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.
As Adrian del Caro, at the end of his translation of Beyond Good and Evil (Stanford University Press), chose to preserve the rhyme scheme of the ending “Nachgesang” at the expense of Nietzsche’s meaning,** I thought I would try my hand at a literal, deliberately artless translation. (Adrian del Caro did not attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter, rendering his translation accidentally artless.)
**I give an example after I give my own translation.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
From high Mountains.
Oh life’s midday! Festive time!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
Where do you stay friends? Come! It’s time! It’s time!
Was it not for you that the glacier’s grey
…..Today adorns itself with roses?
You the brook seeks, longingly rushes,
The wind and clouds thrust higher today into blue
To peer at you from more distant bird’s view.
In the highest place, for you was my table covered: –
…..Who dwells so near the stars
Who near the abyss’ greyest distance?
My realm – what realm has stretched itself wider?
And my honey – who has tasted it? . . . . .
– There you are, friends! – Woe, then I am not
…..The one you wanted?
You hesitate, marvel – ach, better if you resented!
I – am no longer? Swapped hand, step, face?
And what I am, you friends – I am not?
I became another? And foreign to myself?
…..Sprung from myself?
A wrestler who too often vanquished himself?
Too often braced himself against his own force,
Through his own victory wounded and obstructed?
I searched where the wind blows most sharply?
…..I learned to dwell
Where no one dwells, in barren polar bear zones,
Unlearned man and God, curse and prayer?
Became a ghost, that over glaciers goes?
– You old friends! Look! Now you look pale,
…..Full of love and horror!
No, leave! Rage not! Here – you could not reside:
Here between remotest realms of ice and rock –
Here one must be hunter and chamois-like.
A wickeder hunter I became! – Look, how steeply
…..My bow tenses!
It was the strongest who drew such a draw – – [der solchen Zug gezogen]
But woe now! Dangerous is this arrow,
Like no arrow, – away from here! For your health! . . . . .
You turn? – Oh heart, you carried enough,
…..Stark remained your hope:
For new friends hold your doors open!
The old ones leave! Leave the memory!
Once were you young, now – be better young!
What ever knotted us, a band of hope, –
…..Who reads the signs,
That love once inscribed, yet pallid?
To parchment I compare it, that the hand
Dreads to grasp, – like it browned, burned.
No longer friends, they are – yet how can I call them?
That knock at night on my heart and window,
That inspect me and say: “yet we were?” –
– Oh wilted word, that once like roses smelled!
Oh youth’s yearning that misunderstood itself!
…..For which I yearned,
That I imagined related, converted to myself,
That they became old has removed their charm:
Only who changes himself remains related to me.
Oh life’s midday! Second youth!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
The new friends! Come! It’s time! It’s time!
* * *
This song is over, – wistfulness’ sweeter cry
…..Died in the mouth:
A magician did it, a friend at the right time,
The midday-friend – no! Ask not who it was –
It was around midday that one became two . . . . .
Now we celebrate, confident victory unites,
…..The feast of feasts:
Friend Zarathustra came, the guest of guests!
Now laughs the world, the horrid curtain tears,
The wedding came for light and eclipse . . . . .
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Comment: an example of del Caro sacrificing Nietzsche’s meaning to the rhyme scheme.
In the fourth stanza, the poet begins to worry that he is no longer himself, and this theme dominates the fifth stanza. In the final four lines of that stanza, Nietzsche suggests a causal mechanism by which this change of identity occurred:
Ein Andrer ward ich? Und mir selber fremd?
…..Mir selbst entsprungen?
Ein Ringer, der zu oft sich selbst bezwungen?
Zu oft sich gegen eigne Kraft gestemmt,
Durch eignen Sieg verwundet und gehemmt
Del Caro translates these lines as follows:
I have become someone else? Strange to me?
…..From me unseated?
A wrestler by himself pinned and defeated?
Who strained against himself too forcefully?
Wounded and blocked by his own victory?
The first line is fine, though awkward, as is the last. The three lines in the middle, however, are all problematic. I’ll go through each in turn.
In the second line, Nietzsche uses the verb ‘entsprungen’, literally ‘sprung from’. This suggests not only that the narrator has become someone else, but further that he was himself the agent of this change. Del Caro changes this to ‘unseated’, which carries no such connotation – if anything, it suggests that it was some external force that caused the change. At best, del Caro loses an important implication, such that the line contains no information not contained in the previous line, and thus becomes redundant, distending the poem. At worst, del Caro has inserted a meaning into the poem that is opposite to what Nietzsche intended.
The next line confirms this implication of Nietzsche’s verb choice. Here del Caro’s choice of ‘defeated’ is fine, though he needlessly adds in an additional verb (‘pinned’) with no source in Nietzsche. More problematically, del Caro changes the tense of the sentence, from active – “a wrestler who too often vanquished himself” – to passive: “by himself pinned and defeated.” Where Nietzsche (again) highlights the agency involved in the narrator’s transformation, del Caro again makes it sound like something that just happens to the narrator from “outside.” Del Caro sneaks the agency back in with the “by himself,” but the force of this is attenuated. Finally, the extra verb is not only absent from Nietzche’s poem, it also means del Caro has no space to include Nietzsche’s “zu oft” (“too often”). What Nietzsche very clearly indicates is something that occurs multiple times, del Caro gives the impression was a single event.
The following line afforded del Caro a chance to rectify this mistake, as it contains another “Zu oft,” but del Caro did not avail himself of the opportunity. Instead, he switched the “too” over to a later adverb: “strained […] too forcefully.” But in fact this adverb never appears in the German. What Nietzsche actually says is that the wrestler “braced himself against his own force.” This identifies the wrestler’s “own force” (“eigne Kraft”) as the object of struggle. In del Caro’s translation, however, the object of the struggle is just “himself.” In Nietzsche’s original, the line adds new information: in vanquishing himself, he had to set himself against his own force. But in del Caro’s translation, there is once more, at best, no new information. We simply hear, again, that he’s struggling with himself. At worst, there is new information, but not that which Nietzsche wanted to convey: del Caro’s translation suggests that the cause of the change was the application of too much force, when really it is the result of the struggle occurring too often.
What is gained by these changes? The idea, I suppose, is that something of Nietzsche’s artistry is preserved. There is, in translation, always a trade-off between style and sense, and I can understand sacrificing some nuances of sense to style, though my own taste (if not talent) in translation leans Nabokovian. However, I don’t believe that is actually going on here. Preserving the rhyme scheme does not at all preserve Nietzsche’s artistry.
Consider: a different poet who writes a different poem in the same rhyme scheme does not in any sense share Nietzsche’s artistry. Whatever the meaning to be expressed, any talentless pseudo-poet can find a way to make it answer to a rhyme scheme. It is not the answering to a rhyme scheme that makes the poem, but the specific rhymes chosen. And the exact rhymes Nietzsche chose by definition cannot be translated, since they involve German words. All of the rhymes in del Caro’s translation belong to del Caro alone, even if they are constrained, very loosely indeed, by Nietzsche’s original.
Moreover, if one is to preserve something of the formal scheme to which Nietzsche’s poem answers, surely it should be to the meter. After all, as del Caro notes in his translator’s afterword, so much of Nietzsche’s writing is its tempo. The meter is a major instrument of tempo in a poem, yet del Caro makes no attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter. (I do not have a good enough feel for the sound of German to confidently spell out this meter, but it is obvious that it has a metric base. For instance, lines two and three of each stanza generally consist of an iamb followed by an amphibrach.) Instead, del Caro’s translation is all over the map. Just looking at the stanza thus far considered, his translation of the first line is top-heavy, while his translation of the third line is oddly lilting in a way that does not fit with the meaning.
So what, then, is gained? There is a trade-off made, but it is not between Nietzsche’s sense and his style. Instead, it is between Nietzsche’s sense and del Caro’s style. I get a sense of del Caro’s quality as a poet (you may infer what I think), but at a cost. There is, moreover, a second trade-off: between Nietzsche’s style and del Caro’s style. For there are aspects of Nietzsche’s poetic sensibility that do translate, e.g. his use of repetitions and his non-redundancy. By preserving the rhyme scheme, del Caro is forced to eliminate repetitions and neuter lines to the point of redundancy.
When I was first reading Nietzsche, before I knew any German, I believed that Nietzsche simply was not a very good poet. That belief, I am now convinced, was entirely an artifact of my having read English translations that choose to preserve the dubious façade of rhyme over the poetry involved. This is not to say that I now believe Nietzsche was a good poet – my German is not competent for that. (Aside: I hope any readers of this post will keep in mind what the translation I offered above is, namely, an exercise that may help me to one day be a competent reader of German.) But it is to say that I wish translators would make less egotistical decisions when translating Nietzsche’s poetry.
Or, if they were so inclined, more egotistical decisions – i.e. the decision to write a poem that preserves all of Nietzsche’s artistic trappings, at the expense of any attempt at line-by-line correspondence (theme and “plot” are enough) – so long as they admitted that what was provided was not so much a translation as a hybrid offspring. That would be interesting, though of course such an attempt is only appropriate for a genuine poet.
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.