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Carefully constructed: The language of Franz Kafka

A few months ago I took part in a discussion of Kafka on Melvyn Bragg’s radio programme In Our Time. One of the other participants asserted that Kafka’s style describes horrific events in the emotionally deadpan tone of a bureaucrat report. This struck me immediately as wrong in lots of ways. I didn’t disagree, because time was short, and because I wouldn’t want to seem to be scoring points of a colleague. But it occurred to me that the speaker, a professor of English Literature, had probably only read Kafka in English, and only in the old translations by Willa and Edwin Muir. The Muirs’ translations are beautifully expressed (though not always accurate), but they read rather greyly, and have no doubt contributed to the view that Kafka, himself a civil servant, introduced into literature the language of bureaucracy.

Deadpan style

How true is this? It applies to passages from The Trial and The Castle where bureaucratic procedures are being satirized. So Kafka adopts the language of bureaucracy for a specific purpose. But his language isn’t otherwise unemotional. Josef K. in The Trial experiences a range of unenviable emotions, including surprise, worry, fear, curiosity, lust, annoyance, anger, and depression, all of which are clearly indicated both directly and indirectly.

When Kafka writes in a deadpan style, he again does so for a specific purpose. Take the opening sentence of The Man who Disappeared, the novel formerly known in English as America:

“As the seventeen-year-old Karl Rossmann, who had been sent to America by his poor parents because a servant-girl had seduced him and had a child by him, entered New York Harbour in the already slowing ship, he saw the statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which he had been observing for some time, as though in a sudden blaze of sunlight.”

On the surface, this sentence seems to carry us straight into the action while giving us the basic factual information necessary to understand Karl Rossmann’s situation. But once we have assimilated the data crammed into the sentence, we may do a double take. Karl has been sent across the world, not because he is guilty, but because he is the victim of a crime. All the agency is ascribed to the servant-girl. (We learn later that she is twice Karl’s age, and that she took the initiative in seducing this very innocent teenager; Kafka gives us a raw and distressing account of what would nowadays be called child abuse.)

Franz Kafka, by Atelier Jacobi, 1906. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So between the lines of his calm exposition, Kafka confronts us with a monstrous act of injustice in which the victim is punished. And this prefigures the subsequent action of the novel, in which the well-meaning Karl repeatedly gets into situations in which he seems to be at fault and is punished with expulsion. Rarely has so much been achieved by understatement.

Translating Kafka

But, it will be said, Kafka wrote in German. And one still occasionally encounters the claim that he wrote in a special dialect called ‘Prague German’ with a restricted vocabulary. This myth originates in late nineteenth-century nationalism. Conservatives who extolled rural life claimed that authentic German was spoken in the countryside and that the language of town-dwellers, like their physiques, was enfeebled. In fact Kafka’s written German uses the full resources of the German language and shows in particular how steeped he was in classic German literature from Goethe down to such contemporaries as Thomas Mann. He uses some dialect terms typical of the southern German language region. Thus in The Man who Disappeared Karl Rossmann brings breakfast on a ‘Tasse’ (tray), which must seem an impossible balancing feat to a northern German for whom ‘Tasse’ means cup. But, although contemporaries could tell from his accent that he came from Prague, there is little or nothing in his written texts to show his origins.

So what is distinctive about Kafka’s style? From my own experience of translating Kafka, I would say it is his control of syntax. When he uses long sentences, they are carefully constructed so as to lead up to the final word or phrase. When translating The Man who Disappeared, I followed this method so far as I could, as in the sentence quoted above. In doing so I was conscious of the currently widespread view that one should avoid domesticating foreign texts. But there were several constraints.

It’s not always as easy in English as in German to construct long sentences without clumsiness. Readers of English expect the point of a sentence to be apparent immediately, whereas with a German sentence your interpretation is provisional until you reach the end. And there were also external constraints. My editor was necessarily concerned about sales and therefore insisted that I should produce an easily readable text. Long sentences had therefore to be used sparingly – a good rule in writing English, but one which imposes limitations on the translator.

That said, translating Kafka was a relatively easy task, and a pleasurable one. Few writers had such a natural, immediate sensitivity to language as Kafka had. He hugely admired Flaubert; Sentimental Education, which he read in French, was his favourite novel. But while Flaubert laboured over his sentences, Kafka, in his rare spells of productivity, produced his fiction with the minimum of revision. He once wrote: ‘If I write “He looked out of the window”, it’s already perfect.’ That may sound like a boast, but it’s a perfectly accurate description of his writing.

Image credit: Psychedelic, by Activedia. Public domain via Pixabay.

This post originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog, 2 July 2015.

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