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All translations are evil II: Prometheus

Another attempt to translate one of Kafka’s shorter short stories. The German text:

Von Prometheus berichten vier Sagen:
Nach der ersten wurde er, weil er die Götter an die Menschen verraten hatte, am Kaukasus festgeschmiedet, und die Götter schickten Adler, die von seiner immer wachsenden Leber fraßen.
Nach der zweiten drückte sich Prometheus im Schmerz vor den zuhackenden Schnäbeln immer tiefer in den Felsen, bis er mit ihm eins wurde.
Nach der dritten wurde in den Jahrtausenden sein Verrat vergessen, die Götter vergaßen, die Adler, er selbst.
Nach der vierten wurde man des grundlos Gewordenen müde. Die Götter wurden müde, die Adler wurden müde, die Wunde schloß sich müde.
Blieb das unerklärliche Felsgebirge. – Die Sage versucht das Unerklärliche zu erklären. Da sie aus einem Wahrheitsgrund kommt, muß sie wieder im Unerklärlichen enden.

And my translation:

Four legends report on Prometheus:
According to the first, because he had betrayed the gods to men, he was [firmly forged] at the Caucasus, and the gods sent eagles, who ate from his ever-growing liver.
According to the second, Prometheus, in pain before the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock, until he became one with it.
According to the third, over millennia his betrayal was forgotten; the gods forgot, the eagle, he himself.
According to the fourth, one became weary of the baseless matter. The gods became weary, the eagles became weary, the wound closed itself wearily.
There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. – The legend attempted to explain the inexplicable. Since it came from a basis in truth, it had to end again in the inexplicable.

I think it will be useful to compare mine to the Muir translation, and to reflect on why mine, while (I believe) an improvement, is still evil. First, though, I put “firmly forged” in brackets because I am entirely unsure what to do with it. The German is “wurde… festgeschmiedet”. “Schmieden” is to hammer or to forge; “fest” is fast or firm (the rest makes it past passive). This is the same word as in Das Schweigen der Sirenen, where it was used to indicate that Odysseus was tied to the mast. The same thing happens here, only now it is to a rock in the Caucasus mountains. Yet I am not sure how to translate it in a way that preserves the sense of the German. The Muir translation—”he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus”—is ok, I suppose, though it has to resort to pulling “a rock” out of thin air. I think this may simply be untranslatable without evil, further evidence of my working thesis.

The Muir translation contains one very bad mistake. In the third version of the legend, they translate the end as “the gods forgotten, the eagles, he himself forgotten.” That is, not only was Prometheus’ betrayal forgotten, but also the gods, the eagles, and Prometheus himself were forgotten. This leaves opaque who it is that is doing the forgetting. There is no such opacity in the German: it is the gods, the eagles, and Prometheus who forget. The tense of “vergaßen” is simple past: the gods forgot, the eagles [forgot], he himself [forgot]. Only the betrayal is forgotten, and it is forgotten by the characters within the legend. That is, the gods, via the eagles, continue perpetually to punish/torture Prometheus, yet all involved—the gods, the eagles, Prometheus himself—have forgotten the initial event that led to the state of affairs. This very Kafkaesque—a word that should be reserved for Kafka alone—scenario is entirely lost in the Muir translation.

That same legend is part of another issue with their translation, or rather an complex of problems. In the first legend, they render “weil er die Götter an die Menschen verraten hatte” as “for betraying the secrets of the gods to men”. This involves a change in tense—”verraten hatte”, which is naturally rendered “had betrayed”, becomes “betraying”—as well as another conjuring trick. In the German, no secrets exist to be betrayed. It is the gods themselves who are betrayed. When it is merely their secrets that are betrayed, the force of the accusation is lost. Note that the verb here is “verraten”, “to betray”. In the third legend, the Muirs speak of Prometheus’ “treachery”. The noun here is “Verrat”, and to underscore Kafka’s choice to use the same word as before, it should be translated “betrayal”.

The last critical comment I’ll make about the Muir translation is about their choice to translate “Wahrheitsgrund” as “substratum of truth”. I think “substratum” is an unnecessarily gaudy choice. I chose “basis in truth”, though I would have liked to keep “grund” as some sort of “ground”. I could not think how to do so without straying far from the German in other ways, e.g. by making it a verb: “grounded in truth”.

I do want to note one further untranslatable—I mean, untranslatable without evil—phrase in the text. The German is “Nach der vierten wurde man des grundlos Gewordenen müde”, which I render as “According to the fourth, one became weary of the baseless matter” and which the Muirs render as “According to the fourth, every one grew weary of the meaningless affair.” The word translated as “baseless”/”meaningless” is “grundlos”. I chose “baseless” because it connects to “basis in truth” later, which again involves the word “grund”. (Incidentally, I think “meaningless” is another overly colorful choice.) More interesting is the word that I translate as “matter” and the Muirs translate as “affair”. The word is “Gewordenen”, which is a verb turned into a noun. The verb is “werden” (to become), though the form is “geworden” (its past participle). So we might translated it, ignoring context, as “what has become”. Sadly, to speak of the “baseless what has become” is to sound stupid, which is why some paltry makeshift life “matter” or “affair” has to be chosen. I picked “matter” because it connects to the materiality of the story, and especially the “mass of rock” (“Felsgebirge”), but I selected from among exclusively evil options.

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