Joseph and His Brothers

Translated and Introduced by John E. Woods

Introduction by John E. Woods
Translated by John E. Woods
Look inside
Thomas Mann regarded his monumental retelling of the biblical story of Joseph as his magnum opus. He conceived of the four part—The Stories of Jacob, The Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph the Provider—as a unified narrative, a "mythological novel" of Joseph's fall into slavery and his rise to be lord over Egypt. The result, twelve years in the writing, is a brilliant amalgam of humor, emotion, psychological insight, and epic grandeur.

Now the award-winning translator John E. Woods gives us a definitive new English version of Joseph and His Brothers that is worthy of Mann's achievement. Woods strips away the heavy, awkward, "biblical" diction imposed by the original translator to reveal the novel's exuberant polyphony of ancient and modern voices, a rich music that is by turns elegant, coarse, and sublime.


“An absolutely essential masterpiece, recalled to life in a translation that is itself a formidable work of art.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This excellent new translation by John E. Woods is a cause for celebration: first, because Joseph and His Brothers is in fact a great novel that will now be discovered by a new generation of readers; and second, because Woods himself is to be credited with an extraordinary achievement. . . . Woods tackles the challenges of Mann’s wide-ranging diction with exuberance. . . . Mann has finally found his ideal English translator.” —Ruth Franklin

Introduction

Between 1926 and 1942, Thomas Mann labored off and on for a total of ten years at what he called his “pyramid,” Joseph and His Brothers, the great literary monument that he hoped would tower over all the other works for which he is now remembered. It is half a century now since Mann’s death, and although The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, “Death in Venice,” and Buddenbrooks still find their readers, a mere five decades have apparently sufficed to raze the pyramid of Joseph, leaving few traces of what Mann intended as his magnum opus.

Why? For starters, there is the book’s publishing history– Germany’s history. The first volume, The Stories of Jacob, appeared in October 1933. The Nazis had spent their first nine months tightening the terror, Thomas Mann and his family were already in exile, and

there were few who dared express open approval of the book. Despite mounting difficulties, S. Fischer Verlag managed to publish a small edition of volume 2, Young Joseph, in April of the following year. By 1936, however, S. Fischer had already been forced to move to Vienna, where Joseph in Egypt was published. The Nazis allowed the work to be sold inside the Reich, but permitted no reviews and engaged in bureaucratic chicaneries to make sure it did not sell. Joseph the Provider appeared, then, in neutral Stockholm, in 1943. After the war, modest editions were offered once or twice a decade, the first in 1948, but the work never recovered from its shaky early years.

The sheer bulk of the thing surely worked against it as well: four formidable volumes, a veritable encyclopedia of ancient Near Eastern myth, history, theology, and cultural anthropology–and all just to retell a (once) familiar Bible story? And who in postwar Germany would read it? Many Christians found it heterodox to the point of heresy; any Jewish readership had been largely exterminated in the death camps. Communists in the East had no use for a “religious” Thomas Mann. Intellectuals in the West were not particularly keen on “biblical” novels, either. Besides, in 1947 Mann’s Doctor Faustus had become the focus of interest for Mann’s readers. It spoke directly to the evil that had befallen Germany and the world. Joseph seemed more remote than ever.

On this side of the Atlantic, the book’s reception, if seldom enthusiastic, was somewhat warmer–Mann was living, after all, among us as the representative of the “good Germany,” and volume 4, Joseph the Provider, was written under the California sun. A single-volume edition incorporating all four novels was first published in 1948 and remained in print into the 1990s. But over the years, the larger American reading public, accustomed to historical biblical novels in the Ben-Hur and Silver Chalice mode, has quite understandably viewed Joseph as forbiddingly Germanic. And more intrepid readers, who find an intellectual home in The Magic Mountain or Doctor Faustus, have been just as reluctant as their European counterparts to embrace a work that seems so far removed from the concerns of our time. Beyond the issue of subject matter, there is another difficulty. However unfairly, Americans have tended to think of Mann as a writer of turgid and dense, if not almost unreadable prose. And here are almost fifteen hundred pages that, in Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation, can often read rather like the King James Bible run amok–replete with “he saith” and “thou knowest.”

Joseph and His Brothers deserves a far better fate. It is, by my lights, an epic comedy of extraordinary grandeur. If Thomas Mann regarded it as his magnum opus, that was in part because he wrote Joseph as a master craftsman at the height of his powers. He knew it to be, he said, a work of “quality.” Here is a vast canvas of mythic sweep, dark beauty, and historical complexity, and Mann applies each stroke with incomparable skill–with a sovereignty revealed most especially in the work’s humanity and, yes, its humor.

And yet the question remains how best should a reader approach a work so monumental and complex–plunge in at page _ and devil take the hindmost? That is, after all, the way Mann wrote it to be read. With considerable trepidation, I would like to suggest a different strategy for first-time readers of this great novel. I propose you start with “The Story of Dinah,” part 3 of The Stories of Jacob. Based on a Bible story (Genesis 33:17-35:5) never taught in the Sunday schools of my youth, this tale of passion and revenge becomes, in Mann’s hand, a marvelous epitome of the virtues of the novel as a whole. My hope, and my guess, is that you will be irrevocably caught up in this great literary adventure and eager to climb the “pyramid.” But beware: don’t begin at the beginning even yet. For those just getting their climbing legs in shape, “Prelude: Descent into Hell” may well turn out to be literally that. This opening chapter’s larger historical and theological perspectives introduce many of the themes that Mann will weave into his four novels, but without a story to hang them on, you may well feel he has pushed you over the edge and down a well that is indeed bottomless. So, “Dinah” first, then back to part 1, “At the Well”–and at some point, halfway up volume _ or so, you will want to look back, and give the Prelude its due, for it has monumental rewards. If I read it right, Mann has woven his own Gnostic myth here in order to show not only myth’s mystery, grandeur, and ineffability, but also its ultimate fragility, even untrustworthiness– not unlike the story of Joseph he is about to tell. One more hint: take time to reacquaint (or acquaint) yourself with Genesis, reading it a chapter or two at a time in step with the story as Mann tells it. This will enhance one of the special pleasures of Joseph and His Brothers: watching as Thomas Mann deftly reshapes one people’s account of its beginnings and its faith in its God, turning that ancient text into richly detailed stories about splendidly vivid characters, each a manifestation of Mann’s faith in our common humanity.

And now a word about something no translator should explicitly talk to readers about–translation. The craft should speak for itself, but perhaps a footnote is in order here. This is only the second translation of Joseph into English, and for those familiar with the previous one, it will come as something of a surprise. There is precious little “biblical” language here, but instead, or so I hope, a rich polyphony of voices, ancient and modern–for that is what Mann himself said he was trying to achieve. He almost never quotes Luther’s translation of the Bible verbatim; instead he tinkers with it, teasing out its images and heightening its effects for his own purposes. In translating Joseph, Helen Lowe-Porter often chose to limit herself, and Mann, to a diction modeled on the King James Bible–perhaps the only choice she thought possible at a time when that version was still the language in which English-speaking people imagined a biblical narrative had to be told. But it is not Mann’s language. The voice of Joseph is an exuberant hodgepodge, happily at home with both anachronisms and archaisms, now elegantly sublime, now comically coarse. And always, there is the prose of Thomas Mann, flowing in grand periods of thought, each resembling nothing so much as a movement in a Mozart sonata, with themes and counterthemes unfolding in vivid conversation. I hope I have been able to provide some echo of that music in this translation.

Joseph and His Brothers is a novel of innumerable, complex delights, and yet there are also passages here–and who more than the translator should know this–that seem to defy many readers’ sensibilities of what a novel should be. At times Mann’s novel simply stops and ponders. Mann–or at least this is my suspicion–wanted to make sure he had readers worthy of him. As a result, some passages resemble nothing so much as a pyramid hulking in the desert–do take time to contemplate the riddles. And then, within a page or two, you are sure to be swept up again in Mann’s grand narrative, in our common human enterprise told as the story of Jacob, Esau, Laban, Leah, Rachel, Eliezer, Re’uben, Judah, Tamar, Benjamin, Montkaw, Peteprê, Mut-em-enet, Mai-Sakhme, Ikhnatôn–and Joseph. Thomas Mann calls this epic comedy “God’s invention”–by which, of course, he also immodestly imputes a certain divinity to its human coinventor.

  • WINNER | 1929
    Nobel Prize
Thomas Mann (1875–1955) was from Germany. At the age of 25, he published his first novel, Buddenbrooks. In 1924, The Magic Mountain was published, and five years later, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Following the rise of the Nazis to power, he left Germany for good in 1933 to live in Switzerland and then in California, where he wrote Doctor Faustus (first published in the United States in 1948).  View titles by Thomas Mann

About

Thomas Mann regarded his monumental retelling of the biblical story of Joseph as his magnum opus. He conceived of the four part—The Stories of Jacob, The Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph the Provider—as a unified narrative, a "mythological novel" of Joseph's fall into slavery and his rise to be lord over Egypt. The result, twelve years in the writing, is a brilliant amalgam of humor, emotion, psychological insight, and epic grandeur.

Now the award-winning translator John E. Woods gives us a definitive new English version of Joseph and His Brothers that is worthy of Mann's achievement. Woods strips away the heavy, awkward, "biblical" diction imposed by the original translator to reveal the novel's exuberant polyphony of ancient and modern voices, a rich music that is by turns elegant, coarse, and sublime.


“An absolutely essential masterpiece, recalled to life in a translation that is itself a formidable work of art.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This excellent new translation by John E. Woods is a cause for celebration: first, because Joseph and His Brothers is in fact a great novel that will now be discovered by a new generation of readers; and second, because Woods himself is to be credited with an extraordinary achievement. . . . Woods tackles the challenges of Mann’s wide-ranging diction with exuberance. . . . Mann has finally found his ideal English translator.” —Ruth Franklin

Excerpt

Introduction

Between 1926 and 1942, Thomas Mann labored off and on for a total of ten years at what he called his “pyramid,” Joseph and His Brothers, the great literary monument that he hoped would tower over all the other works for which he is now remembered. It is half a century now since Mann’s death, and although The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, “Death in Venice,” and Buddenbrooks still find their readers, a mere five decades have apparently sufficed to raze the pyramid of Joseph, leaving few traces of what Mann intended as his magnum opus.

Why? For starters, there is the book’s publishing history– Germany’s history. The first volume, The Stories of Jacob, appeared in October 1933. The Nazis had spent their first nine months tightening the terror, Thomas Mann and his family were already in exile, and

there were few who dared express open approval of the book. Despite mounting difficulties, S. Fischer Verlag managed to publish a small edition of volume 2, Young Joseph, in April of the following year. By 1936, however, S. Fischer had already been forced to move to Vienna, where Joseph in Egypt was published. The Nazis allowed the work to be sold inside the Reich, but permitted no reviews and engaged in bureaucratic chicaneries to make sure it did not sell. Joseph the Provider appeared, then, in neutral Stockholm, in 1943. After the war, modest editions were offered once or twice a decade, the first in 1948, but the work never recovered from its shaky early years.

The sheer bulk of the thing surely worked against it as well: four formidable volumes, a veritable encyclopedia of ancient Near Eastern myth, history, theology, and cultural anthropology–and all just to retell a (once) familiar Bible story? And who in postwar Germany would read it? Many Christians found it heterodox to the point of heresy; any Jewish readership had been largely exterminated in the death camps. Communists in the East had no use for a “religious” Thomas Mann. Intellectuals in the West were not particularly keen on “biblical” novels, either. Besides, in 1947 Mann’s Doctor Faustus had become the focus of interest for Mann’s readers. It spoke directly to the evil that had befallen Germany and the world. Joseph seemed more remote than ever.

On this side of the Atlantic, the book’s reception, if seldom enthusiastic, was somewhat warmer–Mann was living, after all, among us as the representative of the “good Germany,” and volume 4, Joseph the Provider, was written under the California sun. A single-volume edition incorporating all four novels was first published in 1948 and remained in print into the 1990s. But over the years, the larger American reading public, accustomed to historical biblical novels in the Ben-Hur and Silver Chalice mode, has quite understandably viewed Joseph as forbiddingly Germanic. And more intrepid readers, who find an intellectual home in The Magic Mountain or Doctor Faustus, have been just as reluctant as their European counterparts to embrace a work that seems so far removed from the concerns of our time. Beyond the issue of subject matter, there is another difficulty. However unfairly, Americans have tended to think of Mann as a writer of turgid and dense, if not almost unreadable prose. And here are almost fifteen hundred pages that, in Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation, can often read rather like the King James Bible run amok–replete with “he saith” and “thou knowest.”

Joseph and His Brothers deserves a far better fate. It is, by my lights, an epic comedy of extraordinary grandeur. If Thomas Mann regarded it as his magnum opus, that was in part because he wrote Joseph as a master craftsman at the height of his powers. He knew it to be, he said, a work of “quality.” Here is a vast canvas of mythic sweep, dark beauty, and historical complexity, and Mann applies each stroke with incomparable skill–with a sovereignty revealed most especially in the work’s humanity and, yes, its humor.

And yet the question remains how best should a reader approach a work so monumental and complex–plunge in at page _ and devil take the hindmost? That is, after all, the way Mann wrote it to be read. With considerable trepidation, I would like to suggest a different strategy for first-time readers of this great novel. I propose you start with “The Story of Dinah,” part 3 of The Stories of Jacob. Based on a Bible story (Genesis 33:17-35:5) never taught in the Sunday schools of my youth, this tale of passion and revenge becomes, in Mann’s hand, a marvelous epitome of the virtues of the novel as a whole. My hope, and my guess, is that you will be irrevocably caught up in this great literary adventure and eager to climb the “pyramid.” But beware: don’t begin at the beginning even yet. For those just getting their climbing legs in shape, “Prelude: Descent into Hell” may well turn out to be literally that. This opening chapter’s larger historical and theological perspectives introduce many of the themes that Mann will weave into his four novels, but without a story to hang them on, you may well feel he has pushed you over the edge and down a well that is indeed bottomless. So, “Dinah” first, then back to part 1, “At the Well”–and at some point, halfway up volume _ or so, you will want to look back, and give the Prelude its due, for it has monumental rewards. If I read it right, Mann has woven his own Gnostic myth here in order to show not only myth’s mystery, grandeur, and ineffability, but also its ultimate fragility, even untrustworthiness– not unlike the story of Joseph he is about to tell. One more hint: take time to reacquaint (or acquaint) yourself with Genesis, reading it a chapter or two at a time in step with the story as Mann tells it. This will enhance one of the special pleasures of Joseph and His Brothers: watching as Thomas Mann deftly reshapes one people’s account of its beginnings and its faith in its God, turning that ancient text into richly detailed stories about splendidly vivid characters, each a manifestation of Mann’s faith in our common humanity.

And now a word about something no translator should explicitly talk to readers about–translation. The craft should speak for itself, but perhaps a footnote is in order here. This is only the second translation of Joseph into English, and for those familiar with the previous one, it will come as something of a surprise. There is precious little “biblical” language here, but instead, or so I hope, a rich polyphony of voices, ancient and modern–for that is what Mann himself said he was trying to achieve. He almost never quotes Luther’s translation of the Bible verbatim; instead he tinkers with it, teasing out its images and heightening its effects for his own purposes. In translating Joseph, Helen Lowe-Porter often chose to limit herself, and Mann, to a diction modeled on the King James Bible–perhaps the only choice she thought possible at a time when that version was still the language in which English-speaking people imagined a biblical narrative had to be told. But it is not Mann’s language. The voice of Joseph is an exuberant hodgepodge, happily at home with both anachronisms and archaisms, now elegantly sublime, now comically coarse. And always, there is the prose of Thomas Mann, flowing in grand periods of thought, each resembling nothing so much as a movement in a Mozart sonata, with themes and counterthemes unfolding in vivid conversation. I hope I have been able to provide some echo of that music in this translation.

Joseph and His Brothers is a novel of innumerable, complex delights, and yet there are also passages here–and who more than the translator should know this–that seem to defy many readers’ sensibilities of what a novel should be. At times Mann’s novel simply stops and ponders. Mann–or at least this is my suspicion–wanted to make sure he had readers worthy of him. As a result, some passages resemble nothing so much as a pyramid hulking in the desert–do take time to contemplate the riddles. And then, within a page or two, you are sure to be swept up again in Mann’s grand narrative, in our common human enterprise told as the story of Jacob, Esau, Laban, Leah, Rachel, Eliezer, Re’uben, Judah, Tamar, Benjamin, Montkaw, Peteprê, Mut-em-enet, Mai-Sakhme, Ikhnatôn–and Joseph. Thomas Mann calls this epic comedy “God’s invention”–by which, of course, he also immodestly imputes a certain divinity to its human coinventor.

Awards

  • WINNER | 1929
    Nobel Prize

Author

Thomas Mann (1875–1955) was from Germany. At the age of 25, he published his first novel, Buddenbrooks. In 1924, The Magic Mountain was published, and five years later, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Following the rise of the Nazis to power, he left Germany for good in 1933 to live in Switzerland and then in California, where he wrote Doctor Faustus (first published in the United States in 1948).  View titles by Thomas Mann

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