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.