At first glance, The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen’s English translation of two essays by the prolific Austrian cultural critic, translator, antiwar activist, and “apocalyptic satirist” Karl Kraus (1874-1936), seems an unusual undertaking for the award-winning author of The Corrections. Yet Franzen holds a Ph.D. in [End Page 87] German and, as he notes, first encountered the essays translated here, “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912) in graduate school. Enriched by over a subsequent decade of literary creativity in other fields, his work is a valuable companion to English-language literary and cultural historians of prewar Austria, translation studies, literary theorists, and general scholarship in German Studies. Given Franzen’s visibility on the American literary scene, this work also serves to (re-)introduce one of interwar Europe’s most powerful and inscrutable intellects to a wider English-speaking audience. Finally, those interested in Franzen’s intellectual development will find in the personal footnotes and asides an enrichment of his 2007 memoir The Discomfort Zone.
Critics often claim it is much easier to read about Karl Kraus in English than to read his work in English itself, as his linguistic style and cultural allusions are so tied to a specific Viennese idiom and difficult to reimagine in English a century later. Of course, English translations and scholarly treatments of Kraus’ work do exist, but only sporadic attention has been paid to him over the past several decades, and only selected portions of his considerable output are available in English. Kraus scholarship has, broadly speaking, occurred in the USA in two waves: Initial scholarly essays and translations in the 1970’s (such as those by Harry Zohn and Carl Schorske), many now out of print, and a second, more vibrant period from the mid-1990’s to the present (including scholars and translators such as Edward Timms, Jonathan McVity, and Thomas Szasz). Yet no comprehensive English edition of the works of Karl Kraus has yet been created. Franzen notes the Kraus texts in his book have “hitherto frightened off English translators” (5), and both are indeed the first published English renditions of these essays. Therefore, they represent a further, welcome increase in number of primary texts on Kraus in English.
Additionally, Franzen’s versions effectively disprove the oft-stated notion that Kraus is untranslatable, deftly demonstrating effective renditions are indeed possible given enough time to thoroughly untangle the elegant phrasing of Kraus’ German and reassemble it in English. What is particularly remarkable is that Kraus’ essays also contain excerpts of poetry and prose from some of Germany’s greatest literary artists, including Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Johann Nestroy. Franzen expertly renders these stylistically appropriately, comparing well to the official, standard versions in English anthologies. Franzen’s artistry (and confidence!) is also well-displayed in that the edition is dual-language, i.e. the German source text is on the left-facing pages and Franzen’s translations are on the right-facing pages. Thus anyone who notes “errors” in his version is free to attempt to do better and instantly compare these to Franzen’s work.
Two passages in the translation can stand in for many others which demonstrate [End Page 88] how artfully Franzen renders a combination of Kraus’ rare sentimentality with his more typical acerbic wit. Writing of the iconic German Romantic author Heine, Kraus’ words are rendered by Franzen as: “The memory of how the garden smelled when your first love walked through it is of general concern to the culture only if you are a poet. You’re free to overvalue the occasion, if you’re capable of making a poem out of it” (65). Writing of Nestroy, the somewhat forgotten Austrian playwright, Franzen has Kraus stating: “There are words on every page of Nestroy that burst open the tomb into which estrangement from art has thrown him, and that go for the throats of the gravediggers. Full of datedness, an ongoing protest against the people who are up to date” (221). Even without the larger context of each...