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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.