Reading Between the Lines: Translating change

Barack Obama may be the candidate who most advocates for "change," but John McCain and Hillary Clinton have been caught using the word, too.

The road to the White House is all about detours. Or so the three remaining US presidential candidates want us to believe. Barack Obama may be the candidate who most advocates for "change," but John McCain and Hillary Clinton have been caught using the word, too. Indeed, while Obama may be speaking about a more revolutionary transformation, all three candidates are trying to capitalize on the detour most wanted by Americans: the move away from George W. Bush's presidency. The rhetoric of change has been both scrutinized and criticized of late, and in a politically irrelevant, but still noteworthy coincidence, one of the most famous "changes" in world literature has been revisited recently, as well. The 125th anniversary of Franz Kafka's birth was commemorated last month with a new edition of the author's Metamorphosis and Other Stories, published by Penguin Classics and translated from the German by Michael Hofmann. Metamorphosis is, of course, the story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day to find himself changed into an insect. While Gregor considers continuing his daily routine, his family is repulsed by his new body, propelling one of literature's most tragic stories of alienation. Translator Michael Hofmann's personal touch is apparent even before opening the new edition. The title novella is usually called The Metamorphosis, but Hofmann drops the definite article. My German-language education lasted only a month in college, but one need not be a linguist to see that the title eschewed by Hofmann more closely parallels the original "Die Verwandlung." Why the variation? In his introduction, Hofmann doesn't address this particular question, but he does suggest that one problem with translating Kafka is his use of "little words" that in English seem "unduly fussy." "[I]f you aim to reproduce them, you have to be very careful not to produce a wash of needless and directionless verbiage in English that has the opposite effect to the drily controlling one Kafka intended." Perhaps this accounts for the missing "The." But Hofmann doesn't limit his impact to small words. The two editions of The Metamorphosis that I previously owned describe Gregor Samsa's new body as respectively "a gigantic insect" and "a monstrous vermin." Hofmann opts for the more specific "monstrous cockroach." What's the difference? Hofmann would likely argue that by naming a particular type of insect, by helping the reader form a more particular image, he is facilitating the power of Kafka's words. Others would argue that Kafka's chosen word, ungeziefer, literally means "vermin" and was intentionally ambiguous. Focusing on entomological questions misses the point. Metamorphosis is hardly a science book. It's purposely metaphorical and fantastical. So should we care about this new translation? Perhaps the language changes aren't so significant for the average reader, but that doesn't mean it's not worth noting. Kafka was one of the 20th century's great writers, and also one of the most readable. The critic Philip Rahv, quoted in the introduction to the new edition, remarked that Kafka's "creative mode presupposes no body of knowledge external to itself." His works are among the rare classics accessible to almost anyone. In addition, while Metamorphosis and The Trial are regularly assigned in classrooms, the short works included in Metamorphosis and Other Stories are less well known. For me, any excuse to re-read stories like "A Hunger Artist" and "A Country Doctor" and to recommend them to others is welcome. Indeed, the former is one of my favorites by any writer, and one that - even without reading Metamorphosis or The Trial - would give one a sense of why "Kafkaesque" became a word. Its eerie portrayal of a circus freak who finds purpose in starving himself is disturbing, darkly humorous and set with a hint of allegory that characterizes much of Kafka's best writing. In Michael Hofmann's translation of "A Hunger Artist," the artist communicates with "invigilators" instead of "watchers." But don't read the book for that. Read it because it contains works by one of our great literary masters, works that may not have been on your radar - until now. [email protected]