Translator Mark Harman: Kafka’s imagination anticipated the world in which we live

Selected Stories by Franz Kafka, translated and edited by Mark Harman

Just ahead of the centenary of Franz Kafka’s death, new translations of short stories by the Prague German-language writer come out this week. Entitled Selected Stories, the collection is the work of Mark Harman, an Irish-born, US-resident academic who has been described as “the finest living Kafka translator” into English. From his home in Pennsylvania, Professor Harman discussed many aspects of the author’s work, including his distinctive style, his sense of humour and where he stands in the literary pantheon.

The novelist John Banville, no less, has called you the greatest living Kafka translator. How did your connection to Kafka begin in the first place?

John Banville | Photo: Donostia Kultura,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“I used to hate the question ‘What brought you to Kafka?’ It was a rather defensive response. When people would ask me the exact same question you just asked me I would say, Well, there are scholarly, literary reasons – it’s none of your, beeswax, in a way [laughs].

“But I was denying my personal attraction to Kafka and his writing, and the reasons for it.

“The first piece of writing of his that I read was The Castle, which was kind of ironic, as that was the one I started off translating.

“I found it mesmerizing, the way the protagonist, K, keeps interpreting everything obsessively. He can spend pages dissecting a brief note from a minor castle official.

“2024 is a Kafka year, so it’s perhaps time for reading his stories afresh.”

“I had a similar tendency as a youth, so I completely identified with K and over-sympathised with him.

“In a way I fell into a kind of Kafka narrative trap, because he’s not necessarily on the protagonist’s side; he can easily lull us into seeing the usually male protagonists as victims.

“In The Castle K might seem to be the victim of an opaque, unjust bureaucracy, but later in the story Kafka drops numerous hints that K is on the wrong track, that he doesn’t get the joke, that he’s incapable of learning.

“And these are all things I didn’t understand at the time, because even though I was attracted to Kafka I was kind of misreading him, in a way.”

Kafka’s stories have of course already been available in translation in English for a long time. Why did you feel the time was right for your new translation?

“The fact that the book is appearing just a couple of weeks before the centenary of Kafka’s death is more by happenstance than by design; it just so happened that I sent in the book in time for it to be published this year.

Mark Harman  | Photo: LinkedIn of Mark Harman

“However, 2024 is a Kafka year, so it’s perhaps time for setting aside some myths about Kafka and his work and for reading his stories afresh.”

You must know all the stories backwards, for decades, before you sat down to render them in English yourself. Had you already translated them to some extent in your head over the years?

“Of course I’m big into German. I learned German as a child really. I’m not sure I was actually translating them.

“Although I did encounter them first in the Muirs’ translation. The Muirs were – funnily enough – were in Prague, learning Czech, when Kafka was in the countryside writing the novel The Castle in German.”

They were a married couple, is that correct?

“The Muirs were were in Prague, learning Czech, when Kafka was in the countryside writing the novel The Castle in German.”

“Yes, they were a married couple. He was a well-known poet and literary critic.

“She actually did the heavy lifting in the translating, which is why I always refer to them as Willa and Edwin Muir, rather than the other way around.”

Do you think that English requires a new translation of Kafka so many years later? Because if they were translating him not so long, I presume, after he wrote his works maybe English has evolved since then?

“Yes, English has evolved. And also our sense of Kafka’s style.

“I really admired their writing, and they introduced me to Kafka; I didn’t read The Castle in German as an undergraduate, I read it first in English. So I really admired their translation.

“Sometimes people say that I’ve criticised the Muirs. Well, only to the degree that I feel that there was a need for new translations. And there was a kind of monopoly of the Muirs for many years, especially in the United States.

“I admired what they did as pioneers. On the other hand, they were reading Kafka, especially Edwin, from a 19th century perspective. And he was not really big into the modernists; he didn’t like Joyce, for instance, at all.

“So perhaps he was reading in it qualities that may be there, to some extent, but we see more the modern qualities.”

Kafka’s best known story probably is usually known as The Metamorphosis. Why have you gone with the title The Transformation in your translation?

“You could say, Oh well, this is just pedanticism, thinking that it’s more accurate, or tonally more apt. But actually the original English title give in it by the Muirs was not The Metamorphosis; they called it Transformation.

“It was only in subsequent editions that they then switched to The Metamorphosis. Why did they do that? It could be, as Borges suggested in the case of the Spanish translation, La metamorfosis, that the Spanish translator chose it because of the prestige of the French translation.

“The French translation went with La Métamorphose, so it’s possible that the Muirs reversed their initial decision because of the decision by the French translator.

“It’s difficult to change something that is so established and embedded in English by now.

“But I think it’s important, not only because of the greater accuracy of The Transformation – what I hope from this book is that it will somehow show that transformation is a central concept in the web of metaphors through which the biographical Kafka contemplated his lived experience, and in his creative process as a writer.

“So it’s not just this one story. It also connects with the numerous transformations in his work: hybrid animal figures that were half-human and half-animal, and so on and so forth.”

Kafka's last photo | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

Is it his greatest piece? When I was re-reading it, or reading your translation for the first time, I hadn’t read that story for decades. And once again, like previously, it just blew my mind. It’s such a powerful story – is it his best?

“It’s certainly his most deliberately crafted story, and one of his longest stories. Yes, it’s a masterpiece.

“I’m also very fond of The Judgment. He’s a modernist, but also there’s a kind of classical side to Kafka, and a romantic side.

Manuscript of The Trial by Franz Kafka | Photo: Pavel Polák,  Czech Radio

“You can see the romantic side in The Judgment. He wrote that story without knowing what he was going to write about. He sat down in the evening and when he had got up he had finished the story, in one night.

“It’s a remarkable, kind of Mozartian, feat to write something of that complexity, in one night, without knowing what you’re going to write about.”

What about Kafka’s style? Obviously I’m no expert, but to me he has always seemed so distinctive, a kind of one-off. But did he have discernible influences, would you say?

“Like all first-rate writers that I know of, Kafka was first a voracious reader. Voracious and not bound by any sense of literary hierarchy. For instance, he read more biographies and auto-biographies than he did fiction.

“By and large the stylistic influences on him are extremely hard to detect.

“The stylistic influences on him are extremely hard to detect.”

“One of the few exceptions is the Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist, one of his self-described four blood relatives. The other three were Dostoevsky, Flaubert and the Austrian writer and playwright Franz Grillparzer.

“He revered Goethe, but he was also ambivalent about his impact. He wrote ‘Goethe probably retards the development of the German language by force of his writing’.”

You suggest also, which I found very fascinating, that his sometimes dry style may have been influenced that he wrote as a lawyer for the insurance company that he worked for.

“Yes. Perhaps in the selection it’s probably most notable in the story In the Penal Colony, where he’s describing a horrific torture machine, which he does with such precision.

“And this is a precision that he honed in his reports for the insurance company in Prague, where he was describing the heavy equipment that damaged the limbs of the workers for whom he advocated.”

There’s one line in The Penal Colony about a character “suffering only pain”. That really tickled my funny-bone, the idea of suffering only pain. How much do you feel that Kafka was trying to be humorous in his writing?

“He had a deadpan sense of humour. It’s understated – it’s not rolling the aisles kind of humour, but it emerges. And the more you read him, the more of that humour you detect.

“He had a deadpan sense of humour. It’s understated.”

“People often become so involved with the characters, and the fate of the characters, that they don’t see the little interjections by the narrator, which is where they humour comes in.

“Because the character is often too involved in his own fate to really it funny. But the narrator does, and behind him Kafka does, and so can the reader – especially when the prose is read aloud.”

One of the most striking stories I found in the book was A Country Doctor, which is really abstract and kind of like a bad dream. It made wonder if there was some influence of psychoanalysis on the work of Kafka? It’s so strange and uncanny – as I say, reminiscent of a bad dream.

“Yes, it’s good that you’re bringing that up. Because one of the things I’ve tried to do in this selection is to kind of give readers at least hints of how Kafka’s writing in the notebooks was a kind of editor’s nightmare.

 Autor Max Brod  (1914) | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Max Brod is often blamed for distorting Kafka, but any editor would be at wit’s end, because it’s just a stream of all kinds of writing.

“Everything went in there, so it’s not just fragments of stories, there are complete stories, diary entries, everything but shopping lists basically. Excerpts from his reading, drafts of letters.”

It sometimes seems that Kafka has gone beyond the world of writing. For example, everybody knows the painting The Scream by Munch. Is Kafka today also a kind of shorthand for something, where people maybe don’t know the original but it still has some kind of instant significance to say something is “Kafkaesque”?

“Yes, and maybe he has why he has become an adjective too. What he describes in his work is something that we recognise in the world around us.

“He anticipated the world in which we live, so unlike many writers of his age, his work hasn’t dated at all.

“And if I may just read the first story in the book. It’s extremely short and the title is Wish to Become an Indian.

‘If only one were an Indian, ready right away, and on the running

horse, aslant in the air, briefly shaking again and again over the

shaking ground, until one dropped the spurs for there were no

spurs, until one cast off the reins for there were no reins, and one

could hardly see the land ahead as a smoothly cropped heath,

now without the horse’s neck and head.’

“That’s the entire text.”

It’s really like a poem almost. I read this recently in your book and also I spoke to a friend about it. He was a fan, saying this short story was very filmic. Isn’t it like a poem?

“Yes. You know, it’s not lyrical in any traditional sense. But it’s got the succinctness and the power of poetry.

“Kafka said of The Judgment that it was more like a poem than anything else, even though it’s not lyrical in a very traditional sense at all.”

Probably you’re quite biased, but how should we assess Kafka’s place in the history of modern literature? Is he really one of the very greatest?

Selected Stories by Franz Kafka,  translated and edited by Mark Harman | Photo: Harvard University Press

“Well you’re right of course – I am rather biased.

“He’s often called the quintessential modern writer. On the one hand he is a writer’s writer. Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the transformative impact of reading The Transformation this way:

“‘I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing stories.’

“You can’t have a stronger writer’s testimonial than that.

“We’ve touched on this before, but Kafka is also a writer whose imagination anticipated the world in which we live.

“Unlike the work of many writers of his era, his work has not aged, as the short samples from the book that I’ve read have, I hope, suggested.”

Selected Stories: Franz Kafka, translated and edited by Mark Harman, comes out on May 21. The book, which includes a lengthy and highly illuminating introduction, is published by the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Author: Ian Willoughby
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