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Found In Translation

By Stuart Mitchner

Lost, lost, it’s always lost. Nobody talks about being found in translation but isn’t that what happens when the translator is delivering the goods? In winning the 2013 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for delivering Reiner Stach’s Kafka: Die Jahre der Erkenntnis into English as Kafka: The Years of Insight (Princeton University Press 2013), Princeton resident Shelley Frisch was praised for “finding fresh, compelling, and often witty ways” to sustain the biographer’s voice and “render his German into English.”

Shine a light on that word finding. Every translator embarks on a quest to find the essence of the original. In his quest for the essence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis Princeton University Professor Emeritus Stanley Corngold finds “the gold standard” of Kafka’s masterpiece, as noted on the back of the new Modern Library edition. Another award-winning translator and longtime Princeton resident, Professor Emeritus Edmund Keeley turns the cliché on its head by losing himself in his translations of the poetry of Seferis, Cavafy, and Ritsos on his way to finding the Greek spirit living in the language.


Getting lost in translation does have its lighter side. Take Monty Python’s sketch about what happens when John Cleese’s hapless Hungarian tourist, visiting London, attempts to make conversation using a phrase book in which everyday expressions in Hungarian have been diabolically matched with English equivalents like “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” and “My nipples explode with delight.”

While the rogue who concocted the Dirty Hungarian Phrase Book was summarily hauled into a Python kangaroo court, far be it from me to suggest a similar fate for Clara Bell, a tidy, well-meaning early translator of the great sprawling fabulously earthy and untidy prose domain of Honoré de Balzac. It’s as much my fault as hers and Ellen Marriage’s that the Human Comedy was “lost in translation” to me until Penguin released new renderings of Balzac’s major works in the 1970s.

For example, there was the time a search into rarely traveled Balzacian neighborhoods led me to the only available translation of a work that shall remain nameless because I stopped reading it when Clara Bell put the exclamation “Bless my stars” into the mouth of a monster. There he is, the epitome of villainy, a bloodthirsty, scheming, unredeemable ravisher of innocence raging in “the very tempest and whirlwind of his passion,” and out comes “Bless my stars!”


A newly translated anthology of stories from The Human Comedy (New York Review Books $17.95) edited and introduced by Princeton University’s Andrew Mellon Scholar Peter Brooks, offers a chance to compare a few of Clara Bell’s word choices with those of a new generation of translators. While my brief survey turned up nothing on the “Bless my stars” level, there’s an instance in the story, “The Red Inn,” when Bell’s translation “A man cannot always be in mischief” becomes in the new version by Linda Asher, “Man cannot spend all his time doing evil.” Some may say it’s no big deal when “mischief” replaces “evil” in Balzac, but coming upon so tame a word in the sordid interior of this dark narrative is a bit like encountering a fussy throw rug on the bloodstained floor of a crime scene. Then consider Bell’s translation of the story, “Farewell,” where a cigar-smoking, rifle-carrying hunter vents his spleen at one point by going “Pooh!” Judging from the fact that no expletive of any kind shows up at that spot in the new translation by Jordan Stump or, from what I can find, in the original French, it appears that this “pooh,” including the exclamation point, is Clara Bell’s contribution, another piece of quaint interior decoration to spruce up Balzac’s dark estate.


After reading about the embattled homeowners at the center of Edmund Keeley’s new novel The Megabuilders of Queenston Park (Wild River $14.95), I can see a variation of “lost in translation” in what happens to houses and neighborhoods being crudely wrenched into the architectural equivalent of purple prose or doggerel by builders and developers determined to translate property into money.

During the ordeal that inspired Megabuilders, Keeley was at least able to escape into Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos (Archipelago $15), which he co-translated with Karen Emmerich. For this diversionary adventure he had to assume the persona of a poet who joined the Greek resistance to the Axis occupation and fought in the Greek Civil War, for which he spent years in a detention camp, a confinement the translator and poet in effect contend with together: “There are four walls / I count them / I have five fingers / I count them too.”

It was another sort of adventure for Princeton University’s David Bellos, who traveled back to 1957 and France’s then-sparsely reported military engagement in Algeria to track down Daniel Anselme’s forgotten book On Leave (Faber & Faber $24). As the director of the University’s Program in Translation puts it in his introduction, On Leave had “almost disappeared.” This salvaging of a lost piece of history is dramatic evidence of what can be “found in translation.”


Keats’s enduring appreciation of Chapman’s Homer  (“like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”) comes to mind when one imagines the moment the humble translator contemplates the opening sentence of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Princeton resident Stanley Corngold is one of the foremost explorers of planet Kafka. Since his Bantam translation has sold more than a million copies, it’s safe to say that his version of that famous first sentence prevails, all the more since his Kafka is used in the Norton Critical Edition and now once again in the handsome new Modern Library paperback, with Corngold’s enlightened selection of background material and critical commentary.

The translator’s moment of truth is in deciding what to call the thing Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find that he’s become. Corngold makes an all but indisputable case for “monstrous vermin” in his introduction, a choice supported in the letters from Kafka written during the time of composition (October-December 1912 and later). Vladimir Nabokov prefers “a monstrous insect,” as does Susan Bernofsky, except that she cheats by prefacing it with the qualifier “some sort of” in order to, as she says in her January 15 New Yorker piece, “blur the borders of the somewhat too specific ‘insect.’ “ Her rationale is that Kafka “wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor discovers them.”

Kafka’s next sentence is, however, far from “hazy,” as Corngold’s translation demonstrates: “He was lying on his back as hard as armor plate, and when he lifted his head a little, he saw his vaulted brown belly, sectioned by arch-shaped ribs, to whose dome the cover, about to slide off completely, could barely cling. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, were waving helplessly before his eyes.”

Moreover, by using “vermin” instead of “insect,” Corngold makes sure that we know from the outset that this is an object so foul that Gregor’s devoted sister hurries to open the window against the stench whenever she enters his room.

The variations on vermin are mentioned throughout the Modern Library edition: bug, louse, millipede, flour beetle, bloodsucking insect, bedbug, giant stage beetle, cock chafer, duncolored house bug; in his notes, Kafka refers to “ black beetle” and the cleaning woman calls Gregor “an old dung beetle.” In the text I first read, as translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, the word of choice was cockroach, which had serious resonance if you happened to be deep in Constance Garnett’s Dostoevsky at the time.


In the end, Kafka’s inclination seems to have been to resist giving the thing Gregor Samsa has become a dictionary-specific identity. Among the letters Corngold provides in his “Backgrounds” is the one from the author to his publisher, Kurt Wolff, pleading for an illustration on the title page that avoids showing “the insect itself. Not that, please, not that! … The insect itself cannot be drawn. It cannot even be shown from a distance.” Kafka goes on to suggest that Gregor’s parents and sister be seen “in the room with the lights on, while the door to the totally dark adjoining room is open.”

Thankfully, the publisher heeded the author. If you think of translation purely in terms of imagery, the tangible evidence of the metamorphosis should never be depicted, made legible, seen, or found, to get back to the word we began with in reference to the Translator’s Prize named for Kafka’s first publisher Kurt Wolff and his wife Helen.

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