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Prose Translations

Kafka: A Focus on Reading

 “My grandfather used to say: “Life is astonishingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that — not to mention accidents — even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey.”

Franz Kafka, from Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Penguin, 1987)

This is a very short short story. It was the ‘springboard’ for some of my creative writing this week.

Put fifteen people in a room, and tell them to fold a piece of A4 paper whichever way they like, and chances are everyone will fold it differently. This is how we read. Translation represents a certain reading of a text – a personal, subjective reading. Translation is retelling, and we are the storytellers. There is no single, universal meaning embedded in any text, so we should stop looking for it and trying to extract it. Not all of literature is communicative. It is first and foremost art. Otherwise, we would just write a report, wouldn’t we? As Walter Benjamin puts it, the story bears the mark of the storyteller, just as earthenware pottery bears the marks of the potter’s hands.

So what is going on in this story? There are several ways to come at it. We can come at it from a very symbolic, metaphorical angle: time is being concertinaed – it isn’t linear, it moves in circles and crumples in on itself. Kafka here is confusing the spatial with the temporal – the passage of time here is represented as a journey. Time slips through your fingers and passes before you know it. There is a feeling here of distinct dissatisfaction, of never being able to see and experience everything.

Kafka’s temporal and spatial markers are much vaguer than in most fiction: how long is a life span? There are no spatial markers, other than a road. There’s no real setting. This is defamiliarisation, a literary device which Kafka had a masterful grip upon. There is also an interesting case of perspective at play here. Someone is clearly listening to their grandfather telling a story, or sharing some wisdom. But is that it? What are we supposed to make of this? Walter Benjamin, being a master of obtuse prose himself, unsurprisingly adored Kafka. In his appraisal of Kafka’s philosophical and fictional masterpieces, he put it wonderfully:

“Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom. That is why their effect resembles poetry”

Walter Benjamin

On the other hand, we could take a more concrete look at it. A man sets out one day, presumably in or on some kind of vehicle, and never makes it to the next village, despite living to a ripe old age? Why? Well, we can fill in the gaps. My imagination immediately started whirring, thinking of scenarios. Perhaps he is conscripted on the way, during wartime, and never comes back. Maybe he falls in love with a girl in his own village and never leaves. Maybe the next village is destroyed by an accidental air raid (the countryside was never bombed on purpose), or it’s flooded to create a reservoir. I usually prefer to take a more concrete angle on things, so I’ve taken the idea of a grandfather spinning a yarn and turned it into a short story myself, borrowing only the opening ideas from Kafka. Look out for my next post.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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