Monday, 27 January 2014

Michelle Woods: Kafka Translated

Franz Kafka is the most commonly listed writer in a study of online dating profiles, followed by Milan Kundera and Paolo Coelho. Kafka has his own adjective and, as Michelle Woods points out in her fascinating Kafka Translated, has even made it into The Wire. You can't get much bigger. And yet Kafka made it big in English via a series of translators. Woods sets out to make those translators a little more visible, and to explore other aspects of translation in and of the writer's work. Her book's tagline is How Translators have Shaped our Reading of Kafka.

She begins with his first translator, into Czech in this case, Milena Jesenská. Many readers know of her through the collection of Kafka's Letters to Milena. I read these letters once, only once, and then tucked them away safely on the shelf because I knew I ought never to read them again. Love letters between a writer and his translator. They can't be un-read and it's an idea a translator would probably do better not to have in her head. Too late. Jesenská's side of the correspondence has been lost, and she remains so invisible to this day that she rarely warrants a surname. Woods tells us how she has been dismissed as a "bad translator" by all sorts of people who don't read Czech, and romanticized by novelists. Her story as Kafka's lover and a victim of the Nazis is inviting but is rarely told with her as an active protagonist. Being a reader of Czech, Woods goes some way to redeeming Jesenská's translations and certainly lends her a voice of her own, as a journalist and translator. She also gives us some fascinating information on the literary climate in which Kafka's Czech translations were first published - a new nation interested in writing experiments and new styles, with much scope for non-domesticating translation.

The next maligned woman in the plot is Willa Muir. Like Jesenská, Muir led a ground-breaking life of her own accord, growing up in poverty in the Shetlands, being one of the first women to attend a British university, moving to Europe and then London and attempting to make a feminist idea of marriage work. What Woods does in her book is provide convincing evidence that Kafka's first translations into English were not done by Edwin Muir and his wife, but by Willa Muir with occasional assistance from her husband. The Muir translations have been subject to a lot of criticism (there's a pattern arising here) for their smoothing-out and domesticating, along with other petty things like their use of allegedly Scottish words. Woods is not naive; she admits that much of this criticism is legitimate – although some of the blame can be placed on Max Brod for his posthumous sanitizing of Kafka through the editing process. What she does here, however, is show that Willa Muir was probably perfectly aware of what she was doing and chose to domesticate because that was what publishers at the time wanted. Sometimes, I'm afraid, they still do. Based on Muir's diaries and an unpublished, thinly disguised autobiographical novel, Woods unearths a fiercely intelligent woman who was translating to feed her family and hated some of the work – notably Feuchtwanger – but loved some of it too, even though it kept her from her own writing. Also, she was very funny indeed.

Woods moves on to living translators, starting with the Irish-born Mark Harman, who pressed Schocken to publish his re-translations of Das Schloß and Amerika because of the drawbacks to the Muir versions. In this section, she focuses partly on the way a translator's own language and reading colour their work. Harman is a Kafka scholar and a great fan of Samuel Beckett, who apparently found Kafka difficult and said that he wrote "like a steamroller". Here, Woods traces the tiny impressions left in Harman's Kafka by Beckett, and looks at the issue of "mid-Atlantic English", something I'm not sure exists. Certainly, it's not a language I can produce, but Harman seems to think he can, having lived in the States for many years. It's in this part that Woods introduces us to an indirect argument between two writer-critics, Milan Kundera and J.M. Coetzee. Both of them have grumpily critiqued Kafka translations, something many writers seem to enjoy doing, as Woods reveals by the by. Coetzee is the baddy, arguing in the case of Harman's The Castle that the translator ought to have tidied things up more towards the end, been less stylistically faithful. When it comes to Michael Hofmann, however, Coetzee finds his Joseph Roth translations not faithful enough. Kundera meanwhile argues that it's important for translators to render not into conventional good French, or English, but to show the author's transgressions against accepted style. To his credit, while this may seem utterly obvious, he did write it in 1996.

The section on Michael Hofmann was the most exciting reading, for me. I have had a problem with Michael Hofmann for a while, presumably founded on envy pure and simple. It's a little late in this review to admit it, but I've only ever read two translations of Kafka, and those were two versions of Ein Landarzt by Michael Hofmann and by Joyce Crick, both built into Will Self's magnificent digital essay "Kafka's Wound". I absolutely adore Hofmann's version. It is playful and stylish and it embellishes very slightly to make up for anything that may have been lost along the way. Whereas Crick's is the translation students ought to read, because it's more accurate and sober. I loved Hofmann's voice as Irmgard Keun in Child of All Nations, and in general I am all too willing to admit that Michael Hofmann is an outstanding translator. I suppose the non-envy part of the problem must be that I don't share his literary taste, with a few exceptions. Michelle Woods contests that his taste is what makes him stand out as a translator, and I found that very interesting. Because he has in fact translated a large swathe of mid-twentieth-century German-speaking men whose work doesn't grab me in the slightest. Which has the major advantage of leaving contemporary writers for the rest of us. I do think there is a kind of translator typecasting at play to some extent, whereby certain translators end up doing historical fiction, some will do classics, one will do racy contemporary novels by young writers, and so on. The subject was discussed by readers at Vishy's Blog last November, and it was interesting to think about how much choice translators have in the matter. Hofmann, at least, speaks of his own "imprimatur" and his wish that people will see his name on a book cover and buy a translation on the strength of that. I think in a small way that already happens.

Woods conducted an interview with Hofmann, which helps matters further by making him seem less pompous than in some of his critical writing. I was most relieved, after about a hundred pages of translation comparisons highlighting euphony and metre and the use of plosives, to find that Hofmann is often motivated by impatience and that he tackles his translations instinctively. Those daring translatorial choices of his that I so much admire are not the result of hours of weighing up and syllable-counting but spur-of-the-moment decisions. So despite being closer to Willa Muir in terms of financial constraints on my work, I now feel I can genuinely aspire to translate as playfully as Hofmann, when the occasion allows. Where he details his working philosophy in the interview, I find myself nodding:
Everything I do is on a case-by-case basis. The degree to which a book is left in German or all goes into English – I call it the schapps or wurst (or brandy or sausage) question. Whereabouts on the Anglo-American continuum it goes.
And elsewhere, he wrote something I find equally inspiring and close to my own emerging understanding of translation as a utopian project. Woods quotes him as describing translation as "a mode of reading so sympathetic and transitive that the outcome is a wholly new work, it's hunch and nerve and (my own muse) impatience. It's approaching the avowed-impossible, and shrugging your shoulders and just getting on with it." Yes.

There is much more in Kafka Translated but the second half focuses on Kafka's reception, which is of less specific interest here – although well worth reading. For me, the first half is an inspiring read for all those interested in translation. Woods is inherently sympathetic to the translator as a creative individual and has done us all a good turn by shining a light on four of the people who have indeed shaped our reading. She argues that what critics often launch upon as "mistakes" are almost always conscious decisions and should be respected as such. I devoured the book in one day and would wholly recommend it to general readers as well as translators, if only it weren't so expensive. for those interested in exploring translation decisions for themselves, Susan Bernofsky's exciting-looking new The Metamorphosis is more affordable.


Alexandra Roesch said...

Hi Katy,

Thanks for this posting. Really interesting subject area.
I particularly enjoyed your comments on Hofmann. I wrote a paper a couple of weeks ago for university on his translation of Schloss Gripsholm. Although he did an excellent job of it (I think it was his first ever published translation back then), I was really disappointed with his treatment of dialogue. The central female character speaks a lot of Plattdeutsch throughout the novel and his way of dealing with it was to ignore completely, just using standard English. Not ideal I felt, but it made an interesting case study.
I will look into obtaining the book on Kafka when feeling flush - hopefully at some point soon ...
Take care

symlink said...

Thanks for the review, Katie!

Re cost: The book is already in the libraries, I see by the online catalogue.

Re Milena Jesenská's translations, it's worth remembering that Kafka, who was something of an expert on Kafka's work, *did* read Czech, and he thought they were great. But of course he was chatting her up.

See you


kjd said...

Good point, T. Woods makes it too. Thanks!

Alex, I think the dialect question is a very vexed one, almost impossible to solve. Here's a great article about William Weaver's "solution":

TranslatorPhillips said...

Hi Katie. This is rather off-topic but I wondered whether you can give some advice. I lived and worked in Berlin in the 1970s, and Hannover in the 80s and 90s. When I'm not (part time) translating DE>EN texts, mostly in the defence/military sector, I'm currently translating short stories about dissident schoolboy and post-failed-escape prison experiences in the GDR. My previous experience of literary translation dates back to Oxford Uni forty years ago! Do you know of an online forum or blog where I may learn from DE>EN literary translators like yourself?

kjd said...

Sorry to take so long to reply, TranslatorPhillips - school holidays. I don't know of an online forum of the kind you're looking for, but I'd recommend you contact the Emerging Translators' Network in the UK:

Good luck!