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Unconscionable Evil

I really would like to stop making all of my (middling at best) Kafka translations come attached to criticisms of the existing Muir translations. But then I come across something truly atrocious that they have done. My first translation was a revelation (to me): I finally understood a story that I did not understand when I read it in English, since the Muir translation entirely disrupted the story’s sense of space. And yesterday I was working on another of Kafka’s short short stories, Der plötzliche Spaziergang, and found that the English translation was even worse.

But before going into that, let us look at a passage from Kafka’s unfinished story Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande (Wedding Preparations in the Country):

Man arbeitet so übertrieben im Amt, daß man dann sogar zu müde ist, um seine Ferien gut zu genießen. Aber durch alle Arbeitet erlangt man noch keinen Anspruch darauf, von allen mit Liebe behandelt zu warden, vielmehr ist man allein, gänzlich fremd und nur Gegenstand der Neugierde. Und solange du man sagst an Stelle von ich, ist es nichts und man kann diese Geschichte aufsagen, sobald du aber dir eingestehst, daß du selbst es bist, dann wirst du förmlich durchbohrt und bist entsetzt.

A first pass at translating this passage (enough to get the sense, at least) looks like this:

One works so excessively at one’s post that one is even too tired to enjoy his vacation. But through all work one still achieves no right to be treated with love by all, rather one is alone, wholly foreign and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say one in the place of I, it is nothing and once can recite this story, but as soon as you avow to yourself that it is you yourself, then you are officially pierced and are horrified.

A clumsy attempt, to be sure, but at least it gets across the main idea (which is all I will use), namely that, for Kafka, there is a great difference between saying “one” and saying “I”. When Kafka’s narrators say “one”, we are to understand the speakers as holding this piercing, horrified feeling at bay. If, then, you were to translate a story in which Kafka throughout says “one” and instead render it as “you”, an entire dimension—perhaps the most important dimension—of the story’s mood would be lost. Here, then, is Kafka’s Der plötzliche Spaziergang:

Wenn man sich am Abend endgültig entschlossen zu haben scheint, zu Hause zu bleiben, den Hausrock angezogen hat, nach dem Nachtmahl beim beleuchteten Tische sitzt und jene Arbeit oder jenes Spiel vorgenommen hat, nach dessen Beendigung man gewohnheitsgemäß schlafen geht, wenn draußen ein unfreundliches Wetter ist, welches das Zuhausebleiben selbstverständlich macht, wenn man jetzt auch schon so lange bei Tisch stillgehalten hat, daß das Weggehen allgemeines Erstaunen hervorrufen müßte, wenn nun auch schon das Treppenhaus dunkel und das Haustor gesperrt ist, und wenn man nun trotz alledem in einem plötzlichen Unbehagen aufsteht, den Rock wechselt, sofort straßenmäßig angezogen erscheint, weggehen zu müssen erklärt, es nach kurzem Abschied auch tut, je nach der Schnelligkeit, mit der man die Wohnungstür zuschlägt, mehr oder weniger Ärger zu hinterlassen glaubt, wenn man sich auf der Gasse wiederfindet, mit Gliedern, die diese schon unerwartete Freiheit, die man ihnen verschafft hat, mit besonderer Beweglichkeit beantworten, wenn man durch diesen einen Entschluß alle Entschlußfähigkeit in sich gesammelt fühlt, wenn man mit größerer als der gewöhnlichen Bedeutung erkennt, daß man ja mehr Kraft als Bedürfnis hat, die schnellste Veränderung leicht zu bewirken und zu ertragen, und wenn man so die langen Gassen hinläuft, — dann ist man für diesen Abend gänzlich aus seiner Familie ausgetreten, die ins Wesenlose abschwenkt, während man selbst, ganz fest, schwarz vor Umrissenheit, hinten die Schenkel schlagend, sich zu seiner wahren Gestalt erhebt.

Verstärkt wird alles noch, wenn man zu dieser späten Abendzeit einen Freund aufsucht, um nachzusehen, wie es ihm geht.

The Muirs translate it as follows:

When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when, besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets – then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.

All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.

Kafka’s short story begins, “Wenn man sich am Abend…”—when one in the evening…—in short, it begins not with “you” but with “one”. And it continues in that way throughout. There is no “du” in Kafka, only “man”. So we should, by Kafka’s own lights, understand the story as on the precipice beyond which lies horror and transfixion. The Muir translation, which, more inexplicably than Prometheus’ mass of rock, translates “man” as “you”, loses this entirely.

So there is your unconscionable evil. My paltry attempt at justice follows, though it is paltry indeed.

When one in the evening appears finally to have decided to remain at home, has put on a house jacket, sits after supper at the illuminated table and has carried out that work or that game upon whose completion one habitually goes to sleep; when outside there is unfriendly weather which makes staying at home self-evident; when one has already kept still at the table for so long that going out must call forth general astonishment; when now also the stairwell is already dark and the house gate is locked; and when one now in spite of all of this stands up in a sudden unease, changes his coat, immediately appears dressed for the street, explains he must go and after a short farewell even does it, believes, according to the promptness with which one slams the door, he has left behind more or less anger; when one finds himself again in the alleys, with limbs that to this unexpected freedom one has provided them respond with especial mobility; when one cognizes with greater than usual significance that one indeed has more power than needed to easily effect and endure the rapidest transformations; and when one so walks the long alleys,—then one has for the evening wholly escaped from his family, who turn away into insubstantiality, while one oneself, wholly concrete, black in outline, hitting himself behind the thigh, raises himself to his true form.

All this is still heightened if one at this late evening hour calls on a friend to see how it goes with him.

Everything between the long dash and the paragraph break is a mess—apologies for that. But I hope I have at least captured some of Kafka’s intended tension, even if I have not left anyone transfixed.

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  1. 2013/11/26 at 08:55

Kindly perturb

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