Home > Kafka F., Literature, Prose, Translation > All translations are evil I: addendum

All translations are evil I: addendum

A native German speaker read my previous post on translating a short story from Kafka and offered a few very interesting critiques, illustrating the flaws of what I offered at the end of the last post, and proving better than I did the issues that plague translation. Here are a few of his critiques:

  1. By adding a semicolon in the mouse’s long sentence, I slow down its harried, claustrophobic quality. I also do this by choosing ‘rapidly’ instead of ‘quickly’ for ‘schnell’, adding two syllables onto the German one, and creating a word that serves as a stumbling block for the mouse, who we should imagine is speaking fairly quickly. Likewise, while ‘into which I am running’ preserves the tense of the German, it is clumsy for the same reason ‘rapidly’ is. ‘Am running’ again is three syllables where the German (‘laufe’) is only one.
  2. While my critique of the Muirs’ translation of ‘eilen aufeinander zu’ is correct, mine is subject to the opposite problem. Where they suggest movement that has stopped, mine suggests actual physical movement pretty definitely, whereas the German is somewhat ambiguous here and may only mean the way the walls would converge in the distance (a fact of perspective). I am not sure how to preserve that sense in English, and the best I may be able to say about what I have is that it is a better travesty than the Muirs’. (It also suffers from the same clunkiness problem.)
  3. The ending in Kafka is very abrupt. By translating ‘Laufrichtung’ as ‘direction you run’, I slow things down and place undue emphasis on the ‘Lauf’ (‘you run’). Similarly, my word order of ‘you have only to’ is complex where the cat’s ‘du mußt nur’ is very direct.

On the basis of these critiques, a revision of my translation:

“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 together so quickly that I am already in the last chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I run.” — “You must only change direction,” said the cat, and ate it.

But this, too, I am sure, is still evil, if less so.

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