The Trial

From Breon Mitchell, Translator’s Preface to Kafka’s The Trial (The Schocken Kafka Library):

“The power of Kafka’s text lies in the language, in a nuanced use of the discourses of law, religion, and the theater, and in particular in a closely woven web of linguistic motifs that must be rendered consistently to achieve their full impact.  Here the Muirs, for all the virtues of their translation, fell far short, for in attempting to create a readable and stylistically refined version of Kafka’s Trial, they consistently overlooked or deliberately varied the repetitions and interconnections that echo so meaningfully in the ear of every attentive reader of the German text.  Which is not to say that there are any easy solutions to the challenges Kafka presents.

Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.

“The translator’s trial begins with the first sentence, in part because the hint of uncertainty grammatically present in the subjunctive verb ‘hätte[n]’ is inevitably lost in the standard translation, even with E.M. Butler’s later revisions: ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.’  Although in this version it is by no means clear why Josef K. has been arrested, there is no doubt about his innocence.  Nor does there seem to be in the German, since the subjunctive is merely required by the ‘ohne daß’ construction.  Of course nothing is ever that simple in Kafka, even in translation, and we could also argue that since the information received is filtered through Josef K.’s own mind from the very beginning, it is constantly suspect in any case.  On a strictly literal level, however, any English translation is forced to declare K.’s innocence. 

“There are other problems as well.  Why render the common phrase ‘eines Morgens’ with the false irony of ‘one fine morning?’  Why not end the sentence, as in German, with the surprise of his arrest?  And why has the legal resonance of ‘verleumden’ (to slander) been reduced to merely ‘telling lies?’  A further problem is posed by ‘Böses,’ a word that, when applied to the actions of an adult, reverberates with moral and philosophical overtones ranging from the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden to Nietzsche’s discussion of the origins of morality in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil).  To claim that K. has done nothing ‘Böses’ is both more and less than a child’s claim he has done nothing wrong.  Josef K. has done nothing truly wrong, at least in his own eyes.

“In wrestling with these problems I finally settled upon the following: ‘Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anyone wrong, he was arrested.’”

Turkish translation by Funda Reşit:

Joseph K. iftiraya uğramış olmalıydı, çünkü kötü bir şey yapmadığı halde bir sabah tutuklandı.   

Images by Alan Serat and Agnes Denes, MoMA

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