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"Digging the Pit of Babel": Retranslating Franz Kafka's Castle

From: New Literary History
Volume 27, Number 2, Spring 1996
pp. 291-311 | 10.1353/nlh.1996.0022

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“Digging the Pit of Babel”:
Retranslating Franz Kafka’s Castle*

Recently I completed a new translation of Kafka’s splendidly enigmatic novel The Castle. The only other English translation, by Edwin and Willa Muir, first appeared in 1930, only six years after Kafka’s premature death in a sanitarium outside Vienna.

Translation is a complex issue, and retranslation doubly so. That is no doubt why the reviewers of new translations of modern works often sound confused. Take, for instance, the reception accorded in the New York Times Book Review a couple of years ago to two new translations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The reviewer was Richard Lourie, who has translated many works from Russian and might therefore seem qualified to pass judgment. However, in the first paragraph Lourie makes a startling statement that ought to have made him think twice before agreeing to write the review. After revealing that he devoured Constance Garnett’s rendering of Crime and Punishment at the age of twenty but had only recently read the novel in Russian, he adds: “Of course, the original read at the age of fifty could never shake you like a translation read at twenty.” 1 Lourie’s admission that he prefers Garnett’s English to Dostoevsky’s Russian perhaps explains why he then speaks kindly of Garnett, severely criticizes the authors of the new translations, and concludes—in the language of an Olympic adjudicator—that nobody has yet won the gold.

Lourie’s praise for Constance Garnett is rather odd. After all, she has come to symbolize Victorian bowdlerizing at its most crass. She can even be seen on stage in Christopher Durang’s farce The Idiots Karamazov, which pokes fun at her maltreatment of Russian novelists. The gray-haired lady seated all evening in the wings, eavesdropping on the characters, is none other than Garnett. Visibly riled by the antics [End Page 291] unfolding center-stage, she repeatedly intervenes in an effort to impose her strict British standards on the coarse-mouthed Russians.

The new Kafka translations currently being prepared under the direction of Arthur H. Samuelson at Schocken Books, a division of Random House, are not an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, ours could be called a great era for retranslation—witness the new renderings of Mann, Musil, and Proust that have either appeared recently or are underway. Publishers have, of course, their own reasons for commissioning these new translations. Sometimes it is simply a question of acting before the copyright on the old translation runs out. Another more intriguing reason is the widespread dissatisfaction in literary circles with the first translators of the great modernists, whose sense of style had been formed by nineteenth-century literature and who therefore often failed to capture the modernist idiom.

Nowadays, most reputable practitioners of literary translation have a different conception of the art than that which held sway in the early decades of this century. 2 It is high time for all of us—translators, critics, and readers—to acknowledge this change in the paradigm governing the practice of the craft. Those of us who set about retranslating the modernists endeavor to render the tone of the original with greater accuracy than that sought or even desired by our predecessors, whose priorities lay elsewhere.

The efforts of the first English translators of the modernists were, of course, highly effective. Thanks to their elegant renditions, countless English-speaking readers gained access to important modernists. Given the barriers facing all foreign-language authors in a culture as notoriously self-sufficient as is the Anglo-American one, that is in itself a remarkable achievement. However, it is clear now that the ease with which these authors were naturalized points to a weakness in the translations themselves. The first translators were often more interested in making their translations conform to traditional aesthetic criteria, for example, elegance, vividness, smoothness of texture, than in the painstaking effort to echo the prose style of the original. They had no qualms about introducing grace notes to compensate for aesthetic “deficiencies” in the original. As a result, their versions often smuggle in through the back door of translation the very prose style that the modernists...