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Collected Stories – Franz Kafka

 
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Posted September 4, 2016 by

Collected Stories – Franz Kafka

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson            Date: 8 October 2001

It has become customary for a current translator to preface his production with a little critique of his predecessors, especially the Muirs – after all we are not supposed to put our light under a bushel, but just between you and me: a great translator is just as rare as a great author, there might be billions and quadrillions of stars in the Universe, but the nights are still dark and the zodiac shows the same old signs since the countdown began at 11.00 am on Sunday, April 27th, 3877 BC. (central European time). Perhaps if the pay would be better there would be more stars in the firmament over Grub street.

So, since this is not the best of all worlds, only the best of all possible worlds, if not the only possible world, we better brace ourselves for surprises when a latter day translator of some repute allows to compare the “Country Doctor,” perhaps Kafka’s finest achievement, in his new version, with the established rendition of the Muirs. The very first sentence draws the line. Neugroshel (“The Metamorphosis, in the Penal Colony, and Other Stories”) thinks he knows better than the author and trims the sentence to bite-size:

“I was in a great predicament: an urgent trip lay ahead of me; a dangerously ill patient awaited me in a village ten leagues away; a heavy blizzard filled the vast space between me and him; I did have a wagon, lightweight, with large wheels, just the right kind of wagon for our country roads. Bundled up in my fur coat, holding my instrument bag, I stood in the courtyard, ready to travel; but the horse was lacking, the horse.”

But Kafka didn’t write for the “Toronto Star” and felt no obligation to chop his sentences to anemic tidbits for the weak digestion. The Muirs thought so too:

“I was in great perplexity, I had to start an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off; a thick blizzard of snow filled all the wide spaces between him and me; I had a gig, a light gig with big wheels, exactly right for our country roads; muffled in furs, my bag of instruments in my hand, I was in the courtyard all ready for the journey; but there was no horse to be had, no horse.”

Perhaps not the choice of words, but syntax and rhythm are incomparably closer to the original; in fact, this sentence alone deserves to be copyrighted for eternity and should oblige every succeeding translator to quote the Muirs. And why stop with the first sentence? The entire story is coming across splendidly. And by the way, the doctor used a gig, not a wagon, Mr. Neugroschel.

“Every author creates his own pedigree” says Jorge Luis Borges; and we know from Kafka’s own testimony whom he had chosen as his models. Charles Dickens’ white hot fusion of language and imagery left its mark on “America;” Flaubert taught Kafka the discipline to say extraordinary things in ordinary language and seek for the one befitting word; and late in his life, Heinrich von Kleist’s marvellous economy of structure and style left an indelible impression on Kafka. To some extent, Kafka even appreciated Friedrich Nietzsche. Just recall the rants and paragraphs of endless to-and-fro soliloquies in ‘legalese,’ Kafka’s variety of the interior monologue.

Such were, what Kafka himself had recognized as formative influences. His friend Max Brod however, preferred to add Kierkegaard to this list and to belittle Nietzsche. Brod’s view prevailed with the critics of his generation. Kafka’s work drifted into the murky neighborhood of existentialism and of nebulous metaphysics for the secular seeker. For most critics and many readers, Kafka had turned from an artist to a saint. Regrettably the Muirs picked up on this trend and this sometimes slanted their choices in the phrasing – notice “I had to start an urgent journey … :” Neugroschel was right to play it down in his rendition. Against all appearances, Kafka is not a latter day John Bunyan.

According to Stephen King (you are right, how could I sink so low) the two most important ingredients of fiction are empathy (the reader’s) and the ability to hypnotize (on the author’s part). The man is right, and Kafka does possess hypnotic powers if the reader is willing to yield to his magic. Kafka’s stories are dreams, not more real than fairy tales, and full of symbols as confusing as in a nightmare. The Muirs had enough artistic instinct to actually perceive that, and all things considered, produced a translation, which will remain the standard for still a very long time to come.

Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories
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