Friday, February 15, 2013

Kafka's diaries: Can one dream without words?

The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past."
Not exactly "Dear diary: Today it rained, so we went in to town," is it? But then, most diarists are not Franz Kafka.

That's the opening line of the diaries Kafka kept between 1910 and 1923, and I thought its dreamlike clarity would make a fine opening for a crime story. Then I wondered: What accounts for that particular image? What were the building blocks of Kafka's dreams?

I'm sure psychologists and other disreputable creatures have expended much ink on the subject, but the key may be simpler. Here's the sentence in the original German, nouns capitalized, according to that language's idiosyncratic spelling rules:
"Die Zuschauer erstarren, wenn der Zug vorbeifährt."
Perhaps the alliteration of Zuschauer and Zug struck a chord. How does a translator express this? In this case, the image is odd enough to work in translation even if it loses something; this is Kafka, after all. But some sonic correspondences must make translators sigh and relegate the explanation to a footnote.

(Read Detectives Beyond Borders' interviews with translators for some thoughts on translation problems.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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8 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

How many pages are in that book? I'm in the mood for something long and diverting and I've never read Kafka's diaries or letters.

February 15, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

I never thought about what an art translation is until your panel at the Indianapolis Bouchercon. Now i think about it all the time, sometimes even when reading something in English. ("Hmmm, I wonder what a translator would do with that description?")

February 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: It's about 530 pages and can be read in discrete chunks. As for long and diverting, had the complete text of The Man WIthout Qualities been published when you read the book? I read the complete version as published during Musil's lifetime, then the twenty chapters he had withdrawn for further work after galleys had been printed up. I thought that would be a good point to stop and read something else, and I did--for a few hours. The alternate chapters are so good that I've begun reading them, too, and then I have the incident and character sketches.

February 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, literary translation is a heady undertaking, that's for sure. Asking how a translator might handle a given passage is a good exercise. It might get you to think about what makes a passage work beyond its literal sense. It forces conscious thought about things that come unconsciously when one writes.

February 15, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The Man Without Qualities version I read was long enough. I think it was published by Viking and it was printed on thin paper. Dont get me wrong, I liked the book, it's a masterpiece, but I wasnt hankering for an additional 2 or 3 hundred pages.

February 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The novel has an interesting publication history. My translation, copyright 1995, bills itself as the first English translation to make the complete text of the book available. It includes the first two volumes, as published during Musil's life (1,130 pages), the twenty withdrawn chapters (180 page), and alternate sketches, chapters, and drafts (about 350 pages). This was all apparently based on material not published in German until 1978, and more exists. The complete material relating to the book is apparently available on a CD-ROM in German. And two of Musil's notebooks were stolen from an editor's car in Italy in 1970, so the possibility of even more material exists.

I think I just may finish the whole thing, because everything else I read falls short.

February 15, 2013  
Blogger Lauren said...

At the risk of being terribly prosaic: I can imagine that sentence, having often frozen suddenly when standing on a train platform and an express train goes past. (An experience more common to those in smaller places than in big cities, I suspect.) And sometimes a Z is just a Z - I didn't really notice anything particular.

Incidentally, the best lay introduction to translation that I've come across for some time is "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?" by David Bellos, which is both hilarious and perceptive (and by a very good translator, to boot). Definitely recommended for an interesting change of pace.

February 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're not prosaic, just analytical. Of course onlookers go rigid when a train goes past; that's why Kafka noticed them doing it. But why did it attract his attention? What made the sight important enough that he opened a diary with it?

I'm more yielding on z's and z's; you could be right, of course. I should mention that my edition reproduces the opening page, so the Z's in Kafka's own hand, grabbed my attention right away. And don't forget that written German is more alien to me than it is to you. I'm a lot more apt to attach significance to the strange sight of the uppercase initial letters of nouns. Call this the psychology and poetry of ignorance.

That's for the information on the Bellos book. I think he has translated a few of Ferd Vargas' into English.

February 17, 2013  

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