Tag Archives: Kafka

Translating Kafka

A sense of the flow, rhythm and simplicity that we associate with the writing of Franz Kafka is evident in the opening lines of The Castle:

Es war spät abend als K. ankam. Das Dorf lag in tiefem Schnee. Vom Schloßberg war nichts zu sehn. Nebel und Finsternis umgaben ihn, auch nicht der schwächste Lichtschein deutete das große Schloß an. Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke die von der Landstraße zum Dorf führt und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor.

That is the entire first paragraph, describing how K. arrived late at a castle wrapped in fog and gloom, in contrast to the deep (white) snow under which the village lay; implying also here perhaps a deadening of sound. And in the next sentence we read that not even a glimmer of light indicated where the castle might stand. K. stood for a long time on the wooden bridge, looking up into the apparent void.

So few words, so much meaning. And this is not just a matter of lexical simplicity; there is the sibilance in the third sentence, the lack of two grammatical commas in the fourth sentence. How one translates Kafka presents the translator with many interesting problems.

I was reminded of this by a review in the TLS by Carolin Duttlinger of Michelle Woods’ Kafka Translated and Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) (TLS 22/29 August 2014, p. 32). Duttlinger’s endorsement of Bernofsky’s translation cites the opening lines of the story, in the decision to translate “Ungeziefer” as “insect”, rather than “vermin”, which as the “literal translation of Ungeziefer, is too rodentine in association.” This is a good point, and demonstrates how a translator can steer a reader away from inappropriate association; there is no license taken here, since after all in the last sentence of the first paragraph we read of Gregor Samsa’s many horribly thin legs, dancing before his eyes.

However, the second example of Bernofksy’s translation that Duttlinger introduces highlights a questionable translation, and adds to it a questionable commentary. Bernofsky, Duttlinger writes, “instils Kafka’s text with new resonances.” This should by rights be an amber warning, but it seems to be intended as a recommendation. Gregor Samsa has returned to his room, his sister has slammed the door shut, shouted “At last!” to their parents and turned the key in the lock. He finds that he can no longer move, but he feels relatively comfortable:

Er hatte zwar Schmerzen im ganzen Leib, aber ihm war, als würden sie allmählich schwächer und schwächer, als würden sie schließlich ganz vergehen.

Bernofksy renders this as:

Admittedly his entire body was racked with pain, but it seemed to him as if it was gradually becoming weaker and weaker and in the end would fade away altogether.

Duttlinger notes that Bernofsky has shifted “Schmerzen” into the singular “pain”, hence widening the scope of the pronoun “it” to include both the pain and the entire body in what comes next – growing weaker and weaker. This is an odd reading: anyone would translate the German plural with an English singular, since that is just a property of the way English and German people talk about “pains”. In German I have “headaches”, in English “a headache”, or alternatively in German the equivalent of “my head hurts me”. This often happens in translation, that the source language uses a plural for something that in the target language is referred to in the singular – that is why French people speaking English might talk about “some informations”. Duttlinger’s comment about this translation of Schmerzen is misconceived in this respect, but she also apparently fails to note that there is no license at all in Kafka’s text for the move that follows. Kafka is quite unambiguous – it is the pain that is growing weaker and weaker, the plural pronoun “sie” referring to the pains, not the body, which is singular and a masculine noun. And so Bernofsky has introduced an ambiguity into Kafka where there was none.

Furthermore, the idea that his body was “racked with pain” is also Bernofksy’s invention; Kafka writes just that Samsa had pain in his whole body. And it would be better translated as “He did have pain in his whole body, but…”, qualifying the last word in the previous sentence, “behaglich” – comfortable, cosy. The interpolation of “zwar” downgrades the qualification slightly from something rather clumsy, like “Obwohl er Schmerzen im ganzen Leib hatte”, which would be a retranslation into German of Bernofsky’s own rendering; and shifting it clearly into a subordinate clause, which checks the flow of the text that Kafka wrote.

Quite how a translation might be “accurate” is therefore a complex question.  As I wrote in my “Note on the Text and Translation” in Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (Hackett, 2013 p. xxxiv), commenting on a very different writer of German, an “authentic” translation of Fichte’s florid prose might well end up making a translation as unintelligible to a modern English reader as Fichte is today for an average German reader. He was not writing for philosophers, but for Germans. I justified my approach by referring to the communicative context in which Fichte was working, reading out addresses that he had previously written, and whose prime audience was not those who attended the presentations in Berlin, but those who would subsequently read the text throughout Germany. Quite how one conveys a source text into a target language has to take into account the motivations of the target readers: why would they wish to read this text?

When it comes to works of political or economic theory, the prime flaw is often not so much a matter of style, but the simple imposition of a modern conceptual framework.  Older writers are presumed to be addressing their own problems in a manner similar to the way in which we would think about them today – recent translations of Serra and of Cantillon are clear examples of this problem. The problem of translating past texts such as these is however the precise opposite: trying to establish how problems were once conceived, and so seeking a vocabulary and style adequate to this.

As we can see from Kafka, that is only the beginning of issues about accuracy.  We read Kafka because of the way he writes, not for what he writes about.  But in thinking about the way that Kafka writes, and how that might be translated, it is easier to see the many levels of decisions that have been taken in a “good translation”.  Indeed, an over-enthusiastic translator, seeking to make a text “relevant”, or “readable”, can entirely destroy its narrative purpose.  Many years ago, I read a translator’s note to Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat”, in which the translator had eliminated many deviations, repetitions and hesitations, seeking to clean up Gogol.  But as Boris Eichenbaum made clear in his essay, “How Gogol’s Overcoat is Made”, the deviations, repetitions and hesitations were the point of the story, replicating the oral delivery of an unreliable narrator.