"Our grandparents spoke Yiddish, our parents spoke German, and those of us who are left speak Czech."
That statement by a Prague Jew sums up the linguistic and cultural history of not only the Prague Jews but, by extension, the vast majority of European Jews since the end of the eighteenth century. During this period, the various Jewish communities in Europe and its colonies have passed from Jewish languages to a few simultaneous and/or sequential non-Jewish languages and perhaps ultimately back (or forward) to Hebrew in Israel. Outside Israel, this process has shifted the Jews from an ethnic category with a core religion and multiple Jewish subcultures (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, etc.) to a religious category whose various communities are scattered through many countries, where they are largely assimilating into the local non-Jewish cultures.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague at the end of the nineteenth century, and for most of his lifetime Bohemia and Moravia belonged to Austria-Hungary -- until 1919, five years before Kafka's death in 1924. During that era, the Jews in Prague, like many Jews within the Dual Monarchy and most Jews in the German empire, were discarding Yiddish in favor of German, the language of the dominant culture, while holding on to their own religious practices and identities. Parallel developments were taking place wherever Jews were, in fact, allowed to assimilate into the language and culture -- especially throughout Western Europe, but far less so in the tsarist empire.
This process of what I would like to call "reacculturation" began when Napoleon offered French citizenship, nationality, and complete civil rights to the Jews in France: they would thereby become French Jews if they agreed to give up their own Jewish culture and languages, their peoplehood, and maintain only their religious identity. They agreed -- under great pressure -- thus abandoning some centuries-old Jewish languages and cultures in France: Jehudit (Judeo-Provençal), Western Laaz (Judeo-French), and Alsatian Yiddish. (Western Laaz, incidentally, had helped to provide the substratum of Yiddish during its birth phase in Alsace-Lorraine.)
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new generations of Central and West-European Jews spoke a Jewish tongue with their parents but a non-Jewish one with each other -- and of course with Christians. When Karl Marx or Heinrich Heine wrote to their parents, their letters (still extant) were in Western Yiddish (misnomered Judendeutsch in German). Much later, Bernard Berenson wrote an article about his childhood experiences with Yiddish and its literature -- which, however, like many assimilated Jews, he dismissed as irrelevant. Elias Canetti, in his memoirs, The Tongue Set Free, describes his Sephardic family in their native Sofia and the Ladino they spoke -- which, however, he eventually replaced with German. And Primo Levi, in his autobiographical collection The Periodic Table, touches on the Judeo-Italian language used by his family and the local Jewish community.
Those are better-known exemplars of the countless Jews whose families passed from Jewish to non-Jewish in language and society, thus becoming, perhaps unwittingly, a transitional minority. Such on-site migration paralleled the mass migrations of Jews, especially from Eastern to Western Europe and then to the New World. Franz Kafka was a member of the on-site migration -- while Karl Rossmann in "The Stoker" (Amerika) acts out the geographic migration.
Language in modern Europe became a defining national and then political characteristic -- especially with the emergence of the nation-states in the nineteenth century. A "natural," i.e., biological, rationale was supplied by Darwin, for whom language -- and English in particular -- was a sign of higher evolution. When describing some aborigines whom he brought back to London (in The Origin of Species), he explains that the ones who managed to pick up some English were obviously the more highly evolved in the group. Such thinking pervades all modern politicizing of language, especially imperialism -- not to mention on-site imperialism: by giving up their own language and assimilating to the surrounding languages, Jews became more acceptable to their host nations and to themselves, both socially and civically -- and economically.
Internally, however, religious Jews looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and/or a return to Palestine and thus saw their given Jewish language as part of a transitional condition. Then again, many Jews regard(ed) their Jewish language as culturally inferior to either Hebrew or a non-Jewish tongue, especially the national/administrative language of a country. For Jews throughout Central and Eastern Europe, German was the language of enlightenment, civilization, modernity.
For Kafka, language is likewise viewed -- sardonically -- as the hallmark of being "human." When Gregor Samsa is turned into an insect, his speech can barely be understood and the family members act as if he cannot understand them; only the (uneducated) housekeeper addresses him directly, though teasing him. The ape in "A Report to an Academy" takes his first step toward becoming a human being by saying, "Hey!"; this makes him virtually the embodiment of the assimilating Jew. Kafka satirized the European attitude toward language yet employed language as his foremost instrument.
Born in the multilingual Austro-Hungarian city of Prague, the site of the first German university, Franz Kafka was raised and schooled in German in his assimilating Jewish family, although unlike most Prague Germans -- Gentiles or Jews -- he was somewhat fluent in Czech. Kafka made wondrous use of Prague German, which itself became a transitional tongue in the Czechoslovakian capital. The Nazi regime, banning Kafka and murdering most of the Jewish speakers of Prague German, ultimately precipitated the expulsion of the Germans from Prague, thereby abolishing a very old and very rich area of German culture. As a result, Kafka's oeuvre has now become a monument to Prague German, which, like so many dialects and regional variants of German, was liquidated along with the Fascist era.
The language of these Prague Germans differed crucially from what was spoken in the "German lands": Prague German was never fed by a local German dialect, which, perceptibly or not, infiltrates the speaking and writing of every German, even the most fastidious writer -- down to the very forms, genders, syntax, stresses, and inflections. Surrounded by Czech but by no German dialect, Prague German has been described, half derisively, as a "holiday German," because, for better or worse, it lacks the slang, colloquialisms, and dialectal influences that color High German in most areas. Still, Prague German was lovingly influenced by the forms and phrases, the quirks and cadences of Austrian, especially Viennese, German -- that is, a regional standard usage but not a substandard dialect. More colloquial in their speech than they realized, the Prague Germans nevertheless saw their tongue as a "pure" linguistic and stylistic model that they used in their literature -- which therefore sounds more colloquial than its authors sensed, just as their spoken language sounded more literary than that of most German speakers. "We write the way we speak," they said. Indeed they did -- and they almost spoke the way they wrote.
Kafka's prose likewise reveals a careful and lucid Prague German with an Austrian tinge. In his earliest stories, he tested certain expressionist and even surrealist innovations, shredding syntax, short-circuiting imagery, condensing emotions and tableaux into brief, sometimes even tiny shards and prose poems, to evoke a moody and sometimes wistful lyricism that patched these various fragments into a world of jocular mystery. Ultimately, however, especially in his master tales, "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis," he settled into a generally traditional language that paid scant homage to contemporary stylistic upheavals in German and French.
Thus, less than twenty years before Kafka began writing, the interior monologue or stream of consciousness had been invented in French literature by a Belgian novelist, Edouard Dujardin (Les Lauriers sont coupés, 1887) and in German literature by a Viennese Jew, Arthur Schnitzler (in his short story "Lieutenant Gustl," 1890). Ultimately reaching British literature and thriving in the fiction of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, this innovation affected Kafka as little as most other modern linguistic experiments. Compared with the far more realistic contents of Joyce, Woolf, and Schnitzler, the world of Kafka's writings is so bizarre, so alienated, so grotesque that a both humorous and anguished incongruity arises from the juxtaposition of subject and style, absurdity and realism. Kafka's shock effects (and shock is a major component of modernism) were powerful enough in those times -- and by sticking to an everyday, sometimes impartial prose that takes the nightmares for granted, he intensifies their overwhelming impact. Thus, in telling us that Gregor Samsa (whom we are supposed to know) wakes up to find himself turned into a giant bug, the author, commencing in medias res (like Arthur Rimbaud in The Drunken Boat, though not in the first person) reports in a cool, casual, objective tone that displays no surprise at this unnatural antimiracle.
However, the objectivity and matter-of-factness of the narrative voice are breached by a stylistic device that had a long tradition in European, especially Yiddish, literature. While commonly used in English, this device has no name here: we refer to it both by the French term, style indirect libre, and by the German term erlebte Rede. Fusing the author's objective omniscience (third person, past tense, etc.) with the character's innermost mental view, this device offers "empathy" in its older (pre-Madison Avenue) sense: a process of total mental and spiritual identification. "Tomorrow was Sunday." The past tense, was, stakes off the narrator's viewpoint, the noun tomorrow evokes the character's viewpoint. Otherwise the use of a past tense with "tomorrow" would be a logical discrepancy. By now, style indirect libre has become so overused in European languages as to be a flagrant symptom of pulp and kitsch. However, by skillfully exploiting this method, Kafka manages to lead us from poker-faced protocol to subjective angst, forming a bond between tragicomical protagonists and desperately smirking readers -- only to alienate the characters even more, since the bond is unilateral: the persona can never leave the imaginary world and can therefore never link up with the real author and the real reader. Empathy becomes alienation.
The sources of alienation in Kafka and in his characters (they are not necessarily identical with him) have been thoroughly investigated by scholars. His attempts at being universal are taken for granted; after all, literature, since Aristotle, has been seen -- often purblindly -- as a "universal" category. John Updike even praises Kafka for avoiding "Jewish parochialism" (The New Yorker, 1983). Although well-meaning and certainly sympathetic with Kafka's predicament as a Jew, Updike expresses the bias of the dominant culture, which takes itself for granted: it subliminally sees itself as universal and axiomatic while viewing external and smaller cultures as parochial and relative. This prejudice likewise extends to the "other," to colonized and marginalized groups like women and homosexuals, racial and religious minorities. Black writers like Willard Motley or Frank Yerby were not African-American authors: they mainly depicted whites. Female authors have been criticized for writing about women -- and then praised or castigated for writing "like a man." Book reviewers, if no longer boycotting gay novels, will nevertheless chide them (as does The New York Times) for not including more heterosexual characters. (When was the last time they attacked heterosexual fiction for not including more homosexuals, or accused Balzac or Proust of having too many French characters?)
In most countries, Jews have written about Jews when working in Jewish languages and about non-Jews in a non-Jewish language. Canada is a good example: until recently, its English-language Jewish writers (like Leonard Cohen, though unlike Mordecai Richler) have dealt with Gentile themes, its Yiddish writers with Jewish themes. The one country that flouts this rule is the United States: a specifically English-language Jewish literature has evolved here (next to a Yiddish and also a Hebrew literature). Nevertheless, even in its heyday, the American Jewish novel, whatever its worth, was derided as "clannish" by certain Jews and non-Jews. The post-World War II era has produced something of a German-language "Jewish literature" in Germany and Austria, but with only a few thousand German-speaking Jews left, the audience is chiefly Gentile.
Franz Kafka went along with this skewing and masking of cultural subjectivity. Had he written about Jews, his audience would have been vastly reduced; after all, in his day, less than one percent of native German speakers in Germany and Austria-Hungary were Jewish. Like most Jews writing in German (say, Hermann Broch or Elias Canetti or Ernst Toller), Kafka tended to depict explicitly non-Jewish, indeed often Christian characters. Still, we can't be sure that these aren't disguises -- just as the names of his protagonists sound suspiciously like "Kafka": e.g., Samsa; and just as Raban, being almost homonymous with German Rabe (raven) is a quasi-translation of Kafka, the Czech word for "raven." The Jewishness of Kafka's themes and figures is open to interpretation. "Persona," from the Latin word for "mask," can, as in C. G. Jung, refer to the role that a person is playing in life.
Take the filmmaker Josef von Sternberg: when he transformed Heinrich Mann's novel Professor Unrat into the film The Blue Angel, the director had a hidden agenda in delineating the authoritarian German high school professor. As he explains in his memoirs, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, the film character was partly suggested by a Hebrew teacher under whom von Sternberg had suffered as a boy. Not so dissimilarly: when Kafka wrote "The Judgment" in an all-night session, he composed it, according to his diaries, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is also known in Hebrew as Yom ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. It is such secret itineraries, conscious or not, that make art less than universal, more than parochial, leaving it open to multivalent readings that may unearth an intrinsic and perhaps necessary "closetiness." Still, like the Oscar Wilde heroine who dons a beautiful mask, which then becomes her face, the underlying strata are finally replaced by the surface disguise. Albert Einstein (who spent some time in Prague) left us with a modern metaphor for that phenomenon when he described our physical world as the three-dimensional surface of a four-dimensional universe.
No matter how much space can be devoted to a stylistic and linguistic analysis of any writer, at least twice as much would be required for investigating a translation: along with the discussion of the original text and the English text, we would have to delve into the actual migration from one language and culture into another. Let me therefore limit myself to focusing on a couple of facets, which, I hope, will show the confusions and complexities of any translation.
"Natural(ly)" and the Nature of Nature
Natürlich -- both adjective and adverb -- is a normal, indeed fairly bland and bromidic word in German. It means: natural(ly), of course, by all means, sure, needless to say, etc. As an interjection, a concession, it goes almost unnoticed. Yet it conceals an intricate reference to cerebral and behavioral manipulation by Western culture and religion.
During the nineteenth century, as traditional absolutes were being replaced by new (usually scientific and technological) absolutes but also by numerous relatives, the concept of "nature" and "natural" changed in meaning and power. Often, the word "divine" was replaced by "natural."
"Nature," says Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, "is something we were put on this earth to rise above." For Christianity and European civilization, "nature" has always been something to be overcome, conquered, tamed, domesticated -- subdued and subjugated for human use. The West draws an artificial line between "nature" and "human" or "man-made" -- as if a beaver's "natural" dam and an engineer's "technological" dam were not subject to the same physical laws, the same "natural" laws. After all, whether you jump off the Jungfrau or the Eiffel Tower, you are prey to the same law of gravity and you will fall at the same speed. Naturally, this ancient distinction between "natural" and "man-made" gives Homo sapiens a special place in Creation -- and the privilege of bending Mother Nature, and her children, to his will.
In an inconsistent yet compatible fashion, the "natural" was also seen as quite the opposite -- an ethical imperative: not only in "natural law" (which nevertheless changes from culture to culture and era to era), but in human conduct. While religion and government attacked some forms of behavior as being "natural," they lauded others -- likewise as being "natural": for instance, men's domination over women, whites' domination over blacks, Europe's domination over the rest of the world, the nuclear family, family values, etc.
To confuse things further, "unnatural" has always been a putdown no matter how good or bad the "natural."
In the United States, books and movies about the Wild West summed up this process as the subjugation by men of land, nature, and savagery -- a process that was then complemented by the arrival of women, who brought Christianity, culture, refinement, breeding -- i.e., civilization.
The cataclysmic upshot of this citing of "natural" and "unnatural" as ethical standards was European Fascism, which, in touting nature and natural man (yet deploying the most destructive prenuclear technology in history), set up life-and-death categories. The Nazi government even tried to change Nature's name, Natur, into the more Germanic (and therefore more "natural") Allmutter or Werdemutter. Rather than letting Darwinism and evolution take their alleged "natural" course, Fascism ("unnaturally") lent Mother Nature a helping hand: anything and anyone that a Fascist state declared "unnatural" was segregated and ultimately killed.
In Kafka, the protagonist often has to pay a terrible price when, willingly or not, he goes against "nature": not only by turning into a bug (Gregor Samsa), but also by, say, abandoning both his child and his parents (Karl Rossmann in "The Stoker"), or betraying his father (Georg Bendemann in "The Judgment"). Ultimately, "nature" takes its (or her) toll, and the punishment is no less severe than the ones meted out by vengeful deities in Greek tragedy. Kafka may assault and expose the nuclear family and its destructive patriarchal basis, yet he longs to restore it, to give the punitive father his "natural" place. Rossmann, orphaning his unborn child and orphaning himself by leaving home, seeks both father and family in the New World. Samsa, by dying, reestablishes the natural order of domestic things. Bendemann, by carrying out his own death sentence, puts his father back in power.
Now as a rule, one might render natürlich not necessarily as "naturally" but as "of course," or "needless to say." However, given the tradition that Kafka was working in and against, I've translated this adverb as "naturally" throughout. I have no choice: this innocent-looking word encapsulates a crucial pattern in Western and Kafkaesque thinking.
Tense and Aspect
In its verbal structure, English, like the Romance and Slavic languages, divides motion and being into perfective and imperfective aspects. "I go" vs. "I am going"; "I went" vs. "I was going"; etc.
In an English narrative, the action, the bare bones of the plot, are rendered with the perfective tenses, while the background is filled in with imperfective tenses. This development in European languages seems to have begun at the same time as the introduction of spatial and mathematical perspective into European art: verbal tense and artistic perspective divided reality into foreground and background. Thus, a piece of fiction usually begins with an imperfective verb by way of introduction ("I was sleeping"); then, shifting into a perfective verb, the narrative launches into the plot ("I woke").
German verbs make no such distinctions. (The noun Imperfekt, applied to the simple past, i.e., preterite, is an inaccurate borrowing from Latin and Romance terminology; it is best ignored and replaced with Präteritum, preterite.) In a German narrative, foreground (plot) and background are distinguished by the syntax: the often Ciceronian sentence tends to devote main clauses to the plot and relative clauses to the background (of course, given the multiple, often myriad, and sometimes even contradictory tasks of each grammatical element, this division of labor is never entirely strict). As a result, hypotaxis, or syntactic subordination, has a very different role in German, which clearly marks each subordinate clause not only with commas but also by shifting its verb to the very end, so that we can easily tell which clause is describing foreground and which background. (Once again, this assignment of linguistic tasks is not always rigorous.) Similarly, whenever German offers a quick string of very brief sentences or main clauses, English would tend to subordinate some of them as present participles, which German seldom uses to introduce clauses, limiting participial clauses to extremely lofty, highfalutin diction.
Confronted with the cat's cradles and Chinese boxes of German clauses, the American translator has to figure out when to use perfective, imperfective, or participial verbs in English: you have to decide if a German clause or sentence (German uses the same word, Satz, for both concepts) is foreground or background, superordinate or subordinate -- or somewhere in between. Kafka learned Kleist's lesson about the anxiety created by intricate hypotaxis and the suspense of waiting for the verb to drop like the headsman's ax at the end of a long and harrowing sentence. Hard to duplicate in English.
In the first sentence of "The Metamorphosis" ("Die Verwandlung"), the reader slides through the casual tone, confronts the words ungeheuren Ungeziefer (monstrous vermin), and finally crashes into the concluding past participle verwandelt (transformed), which ties the whole sentence together, telling us what has happened to Samsa and explaining what the title means.
"Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt." (Literally: As Gregor Samsa one morning from agitated dreams awoke, found he himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed.) That final and ineluctable past participle, verwandelt, "transformed," is horrifyingly relentless. It makes the sentence -- and the story.
Incidentally, Ungeziefer means "vermin," not "insect," which is either Insekt or Kerbtier in German; and while the adjective ungeheuer means "enormous," the noun Ungeheuer means "monster."
Like Kleist, Kafka piles on the prepositional phrases to increase the tension; but in English (as opposed to German or French), a sequence of even two prepositional phrases can sound clumsy -- and adverbs tend to be discarded in favor of adjectives. All of which make for syntactical headaches in a literary translation.
One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armorlike back, and when lifting his head slightly, he could view his brown, vaulted belly partitioned by arching ridges, while on top of it, the blanket, about to slide off altogether, could barely hold. His many legs, wretchedly thin compared with his overall girth, danced helplessly before his eyes.
The hermeneutics of translation are individual. Each approach is subjective, selective, and no single interpretation, however valid, holds the unique and absolute truth. Equally decent translations may exist side by side. Another translator may reassign the perfectives, imperfectives, and present participles in altogether different patterns, to form a different arrangement of foreground and background, shading the narrative in a different way. While there are many possible mistranslations, there are only a few possible correct translations, each one constituting a variation of the original theme. The trick is to find a cohesive and coherent variation that replaces the original theme for the new reader, who, having no access to the foreign language, must take the translation as a primary text.
While it would be exciting to dig into all the strata involved in translating Kafka, I'd rather let the translation speak for itself.
I am deeply grateful to my editor, Erika Goldman, for her patience and for her thorough and sensitive editing of my translation.
NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 16, 1992
Translation and introduction copyright © 1993, 1995, 2000 by Joachim Neugroschel