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.