Translating Kafka / Kafka auf Englisch

My attention has been directed (thanks, Trevor) to an entry in a Guardian Unlimited blog by Lee Rourke, headed ‘What goes into a great translation?‘ and dealing with Michael Hofmann’s new translations of Kafka.

The difference is noticeable from the very first line, so immediate are Hofmann’s translations. For instance, and to use Kafka’s most famous opening sentence, here’s Hofmann’s offering:
“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.”
Compare this to any previous translation, and you’ll see, for a start, that there is no dilly-dallying with style; the prose is swift, direct and without obfuscation, as, one presumes, Kafka intended.

Now a new translation every couple of decades may be a good idea, but the way this is phrased does tend to throw a ripple through one’s BS detectors. Kafka writes a plain sentence – were those other translators so wide of the mark? And the praise of the term cockroach also seems misplaced.

It is the word “cockroach” that tickles me the most. At first it seems incongruous (as pointed out in Nicholas Lezard’s recent Guardian review). But it is clever. In the original Prague-German, Kafka uses the word “ungeziefer” which literally translates as “vermin”. Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual. Hofmann could have used the word “vermin” but, though still denoting something to be looked down upon, it would have taken us away from the crucial image of the insect (although it is interesting to note that when Kafka contemplated his story being illustrated he envisaged a picture of a man lying in the bed and not an insect). So Hofmann uses the word “cockroach”, the duality of which is unmissable. A brilliant stroke.

Hmph. It’s a problem for the translator that Ungeziefer is rather unspecific and leaves the reader to create an image. But the later behaviour of the insect implies it can eat some things that Gregor turned his nose up a couple of days earlier, but other things it can’t eat, whereas a cockroach could presumably eat anything. It has the sense of vermin, but not the sense of vulnerability. Beetle or bug would make more sense.

So this entry has produced some great comments, starting with Killigan:

“as, one presumes, Kafka intended” … That “one presumes” kind of undercuts the grand evaluative pronouncements on the quality of the translation. Have you read him in German?
“It is, most importantly, Kafkaesque.” Was Kafka’s writing Kafkaesque in the first place? That adjective means something along the lines of “nightmarish, alienated, dark”, a reduction or distortion which completely overlooks the matter of Kafka’s style or non-style, which is what you would have it refer to.
“Particles”, and especially “the very particles”, sounds suspiciously like literary pretension itself. What charlatan said that? Deleuze, perchance?

I love the ‘Kafkaesque’ remark. Can I manage to be Marksesque?

Killigan quotes Nabokov on the cockroach question in great detail. Rourke replies somewhat lamely, ‘I have read this story many times; it was never Kafka’s intention for the reader to take this tale literally (you know that).’ If literalness doesn’t matter, why don’t we translate it as a spider, then? Cockroach shmockroach.

I can’t say anything about Hofmann’s translation, but there are a number of the less famous renderings of the first sentence here. And although one may quibble (vermin isn’t countable in my English [actually, it’s a collective plural – see comments]), none of them look as if they greatly embroidered the text.

As for the rest of Kafka’s work, which Hofmann has apparently also translated, it should be of interest that the Muirs, for instance, did not have the original text at hand. I remember hearing that Malcolm Pasley gave a talk on Kafka – in the 1950s – and afterwards a woman came up to him and said she had a suitcase of Kafka manuscripts in the attic. Which Pasley published, and it made him. In Wikipedia, scroll down to Publications and dates. And it says of the translations:

After Pasley and Schillemeit completed their recompilation of the German text, the new translations were completed and published — The Castle, Critical by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998), The Trial, Critical by Breon Mitchell (Schocken Books, 1998) and Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared by Michael Hoffman (New Directions Publishing, 2004). These editions are often noted as being based on the restored text.

That’s where Hofmann is interesting, when he translates the pre- or post-Brod versions of The Trial, The Castle and America.

Trevor found this via Conversational Reading, which has had a couple of interviews of literary translators this month and will be having more.

15 thoughts on “Translating Kafka / Kafka auf Englisch

  1. This kind of stuff used to bother Franz terribly. I remember once he came into the kneipe, knocked back three double mussorgskies on the rockskies, and started weeping and messing up his herr (let’s save his love life for some other time). “Trevor,” he cried, “I try and I try, but I fear that what I write is not truly Kafkaesque as we have discussed in the writers’ circle in the attic above the meat market.” We tried to console him, but he switched to straight dreisers and in the end we just closed and left him to it. When we came back the next morning, he’d turned into a giant slug and was raving about how this would be his breakthrough, but his memory was already shot to pieces and by the time he came to write it up all he could remember was some goddamn ungeziefer. And the rest has been lost in translation.

  2. I’m wondering what Hofmann meant by ‘particles’. Might he not have meant those small words in German with no real equivalent in English? Rourke writes,
    ‘He has cut through literary pretension to seek out the heart of Kafka’s work – the very “particles” of his writing, as they have been called.’
    Killigan takes him up on it, and Rourke replies, ‘”Particles” that be Hofmann himself, I think.’

    That would be a complete misunderstanding.

  3. “(vermin isn’t countable in my English)”

    The word has a long history of use as a non-collective singular; the OED has citations running from Chaucer to Scott (1809, the latest I could find). There must be some dynamic that has since moved it into the same category as ‘scum’ and ‘slime’.

    The US and dialectal variant ‘varmint’ is certainly countable, but its connotations today would be all wrong for Ungeziefer. (Hunters shoot prairie dogs and other cute innocent critters with small-calibre ‘varmint rifles’.)


  4. Actually, Bob, I misspoke: vermin is a plural in modern BE, so a collective, comparable with ‘people’ rather than with uncountables. I do associate varmint with westerns and an American ‘accent’. Apparently it used to be used in BE to refer to naughty children. Is that why prairie dogs stand and look at you, so you can get your sights on them?

    I had a quick look at the OED and they do accept ‘a vermin’ in the sense of ‘a class of noxious animals’. So it would be OK. They also accept it in a singular sense (‘The landlord is an outcast, and a vermin so horrible’ 1881). I would have thought it was obsolete in that sense, as you seem to think too.

    In the Kafka translations, it did happen to be someone with a very German name who translated it that way, so I just assumed ‘non-native English’.

  5. “Lieber xyz,

    ja sorry, aber war so bussy! Ich sende von meinem privaten account gleich den side letter.”

    Ich vermute, dass sich die deutschsprachigen Schreiber hinter der englischen Sprache verstecken. Sie vermeiden die Muehe einer zutreffenden Wortwahl. Wenn der englische Begriff verfehlt ist, koennen sie sagen, sorry, Englisch sei nicht ihre Muttersprache.

    Mit “sorry” wird der Verantwortungsgehalt heruntergespielt, der im Begriff “bitte entschuldige” oder gar “Verzeihung” steckt.

    Hier – in den USA – wuerde ein der Entschuldigung entsprechender Begriff vom Empfaenger als Aufrichtigkeit geschaetzt.

    Bildet sich vielleicht fuer “sorry” ein Bedeutungsunterschied wie bei “handy”?

    Wie immer vielen Dank fuer die Hinweise auf Begriffe, die das Leben/Lesen holpriger als noetig machen – und natuerlich die koestliche Datumsfehlerteufellektion.

  6. This may explain the somewhat strange date notation Margaret….obviously Amazon and partner companies have transitioned from the Gregorian calendar to the Stardate system…

    Stardate in Wikipedia


  7. Ich finde Teufel, die “zuschlagen”, genau so unintutiv wie solche, die “sich einschleichen”.

    Otherwise, I’d have nothing to remark about “sorry”. It’s like “OK” and “ciao” — perfectly assimilated into German, innit?

  8. Hello,

    I read your article with great interest; it’s great to see intelligent debate sprouting from my little piece on Kafka/Hofmann. I’m truly touched. But of all the responses I have read not one has picked up on the word “tickled” in my article . . . surely this denotes my true feelings on the usage of the English “Cockroach” by Hofmann? And, more importantly, how I knew it would pique the interest of many people.

    You find my responses “lame” well, maybe, it’s just that pedants leave me uninspired. And like most things it’s all a bit meaningless really.


    Lee Rourke x

  9. “My name is Lee Rourke and I write cobblers, although I may not be aware of it at the time,” is what you may be struggling to say.

    Love and kisses to all etc etc

  10. As for the lame responses, fair enough – one cannot react to everything off the cuff.
    Since this blog has no means of displaying the latest comments and comments are closed soon to avoid spam, comments usually die. Until I migrate. If anyone has any further comments and finds the comment function turned off, they can always email me and I will post and reopen. But then again, no-one else will know…

  11. Thanks Trevor (I’ve always liked that name),

    I’m off home to slit my throat now.

    Hey, if you want to send me something less terse my email is:

    If not, then a guess this is good-bye.

    Toodle-pip, pipsqueak!

    lee x

  12. “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from some disquieting dreams he found himself lying in his bed transformed into a vile insect, one of gigantic proportions.” – One Sentence does not a book make, Essential Kafka (new transl. by yours truly) has 9 Stories & 3 Excerpts)great ‘chapters’ from The Trial & The Castle) >> So, if you want an essentially better translation, you might try this one – and the price from is quite reasonable too. – yours Sincerely, P.L.

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