable caveat: despite being written in German, it is not based upon a German manuscript, the book is a translation of a translation, and it is filled with errors.
The short version of the publication history (Michael Scammell wrote the long version for The New York Review of Books) is this: Koestler, needing to flee Paris suddenly, left his original manuscript on the kitchen table. A second copy was dropped off with a friend further south, in Limoges. This friend, too, had to flee the country and left her copy behind. And so the manuscript was lost.
Before all this, however, Koestler, foreseeing the troubles on the horizon, urged the sculptor Daphne Hardy, who he was living with at the time, to hazard an English translation of the work (then titled Roman). The work was done hastily and by amateurs; neither Hardy nor Koestler were fluent in English. Unsurprisingly, the results are unsatisfactory.
Today, the world—the book has been translated into more than thirty languages—knows only this flawed edition: Darkness at Noon.
Tomorrow, however, may be different.
As Scammell reports, last July a German doctoral student named Matthias Weßel made a curious discovery in the Zurich Central Library: “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.” It wasn’t what he was looking for—he was really on the hunt for Koestler correspondence and royalty reports—but his curiosity was piqued because he didn’t know of any works in the author’s oeuvre by that title, and he investigated. In these pages he discovered Rubashov, the hero of Darkness at Noon, in the world of his original language.
That the book in its current state is so beloved and studied is testament to the quality of Koestler’s novel, but as both Weßel and Scammell make very clear, the real novel needs to be revealed:
Now we no longer have the excuse of being denied the original text. It’s not only possible, but in my view imperative, that someone undertake a new translation that will communicate the book’s artistic qualities more accurately and offer a richer and more nuanced account of Koestler’s complex narrative.
For readers, it will be like seeing a cleaned oil painting for the first time after the old and discolored varnish has been removed. Objects in the picture will assume their proper proportions, new details will come into view, the brushwork will be more discernible and easier to appreciate, and our understanding of the novel as literature, independent of its time and subject matter, will be enormously enhanced. I am speaking of the English, of course, but just imagine the possibilities if translations from the original German into two to three dozen other languages followed suit.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.