Inspired by a recent comment on an old Kafka translation of mine, I decided to translate “Die Wahrheit über Sancho Panza” – probably my favorite of Kafka’s short short stories. (More accurately, I decided to revise an old translation I did at the same time as my translation of “Kleine Fabel” – a translation I didn’t much like even at the time that I did it.) The biggest problem with the existing English translations that I have seen (the Muirs’, of course, and the more recent translation by Joyce Crick in A Hunger Artist and Other Stories, Oxford World Classics) is that they sacrifice the intricate sentence structure of the German to comprehensibility. In the original German, however, the power of the story rests precisely in the escalating structure of the first long sentence, with its many diversions and clarifications (and similarly for the second, slightly shorter sentence). Much of this works by splitting verbs from their objects in a way that is awkward in English (cf. “succeeded… in diverting” and “serenely followed… Don Quixote” in my translation below) – hence the temptation to rearrange. I felt that temptation as I worked on this translation, but in the end avoided it. To maintain comprehensibility, I had to introduce other distortions, usually by spelling out a whole word where Kafka could get away with something less (e.g. where Kafka has “derart,” I am compelled to spell out “his devil”) – my only defense is that all translations are evil, and I take this to be the lesser evil. Without further ado, then:
Sancho Panza, who incidentally has never boasted of it, succeeded in the course of years, by providing a host of knight and robber novels in the evening and night hours to his devil, to whom he later gave the name Don Quixote, in diverting his devil from himself, that this then unrestrainedly performed the maddest deeds, but deeds that, lacking a predetermined object, which should have been Sancho Panza, harmed nobody. Sancho Panza, a freer man, serenely followed, perhaps out of a certain feeling of responsibility, Don Quixote on his processions and had thereof a great and useful entertainment unto his end.
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.
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.
I possess a fairly lackluster memory, for which in my wiser moments I am thankful. One result of this is that I often find myself remembering a few striking words from some author or another, while all recollection of the context in which they occurred recedes into nothingness. Consequently, they come to take on a new meaning for me, forming attachments and connections the original author no doubt never intended. Nietzsche is a frequent victim of this.
As I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Young American” today, Nietzsche’s dictum, “die at the right time!” wormed its way into my head. Much in it is still worm, no doubt, but it did evolve a bit in the direction of man, taking on some new resonances in the context of Emerson’s essay. Because I had no terribly interesting thoughts about the essay (due perhaps to the foul mood I’ve been mired in all day), and because I promised myself I would write about each Emerson piece as I read it, this post will detail briefly these resonances. Page references are to the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, as usual.
Nietzsche’s relating dying to an appropriate time is nothing new. We naturally conceive death as having its time: consider the acceptance of death signified by the phrase, “my time has come.” What makes Nietzsche’s quote striking (and I do not intend to suggest that he was the first to do this) is that it takes the form of an imperative: it is a command to action. Now one is not to passively await his time, but rather is to actively ensure his time does not pass unaccompanied by his also passing.
I recalled this phrase when I arrived at Emerson’s discussion of feudalism and trade in “The Young American”.
Feudalism had been good, had broken the power of the kings, and had some good traits of its own; but it had grown mischievous, it was time for it to die, and, as they say of dying people, all its faults came out. (220)
This operates in the passive mode: Feudalism’s time had come, and so it had to die. Indeed, Emerson talks of the transition as the result of a beneficent power whose results are independent of human efforts. Trade, which replaces feudalism, is equally “but for a time” (221); it too must one day die.
But activity comes into the picture, for humans cannot help but act, and, being the pathologically reflective beings we are, we cannot help but obsess over how best to act. So Emerson says,
Our part is plainly not to throw ourselves across the track, to block improvement, and sit till we are stone, but to watch the uprise of successive mornings, and to conspire with the new works of new days. (221)
We have, then, an active role to play in bringing about the death of what needs to die. Yes, this is like watching the sun rise each morning: things will manage without our help, but nonetheless we ought to actively conspire with these new works.
There is a venerable tradition of likening the mind to a city, and I suggest that something of the sort is going on under the surface of this essay. By which I mean that really it is not going on in this essay at all (that I found, at least), but that it is a natural way of reading the essay if the rest of Emerson’s work is kept in mind. For Emerson conceives our selves as very much like institutions. The self is created in the creative act, the experimental act that expands the boundaries of what came before. But as the self congeals, as it grows mischievous, it comes time for it to die, and our task is not to throw ourselves across the track to save it, but to hasten its death and draw around ourselves a new self.
When is it time for an institution—whether social or mental—to die? What is it for such an institution to grow mischievous? I think we can extract an answer from a comment Emerson makes late in the essay.
Instead of the open future expanding here before the eye of every boy to vastness, would they like the closing in of the future to a narrow slit of sky, and that fast contracting to be no future? (228-9)
When there lies in front of us an open future expanding to vastness, all is well. But when the future contracts first to a narrow slit and then to nothing, then it is time to die. As Kafka puts it, in his “Little Fable” (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 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.