It’s been widely reported, even in English-language papers, that a vault containing Franz Kafka’s papers was opened in Zurich yesterday, I believe in the presence of several people including one Germanist.

The Independent:

Just why it has taken so long for the hidden manuscripts to see the light of day is a story of Kafkaesque proportions in itself. Born in Prague in 1883, Franz Kafka – whose surname means “magpie” in Czech – was a little-known Jewish writer with a handful of published German stories to his name when he died.

I don’t know why we need to be told that Kafka means magpie in Czech – especially since it doesn’t, it means jackdaw. Not that I know any Czech, but Google thinks magpie might be straka.

LATER NOTE (August 2010): here is a photo of a jackdaw on Fürther Freiheit:

9 thoughts on “Kafka

  1. “Kafka” is a Germanized version of the Czech word “kavka”, which does mean jackdaw, not magpie. The thing is, once some dumb Brit comes up with a mistranslation or mispronunciation, it is quickly adopted by Americans and then it becomes the official translation and pronunciation in English speaking countries. I am convinced that this is how Kafka became to mean magpie in English.

    Another example of a Kafkaesque mistranslation would be the title of Dvorak’s so called “New World Symphony”. It is actually called “Z Noveho Sveta” in Czech which means “From the New World” in English. There is actually a big difference between the two titles, on several levels, if you use your brain. I would not be surprised if there was a dumb Brit somewhere behind this mistranslation too. I am not sure what the official title is in German translation, but in Japanese they have the correct translation “Shin Sekai Yori”, which means “From the New World”. The Japanese did not translate the title from English.

    Another example of the pernicious influence of Brits on the English language:there were many British broadcasters who were talking about Milosevic on CNN in the nineties and mispronouncing the “s” in the middle of the word as “s”, although it is actually pronounced as “sh” (palatalized) in Serbian. And since American reporters know that Brits know foreign languages, they started mispronouncing the name as well and the mispronunciation is now the official pronunciation of this name in English, although English speakers are perfectly capable of pronouncing it the right way.

    • Now just a minute – are you in a bad mood? I’ve read ‘kavka’ in books on Kafka when I was studying or teaching him, although of course his name was spelt with an F, and the normal explanation in English is ‘jackdaw’. I don’t know who’s responsible for this ‘magpie’ in the Independent – perhaps their own journalist, but I’ve never seen it before. And I’m also familiar with ‘From the New World’, which I think is what is written in the score, although maybe ‘New World Symphony’ is commonly used as a short title.

      I didn’t realize CNN used British reporters. On the few occasions I have watched it, it seems to like locals with a very strong accent when speaking English, possibly to create an air of authenticity.

      I’m sure the ‘Brits’ have had a pernicious influence on English, although the pronunciation of Milosevic is not perhaps the most striking one.

  2. I did not know that you were teaching Kafka. Whenever I saw an English translation of his name, it was “mapgie”, so I actually thought that’s what “kavka” meant in English, not that I could tell the difference between a magpie and a jackdaw, although they probably come to our backyard.

    I am not in a bad mood, just tired. I just finished a long project, endless pages of descriptions of circuit block diagrams in Japanese, it took me about two weeks and yesterday and today I was proofreading. So I’m dead tired.

    Anyway, I generally like English people, what I meant was that Americans are too quick to adopt things like translations from another language if it comes from England. And I never saw “From the New World” here, it’s always “The New World Symphony”. How do they say it in German? Aus der Neuen Welt?

    You know how they pronounce “Zeitgeist” here, right? Like a “z” in English. Do they know how to pronounce it in England?

    • Ah, well it sounded a trifle anti-British but that may just be me.
      I did a Ph.D. in German literature and 5 hours a week teaching students for a couple of years. A long time ago. I miss the close reading. And the Novelle. But not teaching Heinrich B

  3. I never heard English people pronouncing “Vorsprung durch Technik”. Should be interesting. A few years ago, Volkswagen had an ad campaign here based on the pronunciation of the word “Fahrvergnugen” by Americans. They had several variations of the ad, the best one was a sexy, leggy blonde, at least she’s the only one I can remember.

    Wil from Vienna … that must be the guy who was supposed to ride his bike to Cesky Krumlov to have a beer with me when I was there but gut stuck with a rush medical translation.

    Tell him that I said hello back and that he can leave a comment on my blog.

    • You are having fun discussions here, right? Hi Steve, it’s been a long time. Now, I wish you could just erase the bike part of our common past from you mind. I wasn’t being serious at the time. Coming from an Austrian region that has been ridiculed a lot traditionally, I am pretty much immune against jokes of this type. So I thought I could extrapolate and share the only joke I have ever heard about Czechs with you (it really is the only one I have picked up in my entire life) with impunity.

      Funny also that you should mention Milosevic here. I have a feeling it was me who brought the mispronunciation up on Flefo. Had to take some heat for it, too. That was in 1999, when Nato started dropping bombs on Belgrade.

      Sometimes it can be useful to adjust German pronunciations in English. For instance, I have often wondered (but never ventured as far as asking the question) how the name of a particularly eminent 18th-century German philosopher would be pronounced in English at school without everybody bursting out with laughter (his first name would also lend itself to abuse).

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