By Patrick O’Neill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 224 pages. $55.00.
In Transforming Kafka, Patrick O’Neill sets out to do what he has done in prior work on James Joyce: to explore various translations of key passages in order to examine the subsequent “macro text” that emerges, encompassing both the original text and the variances emerging from a variety of translations. As he explains about the related idea of what he calls such transtextuality: “The concept of transtextuality is based on the notion that the original text is in principle always extended by its individual and cumulative translations; that every translation has something unique to add to the always developing macrotext; and that transtextual attempts to read comparatively at least some aspects of that macrotext across the individual translations and individual languages involved, exploring relations between texts that are at once different and the same, can constitute a literary experiment of considerable interest” (9). By taking a close look at this macrotext, O’Neill explores how translation shapes, rearranges, and expands our understanding of the texts he examines.
Chapter One offers a useful bibliographic account of the history of translations of Kafka’s work as interest in Kafka spread across the globe. The final two chapters turn to more essayistic examinations of the significance of Kafka’s titles and the significance of their transformation in translation in the first case, and how Kafka’s play with names is affected by translation in the second. The intervening five chapters take up the following works in this order: “The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle. Each of these five chapters is organized the same way. Dividing the Kafka text—the opening of a story or longer narrative—into small linguistic segments, O’Neill typically spends a page and a half listing the various translation variants, first in English and then in various other languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch. Then he writes a few pages after each list that tweak out examples of translation effects. For example, his analyses suggest how translation choices might decrease the indeterminacy of Kafka’s German or reveal how translators create connections between Kafka’s texts in the words they choose. Translators’ choices might also emphasize thematic dichotomies in even stronger [End Page 142] fashion than they appear in the German text, or indeed function as a meta-commentary on the text. In some cases, O’Neill provides a useful summary at the end of the chapter detailing the significance of the translation effects he has examined, which helps a reader to see the bigger picture he is after. Too often, however, he neglects to provide such a concluding overview.
O’Neill distinctly states that “this book does not propose any new critical understanding of Kafka’s individual works” (4). A reader might wonder, then, what to take away from this “literary experiment.” Sometimes the analysis of translation effects seems to reveal emphases readily available in a study of the German text itself. For example, in analyzing how the first sentence of “The Judgment” has been translated, O’Neill points out how translators might differ in the representation of how Georg sees, or in the nuances of what he sees from the window, or the exact relationship with his friend in Russia. All of these questions, however, readily emerge from a close reading of the story itself.
Nonetheless, in other cases, O’Neill’s study of translation effects does open up ways of marveling anew at the complex indeterminacy of Kafka’s writing. For example, in comparing translations of “The Metamorphosis,” O’Neill examines translation choices that highlight the importance of considering whether Gregor is waking or already awake, whether he alone “finds himself” transformed or whether this is an objective reality, or whether his new body is shell-like or armored. Similarly, in examining translation choices that depict Karl Rossmann getting swept up against the ship’s rail in Amerika, readers can see how translators may, unconsciously or not, create echoes between Kafka’s texts (here to Georg’s leap over the bridge’s rail in “The Judgment...