Conjunctions:30 Paper Airplane

From The Trial
(with an afterword by the translator)
Franz Kafka
Translated by Breon Mitchell
The following is Breon Mitchell’s afterword to his translation of the first chapter of Frankz Kafka’s The Trial; the complete text of Mitchell’s translation was published in print issue 30.

The Translator’s Trial

Translating Kafka was once my dream. Now all I dream of is how I might have done it better. From the moment I first read The Trial, as a teenager on the plains of Kansas in the late fifties, I was drawn into his world so strongly that I have never quite escaped it. I had no idea then that scarcely five years later I would be studying with Malcolm Pasley in Oxford, hearing firsthand his tale of retrieving most of Kafka’s manuscripts and arranging for their deposit in the Bodleian Library, nor that my next summer would be spent walking the streets of Prague on a pilgrimage that, in the mid-sixties, still retained its spiritual excitement, and even a hint of danger; under a regime that had forbidden the publication and sale of Kafka’s works. 

     Thirty years have passed, and Kafka now gazes from the shop windows of every bookstore in Prague. Nor did Kafka ever leave my life. Now, after almost three decades of reading, teaching and writing about Kafka, I have undertaken the closest reading of all, faced with the challenge of doing him justice.

     This new translation of the opening chapter of The Trial is based on the German critical edition prepared by Pasley for the Fischer Verlag and published in two volumes in 1990. Schocken Books will publish the entire translation later this year. In it the structure of the definitive text of The Trial is rendered precisely, paragraph by paragraph, and sentence by sentence. Punctuation generally follows established English usage, since Kafka’s own punctuation, although somewhat loose, is still well within the range of accepted German usage, and I do not wish for it to appear falsely ungrammatical. It should be noted in particular that Kafka’s prevalent use of what we call a comma splice has been perfectly acceptable in German prose since the eighteenth century, as are the long and complex sentences resulting from this practice. I have, however, attempted to reflect every truly unusual use of punctuation, including the occasional omission of an expected question mark.

     In all these ways, the present translation attempts to mirror the critical edition of the text quite closely. But rendering Kafka’s prose involves far more than punctuation and paragraphing. 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 which must be rendered consistently to achieve their full impact. Here Edwin and Willa Muir, 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 uncertainty so subtly introduced by 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 seems to be little doubt about his innocence. The German subjunctive verb, however, tends to undermine this reading. Of course nothing is ever that simple in Kafka, even in translation, and we might 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, the standard English translation appears to declare K.’s innocence far too strongly.

     There are other questions as well. Why render the simple 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 which, 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 to claim he had done nothing wrong. Josef K. has done nothing truly wrong, at least in his own eyes.

     In wrestling with these problems I settled upon the following: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” My choice of “truly wrong” for “Böses” had a double purpose: to push the word “wrong” toward the province of the criminally malicious and to introduce, on a level corresponding to the almost subliminal use of the subjunctive in German, the question of truth.

     There are no totally satisfying solutions to the difficulties presented by Kafka’s opening sentence. But it is crucial to recognize and grapple with them. Such a struggle is not inappropriate in a novel which deals with Josef K.’s attempts throughout the course of a year to twist and turn his way through the process of his own trial. And indeed, having made it through the first sentence, the translator is immediately confronted by problems of another sort in the second:
Die Köchin der Frau Grubach, seiner Zimmervermieterin, die ihm jeden Tag gegen acht Uhr fruh das Frühstuck brachte, kam diesmal nicht.
Here Kafka himself is partly to blame. He originally began the sentence quite straightforwardly: “Die Kochin, die ihm jeden Tag …”; but the manuscript reveals that he inserted the words “der frau Grubach, seiner Zimmervermieterin ” between the lines, introducing her immediately into the cast of characters. Literal versions such as “His landlady Frau Grubach’s cook, who brought him breakfast …” or “The cook of Frau Grubach, his landlady, who brought him breakfast …” are impossibly awkward and even grammatically misleading. The Muirs solved this problem by simply omitting her name: “His landlady’s cook, who always brought him his breakfast …” Here as so often, the Muirs smooth away the difficulties at some cost, since when Frau Grubach’s name first comes up later in the scene, it is not clear in the English version who she is. In order to reflect Kafka’s obvious intentions, I have retained her by name: “His landlady, Frau Grubach, had a cook who brought him breakfast …” Although this solution is less readable, it remains true to Kafka’s text, even in its slightly awkward construction. 

     This second sentence raises an issue of some importance for the critical edition of the text and its translation. Kafka’s manuscript is unfinished and unrevised. He might well have smoothed out such sentences, or even rewritten them entirely. He would surely have removed inconsistencies in the spelling of a character’s name, Kullich and Kullych, both versions of which are retained in the critical edition; he would probably have straightened out the confusion with time in the Cathedral chapter; where K. plans to meet the Italian at ten o’clock, then later refers to eleven instead; he might well have cleared up the matter of the maid’s room where Block works and sleeps, which is at first windowless (“fensterlos”), although a few pages later it includes a window that looks onto an air shaft. But we can hardly hold the author of The Metamorphosis to a strict standard of reality. Kafka constantly distorts time and space, and often underlines the frailty of human perception. The critical edition therefore retains such apparent anomalies, allowing the reader direct access to Kafka’s text in progress, and here too I have followed the German version faithfully. 


The Trial begins as farce and ends in tragedy. The opening chapter has a strong theatrical air, complete with an audience across the way. Later that evening, when Josef K. reenacts the scene for an amused Fräulein Bürstner; who has just returned from the theater herself, he takes on both his own role and that of his accuser; replaying the farce, shouting his own name aloud with comedic consequences. The final chapter of the novel offers a carefully balanced counterpart in which the men who are sent for him, like a pair of “old supporting actors,” stage the final scene in the deserted quarry before yet another audience at a distant window. But this time no one is laughing. 

     Josef K.’s appearance before the Examining Magistrate at the initial inquiry is yet another farce, a staged gathering in which the supposed parties of the assembly are merely acting out their roles before the gallery, under the direction of the magistrate. In the lawyer’s apartment, Huld calls in the merchant Block and offers a performance intended solely to demonstrate his power to K. Even the priest’s appearance the cathedral has all the trappings of a private show for K.’s benefit. 

     Throughout the novel the line between farce and tragedy is blurred in such scenes. Although they are connected at the level of plot, the relationships are made striking and forceful in the language itself. The Muirs’ translation weakens these connections by failing time and again to render Kafka’s language precisely. When K. accuses the inspector of staging “the most senseless performance imaginable” before the “audience” at the opposite window, the Muirs misread “führen … auf” as a reflexive verb and simply have him “carry on in the most senseless way imaginable,” while the group opposite is turned into a “crowd of spectators.” When K. reenacts that same scene for Fräulein Bürstner in the second chapter, moving the nightstand to the center of the room for his performance, he tells her she should “visualize the distribution of the characters” (“die Verteilung der Personen”) including himself, “the most important character,” before the action begins. The Muirs lessen the effect of this language by having her simply “picture where the various people are,” including K., “the most important person,” and undermine the sense of a rising curtain implied by “Und jetzt fängst es an,” with a colorless: “And now we can really begin.”

     Taken individually, such considerations may seem minor; but over the course of the novel they accumulate with great power. Kafka took special care to create verbal links between important passages in the work, links the Muirs either missed or unintentionally weakened on several occasions. A few examples will have to suffice. 

     The verb “verleumden” from the opening sentence of The Trial is repeated only twice in the novel. Regardless of what we are to make of these reoccurrences, we should be able to hear the echo. Thus, when Frau Grubach says: “Ich will Fräulein Bürstner gewiß nicht verleumden” (“I certainly have no wish to slander Fräulein Bürstner”), the German reader is immediately alerted to the connection. The same is true in the fragment “Fräulein Bürstner’s Friend,” when Frau Grubach protests: “Ich sollte meine Mieter verleumden!” (“That I would slander my boarders!”) On both occasions, the Muirs use the phrase “speak ill of,” which fails to recall either the original “traduced” or the revision “telling lies” with their own first sentence, and a striking link between K. and his series of women helpers is lost. 

     Fräulein Bürstner’s apparent reappearance in the final chapter reminds the reader again how crucially linked she is to K.’s fate. Kafka has reinforced this in many ways, including his use of the verb “überfallen” (to attack by surprise, assault). Although this verb has a range of meanings, including “mugging” if it occurs on the street, it is of crucial importance to render it consistently. In the opening chapter K. wonders: “wer wagte ihn in seiner Wohnung zu überfallen” (“who dared assault him in his lodgings”). On two further occasions in that first chapter he refers specially to the “assault” upon him, and when he appears before the examining magistrate at the initial inquiry he repeats the same term twice again. Thus when he hesitates to speak to Fräulein Bürstner because his sudden emergence from his own darkened room might have “den Anschein eines Überfalls” (“the appearance of an assault”), and even more strikingly, when he suggests to her “Wollen Sie verbreitet haben, daß ich Sie übergallen habe” (If you want it spread around that I assaulted you”), and repeats the phrase a sentence later, the verbal link between his own slander and arrest and that of the young typist is made abundantly clear. A final link in the chain of associations is forged when K. worries that his lawyer is simply lulling him to sleep, “um ihn dann pötzlich mit der Entscheidung zu überfallen” (“so that they could assault him suddenly with the verdict”). The Muirs, however; render the six occurrences where K. is referring to his own arrest or the possible verdict as: “seize him,” “grab me,” “fall upon me,” “seized,” “some wild prank,” and “overwhelm him,” while the three times Kafka uses the term in Josef K.’s conversation with Fräulein Bürstner are rendered as “waylaying her” and “assaulted” (twice). Thus no reader of the English version has been in the position to recognize one of the central links in the novel, nor fully understand why her appearance in the final chapter is such a strong reminder of the futility of all resistance.


The dominant discourse in The Trial is of course legal. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that the whole of the novel is written in legalese, reflecting Kafka’s own training as a lawyer; and his abiding interest in the law, effacing all distinction of tone, so that “everybody in The Trial, high or low, uses the same language.” But in fact the voices of the novel are clearly varied. They include not only the long legal disquisitions of the lawyer Huld, but also the voices of women, of K.’s uncle, of the merchant, the painter and the priest. Moreover; the narrative itself is recounted in a voice we have long since come to recognize as distinctly Kafka’s own. The translator’s task includes rendering these voices individually, even when they are all caught in the web of the law. 

     The German word “Prozeß,” as has often been noted, refers not only to an actual trial, but also the proceedings surrounding it, a process that, in this imaginary world, includes preliminary investigations, numerous hearings, and a wide range of legal and extra-legal maneuvering. Over the course of a year, Josef K. gradually weakens in his struggle with the mysterious forces that surround him. His true trial begins with the first sentence and ends only with his death. The translator’s trial is in its own way a similar ordeal. Faced with his own inadequacy, acutely aware each time he falls short, the translator too is impelled toward a final sentence in an imperfect world.

     Nothing I have said can or should obscure the Muirs’ very real achievement, nor the crucial role their translation has played in establishing Kafka as a major figure in world literature. By providing the reading public with smooth and readable translations of his great unfinished novels, they rendered a laudable service to literature. They could hardly have been expected to treat the text with any special reverence in 1925, for they had no way of knowing the importance Kafka would eventually acquire for the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they created versions that are on the whole accurate and a pleasure to read to this very day, versions that have moved millions of readers. My own translation, occasioned by the appearance of the newly restored text in German, is only one of many others that will surely follow over the years. It is always dangerous to translate an author one reveres as deeply as I do Kafka. I have tried to be true to him, and to his trial.

Franz Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial, was originally translated by Edwin and Willa Muir in 1937 from the German edition edited by Max Brod. Breon Mitchell’s translation, a portion of which was originally published in Conjunctions:30, Paper Airplane, is from the German critical edition edited by Malcolm Pasley.
Breon Mitchell is the translator of a new version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Schocken), a portion of which was originally published in Conjunctions:30, Paper Airplane.