- Transforming Kafka: Translation Effects by Patrick O’Neill
“Global Kafka,” Patrick O’Neill writes in his introduction to his informative and suggestive book, Transforming Kafka, “is a concept founded on the centrality of translation in the worldwide literary polysystem.” O’Neill is interested in approaching Franz Kafka’s work “transtextually” by reading the stories and novels comparatively alongside the translations that constitute the polysystem, a “macrotext that is made up of that text and all its translations.” Rather than critiquing a translation of Kafka’s work and seeing it as innately separate from Kafka’s original, O’Neill astutely observes that reading transtextually will show how 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.” The book centres mainly on the opening sentences of two of Kafka’s most famous stories—“Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”)—and his three unfinished novels—Amerika, Der Prozeß (The Trial), and [End Page 409] Das Schloß (The Castle)—in chapters two to six, as well as on the indeterminacy of the aforementioned titles (chapter seven) and characters’ names (chapter eight).
Centrally refreshing in O’Neill’s book is the resistance to traditional snap judgments about translations: he baldly states that in this theoretical approach the issue of whether a translation is good or bad is irrelevant. What is at issue is “the degree to which the anticipatory hints of the German original are cumulatively reduced, repeated, extended, or ignored in the resulting multi-voiced Kafkan macrotext.” In other words, in reading a body of translations together, Kafka’s often indeterminate texts are opened up hermeneutically by what initially might seem to be “idiosyncratic readings.” For example, in the second sentence of “Das Urteil,” the protagonist is introduced as “Georg Bendemann, ein junger Kaufmann, saß in seinem Privatzimmer”: most of the English translators translate the repetition of -mann: “Georg Bendemann, a young businessman”; three French translators translate ein junger Kaufmann as un jeune négociant, “an unremarkable equivalent,” as O’Neill notes, but one that might punningly reveal the “narrative negotiations” inherent in the story. Two Spanish translators render Privatzimmer not obviously as dormitorio, but the suggestion of bedroom is an “anticipatory intertextual linkage” to the bedrooms at the beginning of “Die Verwandlung” and Der Prozeß. Much of O’Neill’s semantic transtextual archaeology is interesting, and often very revealing, but occasionally could dig in further: in the above example, we see the translators in various languages negotiating with the sound as well as the overt semantic meaning (the m, n, and s consonance).
O’Neill is right to suggest that even though his book is “limited in scope” in relation to examples, his theory and praxis of the “transtextual Kafka has a claim to be something of a portal of textual discovery”: thinking about the translations as hermeneutic tools allows us to reread Kafka with new eyes. O’Neill is heavily influenced by structuralist theory, notably Gérard Genette and (though unmentioned) Itamar Even-Zohar, and how convinced you are by his text-focused theory depends on your relationship to such schools of thought. A further engagement with translation theory (only briefly mentioned) could provide fertile ground, especially when it comes to the figure of the translator. O’Neill chooses to exclude the translator as an agent in the process because of his emphasis on textuality: the translators, he argues, are “less interesting” than what “Kafka’s extraordinary writings so powerfully provoke.” All the same, he cannot resist giving brief backgrounds to some of the more famous translators in chapter one (though some, particularly Willa Muir’s, might be updated). Reading the translators as much as their texts might be illuminative for O’Neill’s theories: these translators made certain interpretative choices at given times and for given reasons. Their relationships to language, emigration, norms, and gender and to Kafka and his work [End Page 410] only open up the suggestive material in O’Neill’s theory. In his book of beginnings, however...