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Monday, 1 March 2010

In Print(11) . . .

What goes into a great translation?

Recently Michael Hofmann's new translation of Franz Kafka's entire oeuvre landed on my doormat. I love reading Kafka; I always have done, even as a teenager when I didn't understand him. Just the sheer slog of it, the energy it consumes within, the time taken to devour each word. And in all this time, never once have I thought about the translation I have been reading. Never. Until now.

The difference is noticeable from the very first line, so immediate are Hofmann's translations. For instance, and to use Kafka's most famous opening sentence, here's Hofmann's offering:

"When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed."

Compare this to any previous translation, and you'll see, for a start, that there is no dilly-dallying with style; the prose is swift, direct and without obfuscation, as, one presumes, Kafka intended.

It is the word "cockroach" that tickles me the most. At first it seems incongruous (as pointed out in Nicholas Lezard's recent Guardian review). But it is clever. In the original Prague-German, Kafka uses the word "ungeziefer" which literally translates as "vermin". Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual. Hofmann could have used the word "vermin" but, though still denoting something to be looked down upon, it would have taken us away from the crucial image of the insect (although it is interesting to note that when Kafka contemplated his story being illustrated he envisaged a picture of a man lying in the bed and not an insect). So Hofmann uses the word "cockroach", the duality of which is unmissable. A brilliant stroke

These new efforts from Hofmann are heartening. His translation is less literary, less prosaic, and less ... English. It is without style, form, finesse, or melody. It is, most importantly, Kafkaesque. In his introduction, Hofmann argues that "Kafka offers very little to the translator, there is no 'voice', no diction, no 'style'." It is hard to disagree.

This aspect of Kafka's writing fascinates me and, it seems, Hofmann too. He has cut through literary pretension to seek out the heart of Kafka's work - the very "particles" of his writing, as they have been called. His translation shows Kafka as a modern writer whose work was beyond that of anything written at that time. It's why we re-read him today, and will continue to re-read him tomorrow.

So if Hofmann can do it, and do it so well, why do so many translators these days ruin contemporary work? Stifling the writers' intentions with their egos or, as with recent Michel Houellebecq translations, expending no effort at all? How long did it take to translate La Possibilité d'une Île? Six weeks? Surely not. Can we honestly take a translation seriously when a title as mouth-wateringly brilliant as Extension du Domaine de la Lutte is translated as the ludicrous Whatever? I can't. What is it, then, that Hofmann knows and the others don't? What makes a great translation these days? I think I already know.

[original source: The Guardian, Thursday 7 June 2007]

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