On a new translation of Kafka.

Lee Rourke, wondering who turned out all the lights, likes the new translation.

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…

These new efforts from Hofmann are heartening. His translation is less literary, less prosaic, and less … English.


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