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Translation: Die Wahrheit über Sancho Panza [Kafka]

2014/10/05 2 comments

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.

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Translation: The Silence of the Sirens

2013/11/18 2 comments

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.

Dying at the right time

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.

All translations are evil I: addendum

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

All Translations are Evil I: Kafka

2013/07/28 13 comments

A friend of mine once explained to me the two unbreakable rules of reading translated works (particularly literary works). They are: (1) Do not ever, under any circumstances, read translations. (2) Since you will not follow the first rule, make sure you get the best translation available. This summer, I’ve been learning to read German, and the experience has made me realize the full force of the first rule. I want to give an example that I’ve encountered; a case where a translation has wreaked havoc on the original text. The moral—don’t read translations—is old hat. But I hope the route taken to get there may be of some interest.

Franz Kafka wrote a number of very short stories, many only a single paragraph. One of these is called “Kleine Fabel” (Little Fable). The translation I know is by Willa and Edwin Muir, and that’s what I want to look at here.

First, the German text (Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen, Anaconda Verlag, p. 502):

“Ach”, sagte die Maus, “die Welt wird enger mit jedem Tag. Zuerst war sie so breit, daß ich Angst hatte, ich life weiter und war glücklich, daß ich endlich rechts und links in der Ferne Mauern sah, aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu, daß ich schon im letzten Zimmer bin, und dort im Winkel steht die Falle, in die ich laufe.” – “Du mußt nur die Laufrichtung ändern”, sagte die Katze und fraß sie.

The Muir translation reads as follows (Kafka, Complete Stories, Schocken Books):

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.” “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

When I first read the story, in this translation, I could not make much sense of the cat’s advice. The image of the world getting smaller and smaller, forcing the mouse into the trap, I understood. But how could the mouse change direction? If the world is getting smaller—the sense here is that it is closing in on the mouse on all sides—what direction could it run? How could it change direction? As we shall see, not only is the sense of the cat’s question obscured, so is the full impact of the cat eating the mouse also obscured.

It turns out that the German text says not, “the world is growing smaller every day,” but rather, “the world [die Welt] is becoming [wird] narrower [enger] with every day [mit jedem Tag].” Note also that the Muir’s changed the verb from ‘becoming’ to ‘growing’.) The world “becoming narrower” and the world “growing smaller” are two quite distinct things. To grow smaller suggests, as I indicated above, to be decreasing in all dimensions. To become narrower, by contrast, suggests only that the sides are pressing together, and not that every dimension is contracting. With this change, my puzzle is resolved. When the walls narrow, it creates a path (the space between the walls) that is in effect one-dimensional: the mouse has no space to do anything except run in one or the other direction. The mouse, running in one direction, feels it must run into the trap. The cat’s advice, now perfectly sensible, is simply to run in the other direction. And Kafka’s joke is, of course, that in the other direction lies the cat: cat or trap, those are the only options.

Why should the Muirs have chosen to translate that sentence in that fashion? I confess to being somewhat at a loss, since my proposed emendation is about as close to strictly literal as a translation can be. Why introduce interpretation that makes the story less comprehensible, given that interpretative changes like that are usually justified on the grounds that they better capture the author’s “sense”? (Here I am sympathetic to Nabokov’s scathing comments on translators who prefer preserving sense to preserving literality.) The best reason I’ve come up with (other than the Hail Mary guess: the Muirs were working with a deficient German text) is that they had already used the word ‘narrow’ later in the translation, and didn’t want to use it here, since Kafka doesn’t use the same word in those two places.

For the German phrase, “aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu,” the Muirs have, “but these long walls have narrowed so quickly.” But this only raises the question: why would the Muirs translate this sentence in this fashion? Here’s what I would propose: “but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly.” The German verb ‘zueilen’ (which takes an indirect object with the preposition ‘auf’) means ‘to hasten to’. ‘Aufeinander’ contains the requisite preposition, plus ‘einander’, which means ‘one another’ or ‘each other.’ Nothing that translates as “to narrow” appears. The Muirs have replaced the very evocative sense of the walls hastening toward one another with the more mundane sense of the walls narrowing. Even worse, they have changed the tense: the German is in the present tense, but the translation is in the present perfect. This suggests that the action (the walls hastening together) is already completed, when in fact it is ongoing. The mouse does not live in a narrowed world, but a narrowing world—and the difference is not at all trivial.

If the world has completed its narrowing, then the mouse’s sense of having to run into the trap is difficult to understand. If the walls are not hastening together, why the rush? Why must the mouse run and run? If the world is stable, that seems unnecessary. We understand the mouse’s sense of compulsion if we understand that the walls are still narrowing: now we see that the mouse is running from them, trying to escape that narrowing, and feels he is being forced into the corner. That is why the cat’s advice is both pertinent and, given the cat’s subsequent action, amusing. By changing the tense, the sense of Kafka’s piece is again obscured.

The Muirs do compensate for this, when they translate, “die Falle, in die ich laufe,” as “the trap that I must run into.” In the German, there is no “must”: it simply says, “the trap, into which [in die] I [ich] am running [laufe].” In Kafka’s German, the sense of compulsion is not in the mouse’s consciousness (where the Muirs put it), but in the scenario itself. By mistranslating the scenario in a way that this sense is entirely lost, the Muirs must then replace it in the mouse’s consciousness. But that is not Kafka’s story.

Here, then, is how I’d translate the entire story:

“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.

Most of the other differences from the Muirs’ translation are fairly minor (though not necessarily trivial), and in most cases I think I am simply being more literal.

This is maybe not the best case to illustrate the general problems of translation, since I think in this case the Muirs lost Kafka’s meaning by translating non-literally where they had no need of doing so. Thus it less illustrates the principled failures of translation and more suggests that this is simply a bad translation. Nevertheless, this case (and the other Kafka stories I’ve looked at) has served to make me much more skeptical of translations than I ever was before. I paid lip service to the horrifying nature of translation, but, now that I’ve seen firsthand how it can and does go wrong, I think I shall be keeping much more strictly to my friend’s first rule and shall let the second rule rot in storage.