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Kafka: Translators on Trial

The Castle

by Franz Kafka, translated by Harman Mark
Schocken, 328 pp., $25.00


In 1921 the Scottish poet Edwin Muir and his wife Willa gave up their jobs in London and went to live on the Continent. The dollar was strong; they hoped to make ends meet by reviewing books for the American periodical The Freeman.

After a nine-month spell in Prague, the Muirs moved to Dresden and began to learn German. Willa did some schoolteaching while Edwin stayed at home reading the latest German-language writers. When hyperinflation struck Germany, they moved to Austria, then to Italy, then back to England. There they put their newly acquired German to use and became professional translators. For the next fifteen years, until the outbreak of war, they were, in Edwin’s words, “a sort of translation factory.” Together they translated over thirty books; Willa did a further half-dozen by herself. “Too much of our lives was wasted…in turning German into English,” wrote Edwin afterward, ruefully.

With one of their first projects, a translation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s Jud Süss, they struck it lucky: the book became a best seller, and their London publisher asked what other writers they could recommend. Edwin had been reading Franz Kafka’s posthumously published Das Schloss. “It is a purely metaphysical and mystical dramatic novel,…quite unique,” he wrote in a letter. His and Willa’s translation was published in 1930. Despite selling only 500 copies, it was followed by further Kafka translations: The Great Wall of China (1933), a collection of shorter pieces; The Trial (1937); America (1938); and, after the war years, In the Penal Colony (1948). These translations, despite their many defects, have dominated the English-language market since then. Now we have a new version of The Castle by Mark Harman of the University of Pennsylvania, standard-bearer for a retranslation of the entire Kafka corpus commissioned by Schocken Books from respected individual translators. (Breon Mitchell’s version of The Trial will be issued later this year.)

Edwin Muir saw his task as not only translating Kafka but also guiding English readers through these new and difficult texts. The Muir translations therefore came armed with forewords in which Edwin, relying heavily on Kafka’s friend and editor Max Brod, explained what Kafka was all about. His forewords proved highly influential. They proposed Kafka as “a religious genius…in an age of scepticism,” a writer of “religious allegory” preoccupied with the incommensurability of the human and the divine.

Inevitably the conception of Kafka as a religious writer influenced the choices the Muirs made as they translated his words. The English versions they produced conformed to the interpretation supplied in the forewords. So it is not surprising that Kafka’s first English-speaking readers accepted without demurral the Muirs’ version of him.

The interpretations embedded in the Muir translations—particularly of The Castle and The Trial—have long been a source of concern to Kafka scholars. In the United States in particular, the Muirs’ 1930 translation of The Castle, implicitly packaged with the Muirs’ 1930 reading and reprinted time and again, has seemed to hold an unfair monopoly (in Britain a new translation of The Trial appeared in 1977, and of The Castle in 1997).

There are other reasons as well why the Muir translation and the Muir monopoly have assumed a faintly scandalous air. The 1930 translation was based on the 1926 text given to the world by Brod, and this text was heavily edited. Brod was the one who made decisions about which parts of Kaf-ka’s fragmentary manuscript should go into the printed text and which not, and about where the chapter divisions should fall. Brod also augmented Kafka’s light, even minimal punctuation. Further errors were introduced by the printers. Thus the Muirs, through no fault of their own, were working from an original that was, by scholarly standards, unacceptable.

The main challenge facing a translator of Kafka, in the eyes of the Muirs, was to reconcile fidelity to Kafka’s word order—which was of course subject to the rules of German grammar—with the ideal of a natural-sounding, idiomatic English. To Edwin Muir, Kafka’s word order was “naked and infallible…. Only in that order could he have said what he had to say…. Our main problem was to write an English prose as natural in the English way as [Kafka’s] was in his own way.”

Naturalness is a concept not easily pinned down, but to Edwin Muir it appears to have included freshness of phrasing and lexical variousness. Thus, paradoxically, the Muirs are often more vivid than Kafka, whose German tends to be restrained, even neutral, and who is not afraid to repeat key words again and again.

Furthermore, although the Muirs’ mastery of German—particularly Willa’s—was astonishing, given the fact that they were more or less self-taught, and although Edwin in particular had read widely in contemporary German and Austrian writing, neither had a systematic grounding in German literature, so their ability to pick up literary references was rather haphazard. Finally, there were aspects of German or Austrian life, each with its own specialized vocabulary, that they knew only sketchily.

One of these—unfortunately for them as translators of Kafka—was the law and legal bureaucracy. I give one instance. In The Trial Josef K. tells the men arresting him that he wants to telephone “Staatsanwalt Hasterer.” The Muirs translate this as “advocate Hasterer.” Readers brought up in the Anglo-American legal system will assume that K. is asking for permission to call his lawyer. In fact K. is trying a bluff, threatening to call a friend in the prosecutor’s office.

In The Castle in particular, the Muir translation includes scores, perhaps hundreds, of errors of detail which, while they may not be important individually, have a cumulative effect, putting readers on an insecure footing, driving them back to check the original at every crux of interpretation.

A few instances may give an idea of the range of the Muirs’ inadequacies. Reading Kafka, Edwin Muir observes, is much like reading “a travel book which recounts minutely the customs, dresses and utensils of some newly discovered tribe.” But when it comes to the everyday material culture of Central Europe, the Muirs are uncertain guides. The Strohsack on which K. beds down in the village inn, for instance, is not a bag of straw (as they say) but a palliasse, a straw mattress.

The curious telephone system of the Castle, and the related telephone etiquette, also seem to defeat the Muirs. To them, telephonieren (to telephone) is the ringing sound a telephone makes. When the Castle officials disconnect the ringing mechanisms on their receivers, the Muirs say they are “leav[ing] their receivers off”; and when they reconnect them, the Muirs say they are “hang[ing] the receivers on.”

If the legal system of the ex-Austrian Empire is strange to them, the practices of Kafka’s fictional Castle officials are even stranger. Without expanding words into phrases or adding footnotes, it is hard to explain to the English-speaking reader exactly what is meant by the claim that the only road to Herr Klamm of the Castle leads through the Protokolle of his secretary, or quite what the Briefschaften are that Castle messengers ceaselessly carry back and forth. Nevertheless, the Muirs are too often content with indicating only roughly what is meant, for instance by replacing a German word with its English cognate (Protokolle by “protocols”) or with a term of vaguely similar denotation (Briefschaften by “commissions”) and hoping that enough of the meaning comes across. In this respect the Muirs’ standards are simply too rough to qualify them as interpreters of The Castle, which is partly, though not wholly, a fantasy of bureaucracy run wild.

Sometimes the Muirs’ guesses at Kafka’s meaning are mere stabs in the dark. Kafka writes, for instance, of officials who revel in their despotic power over petitioners, “against their own will [loving] the scent of wild game like that.” Though he was the least ideological of writers, Kafka had an acute feel for the obscene intimacies of power. Hinted at in his striking metaphor is a bestial, predatory appetite in the officials, sometimes submerged, sometimes baring itself. The Muirs, missing the point, write that the officials “in spite of themselves, are attracted by those outlaws.”

When Kafka is obscure enough to defeat any but an inspired reader (what is a clinging street, eine festhaltende Strasse?), the Muirs’ tactic is to take a guess at what Kafka might have intended, rather than—the last honorable recourse of the baffled translator—to fall back on word by word transposition. Their guesses are not always convincing—here “the obsession of the street.”

And sometimes the Muirs simply fail to see what is before them. “Her blank loveless gaze,” writes Kafka. “Her cold hard eye,” write the Muirs, missing the ambiguity of “loveless” (lieblos).

At a broader level, there are occasions when the Muirs, whether consciously or not, sacrifice fidelity to Kafka’s text to a vision—their own vision—of the whole. To the Muirs, taking a hint from Brod, Surveyor K. is a sympathetic pilgrim figure. So when K. claims at one point to have left a wife and child at home, yet at a later point wants to marry the waitress Frieda, the Muirs save their embarrassment by eliding the wife and child.

Finally, however “natural” the Muirs’ English may have been in its day, it is now dated—as we might expect, given that it is nearly seventy years old. Unless readers make conscious allowance for this, they will not know how to interpret moments when the Muirs’ language seems to take a dip into the past: “stoutly-built” rather than “powerful”; “guttersnipe” rather than “tramp”; “remiss in industry” rather than “lacking diligence.” Has Kafka himself used outdated forms, the inquisitive reader might ask, and are the Muirs signaling this in their word choice? The answer is, in each case, no. Although there are levels of formality in the language of The Castle, there is no historical dimension built into it—no systematic recourse to old usages or up-to-the-minute idioms.

Kafka began writing The Castle in early 1922, at a mountain resort where he had been sent for a rest cure (his tuberculosis had been diagnosed in 1917). The cure did little good, and he returned to Prague. In July he took early retirement from the insurance company for which he worked. His condition deteriorated further, and he abandoned The Castle. In all he had spent seven months on it, not completing even a first draft.

After Kafka’s death in 1924, Max Brod edited and published the three novel fragments his friend had left behind. Alarmed by what he considered to be crass misinterpretations of the first of the three to appear, The Trial, Brod accompanied The Castle with what the American scholar Stephen Dowden, in his survey of the reception of The Castle, pithily calls “a preemptive hermeneutic strike on behalf of his own views” in the form of an afterword.* This afterword deeply influenced the Muirs’ reading of the novel, and in due course their translation of it.

  1. *

    Stephen D. Dowden, Kafka’s Castle and the Critical Imagination (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995), p. 8.

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