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Kafka: Translators on Trial

The 1926 edition was the one from which the Muirs worked. In subsequent editions (1935, 1946, 1951) Brod brought forth from his stack of manuscripts further episodes and fragments, as well as variants and deleted passages. These additions to the text have for some time been available in English, appended to the Muir translation in dependable versions by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, best known as translators of Robert Musil.

For his project of publishing the Kafka manuscripts posthumously, Brod marshaled a public declaration of support by respected intellectuals like Thomas Mann, Martin Buber, and Hermann Hesse, who thereby seemed to lend their weight to the readings of Kafka that accompanied the successive volumes. Thus the reading of The Castle set out in Brod’s 1926 afterword came to dominate the reception of Kafka in the German-speaking world well into the 1950s; in large part through the agency of Edwin Muir, a version of the same reading held sway in the English-speaking world.

In Brod’s reading, K., the new Faust, is driven no longer by a desire for ultimate knowledge but by a need for the most basic prerequisites of life—a secure home and job, acceptance into a community. To the later Kafka, says Brod, these simple goals had come to have a religious meaning. The minimal grace that K. seeks from the Castle is permission to settle down, to cease to be an outsider.

Knowing as he did Kafka’s sense of himself as a lifelong outsider, knowing of Kafka’s repeated attempts to get married, undermined each time by an incapacity to imagine himself in the role of husband and father, one can see why such a reading should have occurred to Brod. One can see too why it should have resonated with the public mood in postwar Germany and Austria, where the economy was stagnant, where neither Church nor State could give direction to life, and where widespread hopelessness and a sense that mankind had lost its way prevailed.

Brod’s optimistic reading of The Castle (influenced no doubt by his own Zionism) makes of Kafka—whom Brod revered, yet utterly failed to understand—a rather simple and conservative thinker who responds to the challenges of modern life with a call for a return to old verities. It is thus no idle undertaking to rescue Kafka from Brod’s version of him, or at least to complicate and deepen Brod’s version enough to situate his Kafka within the history of his times. If, in the English-speaking world, this means scraping off from the Muirs’ version of The Castle those accretions that belong only to Brod and Brod’s vision, or even translating The Castle anew, as Mark Harman has done, this is a task richly worthwhile.

Indeed, even Edwin Muir began to have doubts about a religious-allegorical reading of The Castle after he had met and spoken to Dora Dymant, Kafka’s last companion. Were it not for the fact that Kafka annihilates so thoroughly the boundaries between the clownish and the evil, one might call The Castle not a religious but a comic novel. The shadow cast by the Castle may indeed be dreadful, but K., the hero of the tale, caught in a labyrinth of bureaucratic hocus-pocus, has more pressing concerns than coping with dread, as he tries busily, sometimes frantically, to get his papers in order and keep the peace among the many women in his life.


The Brod who delivered The Castle to the world was of course no ordinary editor. His friendship with Kafka was close and deep, dating back to their student years together. There is no reason to doubt his claim to have been told Kafka’s plans for the conclusion of The Castle (namely that on his deathbed K. would receive a judgment from the Castle rejecting his petition to settle in the village, yet permitting him to live and work there).

So thoroughly has Brod been taken to task as the jealous impresario of the Kafka reputation and the founder of the dreary science of Kafkology (the term is Milan Kundera’s) that it is as well to remind ourselves that Brod saved Kafka’s manuscripts from destruction not once but twice: the first time by disobeying Kafka’s instructions that they be burned “unread and to the last page” after his death, the second time in 1939, when Prague was occupied by the Nazis and he fled to Tel Aviv bearing the papers with him. In 1956, when war threatened in the Middle East, Brod had the bulk of his collection conveyed to Switzerland. From there it traveled to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the eminent Germanist Malcolm Pasley reedited The Castle from scratch, producing in 1982 the two-volume critical edition on which Harman’s new translation is based.

Pasley’s description of the manuscript, included as an afterword to Harman’s translation, gives us a useful glimpse into the unique problems faced by the translator—or retranslator—of The Castle. Kafka seems to have planned to write the entire novel (which in its present unfinished state runs to some 100,000 words) in the form of a tightly knit, temporally consecutive draft which would require neither substantial additions and deletions nor restructuring. The novel was not written in chapters, though some chapter divisions emerged as the text grew. Nor, after the first third of the book, did Kafka carry out much paragraphing. His punctuation overall is extremely light, serving in the main to mark rhythm and cadence. Commas, rather than full stops, separate sentences.

Kafka’s language is generally clear, specific, and neutral; in the novels—The Castle in particular—it can seem monotonous if one is not caught up by the forward drive of the sentences, their urgent but rather abstract energy, for which Kleist’s prose provided Kafka with a model. Brod recalled that “anyone who had the privilege of hearing [Kafka] read his own prose to a small circle, with a rhythmic sweep, a dramatic fire, a spontaneity such as no actor ever achieves, got an immediate impression of the delight in creation and the passion that informed his work.”

In its spareness and apparent matter-of-factness, Kafka’s language has been claimed to be typical of the German of Prague, and particularly of the German of assimilated middle-class Jews, but the claim is questionable. It is more likely that it was influenced by the precision of good legal prose, the medium in which Kafka worked day by day. The manuscript of The Castle exhibits a number of Prague German usages. Though Kafka did not change these to standard German in the course of his revisions, he clearly did not intend them to stand in the text as indicating the use of dialect, and (correctly, to my mind) neither the Muirs nor Harman translate them into nonstandard English.

Nor, after the opening chapters of the book, does Kafka maintain any socially realistic distinction between levels of language: the people of the village as much as the Castle officials seem able to produce exegetical monologues on the most trivial of questions at the drop of a hat. Thus the translator, once he or she has found a variety of English that, to his or her mind, does justice to Kafka’s variety of German, does not often have to change gear. Indeed, the temptation to be resisted is to introduce a linguistic variousness that is absent in the original.

This necessary rigor raises certain problems. In the second half of The Castle, in particular, Kafka slips on occasion into some very tired-sounding prose. Here is an extract from the reported narration of young Hans Brunswick. I give it in Harman’s translation, which reproduces Kafka’s syntax and gives an indication of how light Kafka’s punctuation is.

Father…had actually wanted to go and see K. in order to punish him…only Mother had dissuaded him. But above all Mother herself generally didn’t want to speak to anyone and her question about K. was no exception to that rule, on the contrary, in mentioning him she could have said that she wished to see him, but she had not done so, and had thus made her intentions plain.

In producing English sentences as slack as Kafka’s own, Harman has in principle made the right decision (“I have tried to keep [it] as murky in English as it is in German,” he observes of a comparable passage). Nevertheless, it is only Kafka’s classic status that gives grounds for such a decision: translating a more run-of-the-mill writer, one would be eminently justified in lightly and silently fixing up the original.

There are several passages in The Castle where Kafka, groping to record moments of transcendental insight, visibly reaches the limits of expression. Passages such as these provide the harshest test of the translator, demanding not only an ability to follow the utmost nuances of phrasing but, beyond that, an intuitive sense of what the resistances are against which the language is pressing. A case in point is the passage, only a sentence long, describing the first lovemaking of K. and Frieda. It is a sentence to which Milan Kundera has already given microscopic attention, using it to test Kafka’s French translators, who by his standards fail badly. How does Harman fare?

Hours passed there,” writes Harman,

hours breathing together with a single heartbeat, hours in which K. constantly felt he was lost or had wandered farther into foreign lands than any human being before him, so foreign that even the air hadn’t a single component of the air in his homeland and where one would inevitably suffocate from the foreignness but where the meaningless enticements were such that one had no alternative but to go on and get even more lost.

In the metaphor at the heart of this passage, the poles are die Fremde and die Heimat, foreign country and home country. To capture in English all the associations of these rich words is a hopeless task: fremd has all the associations of English strange, yet Kafka’s phrase in der Fremde is also a perfectly normal expression meaning “abroad.” In his syntax, Kafka seems intent on making the strange or foreign experience into which K. is drawn with Frieda seem ever stranger and more threatening as the sentence proceeds: “K. constantly had the feeling he had got lost or was (had gone) further in(to) die Fremde than anyone before him, a Fremde in which even the air had no component of the air of home [Heimatluft, a neologism], in which (in the air? in the Fremde?) one must [inevitably] suffocate of Fremdheit, and (yet) in (in the midst of?) whose crazy enticements one could do nothing but go further, get further lost.”

In his rendering, Harman copes well with Kafka’s strategy of overlaying K. as a wanderer coming from the comforts of Heimat into the unsettlingly fremd domain of the Castle with K. wandering into disturbing spiritual territory in the sudden act of sex with Frieda; but rather less well in conveying the impression of a man straining to get a grasp on fremd experience in a sentence faltering in its sense of linear direction and on the point of losing its way.

As for the Muirs, they miss the boat entirely, partly because they overtranslate (“K. constantly had the feeling” becomes “K. was haunted by the feeling”); partly because they evade difficulties—Kafka’s cryptic unsinnigen Verlockungen, which Harman translates rather woodenly as “meaningless enticements,” becomes in their version simply “enchantments”; but mainly because the English sentence they construct is too musically balanced.

In general, in all the large-scale decisions he has had to make—whether or not to remain faithful to the original in its moments of weakness, whether or not to follow Kafka’s punctuation and Pasley’s chapter divisions, what variety of English to aim for—Harman has done well. Though his renderings of the most baffling moments in the text rarely strike one as inspired, he can certainly claim to have produced a version of the novel that is semantically accurate to an admirable degree, faithful to Kafka’s nuances, responsive to the tempo of his sentences and to the larger music of his paragraph construction. For the general reader as for the student, it will be the translation of preference for some time to come.

If there are lapses, such lapses do not point to any larger deficiency. If only to give an idea of their scale, I list a few.

(1) If the Muirs’ English has become a little dated Harman’s is, in places, unnecessarily colloquial: “stomped”; “what he had gone and done”; “all that great.” It also sometimes descends into unjustifiable clumsiness. The Muirs’ “Painful, even unbearable” is certainly better than Harman’s “unbearably excruciating.” Word choice is occasionally slightly off target: “the village environs” is better than “the village surroundings.”

(2) There are moments when Harman falls into mindless late-twentieth-century jargon: “Perhaps K. was being mistakenly positive now, just as he had been mistakenly negative with the peasants.” Better might be “Perhaps K. erred here on the side of good nature, where with the peasants he had erred on the side of bad nature.”

(3) The word Heimat (home, homeland) creates problems that Harman does not always solve. Though the Castle and village have a telephone system, it is not used for communication with the outside world, nor do the natives seem to venture abroad. K., in contrast, speaks of himself as a wanderer. Nevertheless, there is no suggestion that he is a foreigner in the usual sense of the word. In the world of The Castle there seem to be no national boundaries. So when, in Chapter Two, K.’s thoughts return to his Heimat, Harman’s translation “homeland” is too specific, particularly when we go on to read that his Heimat has a square and a church. “Home” or even “home town” would be safer.

(4) Harman is not immune from the temptations of overtranslating that so mar the Muir version. To translate Ihre schmutzige Familienwirtschaft as “your dirty family shambles” introduces ideas of blood and death not present in the original. “Your sordid family setup” would be better. Similarly, “freaks” (Wilkins/Kaiser) translates Ausgeburten rather more soberly than “evil spawn.”

(5) Sometimes fidelity to Kafka’s word order becomes mechanical and yields what sounds like a parody of German: “a large, heavy, and now open gate.” The German is sometimes followed even when there is a close English idiom: “a crying injustice” is better than “a screaming injustice.”

(6) It is not always clear that Harman recognizes Prague usages. For instance, the huge, three-doored item of furniture in the landlady’s office in Chapter 25, ein Kasten, is probably a wardrobe, as Wilkins/Kaiser have it, rather than a cabinet, as Harman has it.

(7) There are odd moments of inattention: “I entrusted a message to you not so you would forget it or garble it on your cobbler’s bench” should surely read “not so [that] you would forget it on your cobbler’s bench and garble it.”

As these instances indicate, the issues over which one might want to criticize Harman are limited in range and small in scale. More significant ones emerge at moments when Kafka’s own prose is at its worst, or—to say the same thing—when it is hardest to ignore that what Kafka has left us is a draft, not a finished work. “It would after all have been better to have sent the assistants here, for even they would have been capable of conducting themselves as he had done,” writes Harman, following faithfully in the footsteps of a sentence that reads as though Kafka wrote it in his sleep. The trouble here is not only that the writing is slovenly but that Kafka’s meaning is unclear. The Muirs clarify the meaning, but only at the cost of importing a notion (foolishness) of which there is no trace in the original: “Really he would have done better to have sent his assistants here, they couldn’t have behaved more foolishly than he had done.” The problem is finally intractable.

Besides Malcolm Pasley’s afterword on the manuscript sources of The Castle, the new volume comes armed with a useful note by Arthur H. Samuelson on the publication history of Kafka’s works, and an eleven-page Translator’s Preface in which Mark Harman discusses Kafka’s language and some of the problems it presents, illustrating and justifying his own approach, and quoting some telling examples of the inadequacies of the Muir version.

It is of course to be expected that Harman should be hostile to his rivals (upon whom he delivered an even more trenchant attack in an article published in New Literary History in 1996). Everything he says about the Muirs is true: their religious interpretation of the book did indeed bias their rendering of it; they did indeed introduce transitional links to make Kafka’s daring leaps more easily negotiable; they did indeed, in general, “tone down the modernity” of The Castle.

But to say of Edwin Muir that “[his] literary sensibility…was molded by nineteenth-century figures such as Thackeray and Dickens” goes too far. Nor were the Muirs merely, as Harman describes them, “a gifted Scottish couple.” The Muirs, together with their publisher Martin Secker, introduced a difficult, even arcane German modernist to the English-speaking world years earlier than one might reasonably have expected this to happen. Edwin Muir himself was a considerable poet, not quite of the rank of Yeats or Auden, of whom he sometimes reminds one, but a modern master in his own right, certainly no hankerer after a lost nineteenth-century world. If Dickens left an imprint on the Muirs, he left an imprint on Kafka too; as for Thackeray, one searches in vain for any residue of him in the Muir translation.

Harman calls the Muirs’ translations of Kafka “elegant” and commends them for their “smoothly readability.” The compliment is backhanded, and intended to be so. His own English, Harman says, is “stranger and denser” than theirs. Harman would do well to recognize that, if a striving toward elegance—fluency is the term I would prefer—marks the Muirs’ translation as of its time, then in its very striving toward strangeness and denseness his own work—welcome though it is today—may, as history moves on and tastes change, be pointing toward obsolescence too.

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