Home > Kafka F., Literature, Prose, Translation > All Translations are Evil I: Kafka

All Translations are Evil I: Kafka

A friend of mine once explained to me the two unbreakable rules of reading translated works (particularly literary works). They are: (1) Do not ever, under any circumstances, read translations. (2) Since you will not follow the first rule, make sure you get the best translation available. This summer, I’ve been learning to read German, and the experience has made me realize the full force of the first rule. I want to give an example that I’ve encountered; a case where a translation has wreaked havoc on the original text. The moral—don’t read translations—is old hat. But I hope the route taken to get there may be of some interest.

Franz Kafka wrote a number of very short stories, many only a single paragraph. One of these is called “Kleine Fabel” (Little Fable). The translation I know is by Willa and Edwin Muir, and that’s what I want to look at here.

First, the German text (Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen, Anaconda Verlag, p. 502):

“Ach”, sagte die Maus, “die Welt wird enger mit jedem Tag. Zuerst war sie so breit, daß ich Angst hatte, ich life weiter und war glücklich, daß ich endlich rechts und links in der Ferne Mauern sah, aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu, daß ich schon im letzten Zimmer bin, und dort im Winkel steht die Falle, in die ich laufe.” – “Du mußt nur die Laufrichtung ändern”, sagte die Katze und fraß sie.

The Muir translation reads as follows (Kafka, Complete Stories, Schocken Books):

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.” “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

When I first read the story, in this translation, I could not make much sense of the cat’s advice. The image of the world getting smaller and smaller, forcing the mouse into the trap, I understood. But how could the mouse change direction? If the world is getting smaller—the sense here is that it is closing in on the mouse on all sides—what direction could it run? How could it change direction? As we shall see, not only is the sense of the cat’s question obscured, so is the full impact of the cat eating the mouse also obscured.

It turns out that the German text says not, “the world is growing smaller every day,” but rather, “the world [die Welt] is becoming [wird] narrower [enger] with every day [mit jedem Tag].” Note also that the Muir’s changed the verb from ‘becoming’ to ‘growing’.) The world “becoming narrower” and the world “growing smaller” are two quite distinct things. To grow smaller suggests, as I indicated above, to be decreasing in all dimensions. To become narrower, by contrast, suggests only that the sides are pressing together, and not that every dimension is contracting. With this change, my puzzle is resolved. When the walls narrow, it creates a path (the space between the walls) that is in effect one-dimensional: the mouse has no space to do anything except run in one or the other direction. The mouse, running in one direction, feels it must run into the trap. The cat’s advice, now perfectly sensible, is simply to run in the other direction. And Kafka’s joke is, of course, that in the other direction lies the cat: cat or trap, those are the only options.

Why should the Muirs have chosen to translate that sentence in that fashion? I confess to being somewhat at a loss, since my proposed emendation is about as close to strictly literal as a translation can be. Why introduce interpretation that makes the story less comprehensible, given that interpretative changes like that are usually justified on the grounds that they better capture the author’s “sense”? (Here I am sympathetic to Nabokov’s scathing comments on translators who prefer preserving sense to preserving literality.) The best reason I’ve come up with (other than the Hail Mary guess: the Muirs were working with a deficient German text) is that they had already used the word ‘narrow’ later in the translation, and didn’t want to use it here, since Kafka doesn’t use the same word in those two places.

For the German phrase, “aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu,” the Muirs have, “but these long walls have narrowed so quickly.” But this only raises the question: why would the Muirs translate this sentence in this fashion? Here’s what I would propose: “but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly.” The German verb ‘zueilen’ (which takes an indirect object with the preposition ‘auf’) means ‘to hasten to’. ‘Aufeinander’ contains the requisite preposition, plus ‘einander’, which means ‘one another’ or ‘each other.’ Nothing that translates as “to narrow” appears. The Muirs have replaced the very evocative sense of the walls hastening toward one another with the more mundane sense of the walls narrowing. Even worse, they have changed the tense: the German is in the present tense, but the translation is in the present perfect. This suggests that the action (the walls hastening together) is already completed, when in fact it is ongoing. The mouse does not live in a narrowed world, but a narrowing world—and the difference is not at all trivial.

If the world has completed its narrowing, then the mouse’s sense of having to run into the trap is difficult to understand. If the walls are not hastening together, why the rush? Why must the mouse run and run? If the world is stable, that seems unnecessary. We understand the mouse’s sense of compulsion if we understand that the walls are still narrowing: now we see that the mouse is running from them, trying to escape that narrowing, and feels he is being forced into the corner. That is why the cat’s advice is both pertinent and, given the cat’s subsequent action, amusing. By changing the tense, the sense of Kafka’s piece is again obscured.

The Muirs do compensate for this, when they translate, “die Falle, in die ich laufe,” as “the trap that I must run into.” In the German, there is no “must”: it simply says, “the trap, into which [in die] I [ich] am running [laufe].” In Kafka’s German, the sense of compulsion is not in the mouse’s consciousness (where the Muirs put it), but in the scenario itself. By mistranslating the scenario in a way that this sense is entirely lost, the Muirs must then replace it in the mouse’s consciousness. But that is not Kafka’s story.

Here, then, is how I’d translate the entire story:

“Oh,” said the mouse, “the world is becoming narrower with every day. At first, it was so broad that I was afraid; I ran along and was happy that I finally saw walls to the right and left in the distance, but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly that I am already in the final chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I am running.” – “You have only to change the direction you run,” said the cat, and ate it.

Most of the other differences from the Muirs’ translation are fairly minor (though not necessarily trivial), and in most cases I think I am simply being more literal.

This is maybe not the best case to illustrate the general problems of translation, since I think in this case the Muirs lost Kafka’s meaning by translating non-literally where they had no need of doing so. Thus it less illustrates the principled failures of translation and more suggests that this is simply a bad translation. Nevertheless, this case (and the other Kafka stories I’ve looked at) has served to make me much more skeptical of translations than I ever was before. I paid lip service to the horrifying nature of translation, but, now that I’ve seen firsthand how it can and does go wrong, I think I shall be keeping much more strictly to my friend’s first rule and shall let the second rule rot in storage.

  1. 2013/07/29 at 05:18

    I really like this article, dyssebeia! I think the story illustrates your point very well (although it might be better to read the English first; the reader might be as confused as you were about what’s going on).
    You seem to be doing very well on understanding the German, but that might be another risk. I agree that one should read the original, but only if your knowledge of the language allows you to appreciate it!
    Another option is to read the original next to the translation. It also makes you see some of the difficulties of translating: any English word that covers all the different meanings of the German word “Bildung” would bring tears of joy to the translators, I think!
    I agree with you that sometimes you can’t help but wonder why a translator made that decision, like in your example. But often they find themselves running breathlessly between the cat and the mousetrap!

    • 2013/07/29 at 10:23

      Thanks pipteinpteron. A native German speaker just gave me a nice critique of this—my version is far from saintly. Those problems of translation are what make me not want to read any literature in translation—I’m much more aware now that what I’d be reading is heavily filtered. (Not intellectually aware of it, but viscerally aware—I can feel it.) Which is why I’d prefer only to read it if I do understand the language well enough. It’s not like there’s a dearth of great literature in English (and German), that I’d run out of things to read.

    • 2013/07/29 at 11:19

      I read the critique and your new translation. It just adds value to what you’re describing. And you’re right: you could happily go on reading great literature in English and German without getting bored.
      I’m not so sure about giving up on the French and the Russians completely. Not just for quality, also for getting a different cultural perspective. I’ve been reading all afternoon about the use of the Attic Greek word ‘opson’. That’s another risk: getting lost in translation.
      If I go on like this I’ll never read a whole book. 🙂

    • 2013/07/29 at 11:40

      Well I plan to solve at least half of that problem by learning French! But I don’t know when I’ll be able to manage that. I’d love to learn Russian as well, but we’ll see if I ever manage that.

  2. 2014/10/05 at 02:07

    Tag! Stumbled on your blog while searching for translations of Kleine Fabel other than the Muirs’. Unfortunately, my county library is rather fond of old editions (and I couldn’t blame them too much, hardcovers of that sort of quality are rare now), and I was forced to read the Muir translation of Der Prozess. I’m a broke “fake” college student, in academic remission, and won’t be able to afford a gentler translation for some time. Yet despite their many flaws, Willa and Ed still managed to produce an affecting version of The Trial. Well, The Trial by W. & E. Muir, that is. Kafka ist’s nicht. Anyway, I found your translation interesting, and thought I might presume to share my own. I’ve been in love with Kleine Fabel for many years now; I read and re-read it with kabbalistic devotion, laughing just as often as crying, much the same way I like to imagine Kafka felt, internally, while composing it. I think what astounds me most is how poignantly the metaphysical drama of the fable is doubled by the German in which it was written. As a Czech-Jew, doubly Stranger in his rabidly nationalist time, I can hardly imagine how alienating it must have been to work in German, probably one of the least pliant languages for literature to begin with, and the fatalist determinism of Kleine Fabel seems intimately connected with the mechanics of German grammar and syntax. Every clause so carefully and dogmatically locks/leads into the next… Kafka’s prose is itself a mirror of the maze that his Maus-Mensch can’t escape. (Jesus, pardon the alliteration…) And the surprise corners! “…[S]o breit, daß ich *Angst* hatte…” (as opposed to nostalgia, excitement, wonder…), the stab of “glücklich”, and, not a ‘surprise’, but the sickening comic perfection of the trap lying in the “Winkel”, at the heart of the maze, no open corners left to turn, angular and concavely (paradoxically) sharp… Gott sei dank, and it’s the best aspect of his tragic genius, for that punchline: “und fraß sie.” I could ramble on for pages, (the levels of interpretation! Metaphysical, socio-economic, mystical, comic… the connection between his choice of tense re: “eilen… steht… laufe” and the present-prophetic tense of the Hebrew Old Testament is perhaps the most interesting…) but I feel I’ve taken up enough of your space/time here, so here’s my rendering of Kleine Fabel auf Englisch:

    A Little Fable

    “Ah,” said the mouse, “the World narrows every day.
    At first, it was so wide that I was afraid- I ran and ran, and was blissfully relieved when at last, far off to the right and left, I saw walls… but these long walls rush so swiftly together, that I am already in the final room, and there, in the corner, waits the trap in which I sprint.”

    “You must simply change direction,” said the cat, and ate him.

    I take certain liberties with punctuation, phrasing and exact diction, but I’m anti-Nabakovian to an extent when it comes to the battle between letter and spirit.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, and I guess for indulging my comment-gasm here if you happen to read all this. I’ll certainly be reading more on your blog.

    All the best!

    • 2014/10/05 at 02:50

      -Re: “doubly Stranger… alienating…” That is, acknowledging that K. considered German to be his mother-tongue. When one (man, oder sondern ich?) thinks of the complicated alienation of family, maybe, what I meant to say makes sense. Then again, maybe not. To relate this back to the Fabel, I’m thinking specifically of the emotional ambiguity and ironic hindsight that color “glücklich…”

      -I just read the addendum to this blog, and of course the native speaker is absolutely correct, haha. Exciting, though! His reservations about unnecessarily slowing down the pace with punctuation and useless syllables had occurred to me while I was translating, but I decided to give up and strike a compromise between trying to write good, clear English and fidelity to the source-language. I think I failed on both counts. “[B]lissfully relieved” shrieks tin ear. “[R]ush” strongly implies actual movement, even more than “hasten”, I think, so it ought to be changed. Choosing the more anthropomorphic “him” a.opp.to “it” seems both a groundless deviation from the German, (because after all, it should really be “her” given the noun’s gender), and familiarizes The Mouse too much; there are only two “persons” in the piece, both of which are more type than man or animal… betrayed by my sympathy with M, I guess. A lot to think about…

    • 2014/10/05 at 07:45

      Thanks for stopping by! I like your translation – certain much more than the Muirs’. I do agree with the self-applied criticisms you derived from my earlier critic, but… all translations are evil.

      Now what I really want to see is a good translation of “Die Wahrheit über Sancho Pansa.” I don’t like the Muirs’ translation. I don’t like the one in whichever Oxford World Classics Kafka volume has one. And I don’t like my attempt at it (which I don’t think I’ve posted here). Maybe I’ll give it another try.

      I’ve read a bit of Mann in English and enjoyed it, but that was a good while ago. Recently I’ve been translating book IV of The Gay Science – perhaps Nietzsche’s peak as a writer. My German is still wretched – taking a shot at a 90-page novella is probably the work of a year, or at least its better part, for me right now.

      As for Nabokov’s views on translation, I think they are most defensible if the translation is to serve as a guide to reading in the original. That is my ultimate goal with German – I am practicing translation now in the hopes that one day I’ll actually be able to read German fluently. For that, sticking closely to literality is the best strategy.

      Anyway, keep an eye out for the Sancho Panza translation – I think I will put it up shortly. And thanks again for stopping by. It’s nice to get a comment notification that isn’t just spam WP’s filter failed to catch.

  3. 2014/10/05 at 02:12

    P.S. If you’re still looking for some material to read/translate auf Deutsch, Thomas Mann’s Tod in Venedig is available as a free e-book download in Amazon’s Kindle store. I’m a very textbook ADHD reader, so I’m currently jumping back and forth between Anna K, Don Quixote, Beyond Good and Evil and To the Lighthouse, but I couldn’t help it and started working on Mann too, haha. It’s a slim novella, (if you’ve already read it, please excuse my plug here), only ~90 pages, so shouldn’t take too long! There are also a ton of great resources archived here: https://www.duolingo.com/translations

    Nur einmal, haha:

  1. 2013/07/29 at 10:40
  2. 2013/10/19 at 19:27
  3. 2013/11/24 at 10:25
  4. 2013/11/26 at 08:55
  5. 2015/01/07 at 04:49

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