Home > Kafka F., Literature, Prose, Translation > Translation: The Silence of the Sirens

Translation: The Silence of the Sirens

First the translation, then a brief comment. The story is Der Schweigen der Sirenen, by Franz Kafka.

Proof that inadequate, even childish means of rescue can serve:

In order to protect himself from the Sirens, Odysseus stuffed wax in his ears and let himself be firmly forged to the mast. Naturally, all travelers since the beginning could have done similarly, except those whom the Sirens already enticed from a great distance, but it was known to the entire world, that this could not possibly help. The song of the Sirens pierced all, and the passion of the seduced had broken open more than chains and a mast. But Odysseus did not think of that, though perhaps he had heard of it. He trusted completely the handful of wax and the arrangement of chains and in innocent joy over his means he headed toward the Sirens.

But the Sirens have a still more terrible weapon than their singing, namely their silence. It has indeed not happened, but is perhaps conceivable, that someone could have saved himself from their singing—from their silence, certainly not. The feeling of having defeated them out of one’s own power, the consequently following arrogance that carries away everything, nothing earthly can resist.

And in fact, as Odysseus came, the massive singers did not sing, be it that they believed only the silence could cope with this adversary, or be it that the look of bliss in the face of Odysseus, who thought of nothing other than wax and chains, made them forget all singing.

But Odysseus, so to speak, heard not their silence; he believed they sang, and only that he was protected from hearing it. At first he fleetingly saw the twisting of their necks, the deep breaths, the tear-filled eyes, the half-opened mouths, but believed that this belonged to the arias that, unheard, faded away around him. But soon all slid from his fixed in the distance eyes, the Sirens officially vanished before his determination, and just as he was next to them, he knew nothing more of them.

But they—more beautiful than ever—stretched and twisted themselves, let their eerie hair wave openly in the wind, and drew their claws freely on the rocks. They no longer wanted to seduce, but only to catch for as long as possible the reflection from Odysseus’ great pair of eyes.

Had the Sirens consciousness, they would have been annihilated at that time. But they remained, only Odysseus escaped them.

There is incidentally an addendum handed down about this. Odysseus, one says, was so guileful, was such a fox, that even the goddess of Fate could not penetrate to his core. Perhaps, although this is longer comprehensible with human understanding, he actually had noticed that the Sirens were silent, and had held out to them and to the gods the above pretense only as a kind of shield.

Unless I wished to criticize the Muirs again—which I don’t, since it would be repetitive and since I am not entirely happy with my own translation—I do not have much to comment on this story. But I will make two brief self-critical notes:

In the first paragraph, we are told that Odysseus did not think of the power of the Sirens’ song (Daran aber dachte Odysseus nicht), which pierces all. In context (in English), this reads like Odysseus simply did not think of something of such great importance—as if he was stupid, or incredibly naïve. I don’t think this is the case, for later we are told that Odysseus “thought of nothing other than wax and chains” (Odysseus, der an nichts anderes als an Wachs und Ketten dachte). This repetition clarifies what is going on: Odysseus thinks not of the Sirens not because of some failure of his intelligence, but because he is so wrapped up in his own technique, so pleased with it, that they simply cannot get into his mind—think here of the final paragraph: even the goddess of Fate cannot penetrate to Odysseus’ core. I do not know how to render the phrase in the first paragraph in a way that does not mislead on this point.

Second, in the fourth paragraph, there is an interesting construction. We have the Sirens not singing, and two explanations for this are offered. Kafka does this without any sort of either/or or whether/or construction. Instead, we have two clauses each introduced by “be it” (sei es). This cannot be directly replicated in English, for it is not as clear as in the German that what follows are competing explanations of the Sirens’ silence. I “solved” this by adding an “or” before the second “be it”, but it’s still ungainly, whereas the German is perfectly smooth. I think this is better than the Muirs’ “whether because … or because …”, but still not so great.

Alas, all translations are evil.

  1. David Browning
    2017/01/27 at 08:05

    Hi, sorry to bother you but was wondering if you know who owns the copyright on the Muir translation of ‘SIlence of Sirens’; I’m hoping to include it with a small art project and not sure where to start.
    Thanks again for your time.

  1. 2013/11/20 at 09:12

Kindly perturb

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