There is a photograph still extant of Franz Kafka arriving in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where on the same evening of January 27, 1922, he began writing The Castle. Like the country doctor of his own incomparable story or like the formidable Klamm in The Castle itself, Kafka made the trip rather laboriously by horse-drawn sleigh; in the photo he stands, pinched and shy, by the rear runners, his ordinary street shoes heaped with snow. A faint smile appears to play upon his lips, but it is difficult to tell for the print is blurred. It is evening; snow is falling. Drifting snowflakes speckle the flanks of the two black horses that pull his sleigh. Kafka arrived in this north Bohemian town near the source of the Elbe just as K. himself, the truculent surveyor of The Castle, arrived. “It was late evening when K. arrived,” the novel begins in the new translation by Mark Harman, “the village lay under deep snow.”1 Like Kafka’s own writings, the photograph has the mysterious force of those dimly recovered instants in which a fateful occurrence takes shape, though masked by the inconspicuous trappings of the quotidian. The photograph is itself elusive. It is reproduced in the second edition of Klaus Wagenbach’s Franz Kafka: Bilder aus seinem Leben (Berlin, 1989) but was not available for the first edition of 1983; since it was this earlier edition that was translated into English the following year and published by Pantheon, the image remains somewhat difficult to come by. As with much in Prague, and in Bohemia generally, the recovery of the past, even of the factual visage of the past, is accompanied by documents, testimonials, and images that waver, inexplicably vanish, and just as inexplicably reappear. For, notwithstanding all the labors of those whom Czechs call kafkologové (“Kafkalogues”)—a particularly obsessive tribe of researchers, about whom more later—much in Kafka’s life and work remains, and may always remain, obscure.

When Kafka began drafting The Castle on the very day of his arrival in Spindelmühle, it was the first sustained writing he had attempted for over a year. From his diaries, we can see how even simple events, such as walking in the snow under the Riesengebirge, became charged for him with moral and spiritual significance. Just before coming to the resort, at the time of a drastic breakdown in his always precarious health, Kafka had spoken of making “an assault on the last earthly frontier,” to which he appended the cautious gloss: “and indeed, an assault from beneath.” Spindelmühle may have come to represent that final boundary, not only in a geographic but in a spiritual sense. Two days after arriving, he noted: “in this world the situation would be terrible, alone here in Sp[indelmühle], even worse, on a deserted road where one continually slips in the dark on the snow, a meaningless road, moreover, without earthly goal. . .  .” (I translate from the 1990 critical edition of the Tagebücher as the standard English translation is inaccurate.) This bifurcating significance, so to speak, between the “earthly” and the “unearthly”—or what Kafka, identifying with Moses, termed “the land of Canaan”—is reflected in the novel itself, which wavers between physical, even sordid, description and the evocation of some farther, sublimer realm.

Just before coming to the resort, Kafka had spoken of making “an assault on the last earthly frontier.”

Such ambivalence presents the translator of Kafka with one of his thorniest challenges. Edwin and Willa Muir, in their 1930 translation, opted decisively for the more spiritual emphasis, whereas Mark Harman favors a quite literal, and decidedly untranscendent, approach. I am not convinced that either approach, taken to the extreme, is adequate, or even correct. That Kafka had a distinct genius for making the simple complex, and the complex more so, is well documented (Czechs now call an absurdly complicated situation a “kafkárna” and the adjective “Kafkaesque” has, of course, taken hold in most modern vernaculars). In a sense, Kafka’s complexity has survived him, for, beyond a certain safe point, entanglement in the world of Kafka and the world of the Kafkalogues—the two worlds are not always parallel—proffers a startling number of thickets for the unwary.

Though outwardly Kafka enjoyed himself at Spindelmühle (he particularly mentions tobogganing), the three-month stay seems to have held deeper and more portentous resonance for him. Upon arrival, as his diary records, he was startled to note that he had been registered in the hotel guest book under the name “Josef K.” In the face of this mysterious, and indeed inexplicable, mistake, which amused Kafka more than it alarmed him, he made the rueful comment: “Should I enlighten them [the desk staff], or should I let myself be enlightened by them?”

Franz Kafka arriving in Spindelmuehle in 1922.

The trip to Spindelmühle (or Spindmyln, as it is now known in Czech) cannot have been easy for someone in Kafka’s condition. It is not especially easy even today. As I found during a recent trip to the Czech Republic, this northern resort has fallen on hard times. Acid rain has devastated the forests which were once its glory; the guidebooks paint a portrait of a bleak plateau thistled with dead pines. Even to determine the train or bus schedules can prove tricky. And Czechs themselves turn abruptly dubious when one inquires about that trip to the north. At the travel office near Wenceslas Square in Prague, the redcheeked girl on duty exclaimed, “Spindmlyn, Spindmlyn,” in titillated disbelief when I asked for brochures, and she seemed amazed that any foreigner might want to travel there, especially out of season (in winter, snow masks the dead trees). In the face of such tiny but effective obstacles and the strange evasions of all from whom I sought information (if you want to provoke amused incredulity, ask any Czech how to go to Spindelmühle), I found myself identifying with K., the protagonist of The Castle, for whom ostensibly straightforward queries about everyday concerns quickly become labyrinthine in complexity. But then the peculiar difficulty of even arranging, let alone of making, such a journey began to impress me as appropriate to the whole arduous process of grappling with Kafka and his enigmatic texts, whether by interpretation or by translation (itself, unavoidably, a form of interpretation).

For the translator of The Castle, the deciding moment looms early, in the very first paragraph of the novel, with K.’s arrival in the unnamed village. In German, the last sentence of this opening paragraph reads: “Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke die von der Landstrasse zum Dorf führt und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor” (“K. stood for a long time on the wooden bridge that leads from the highway to the village and looked up into the apparent emptiness”). The tell-tale phrase is “die scheinbare Leere.” The Muirs translated this as “the illusory emptiness.” Harman renders it as “the seeming emptiness.” That qualifier “illusory” already tinges the sentence and the paragraph with vaguely metaphysical overtones, while “seeming” conveys nothing more than the sense that the emptiness is merely apparent. The point here is not that Harman is more accurate—he generally is—but that he, like the Muirs before him, had to decide at the outset whether he would follow an allegorical, a symbolic, or a literal reading. Though Max Brod rejected the allegorical interpretation, he argued forcefully for a “symbolic” reading, and this was espoused, even more vigorously, by the Muirs. Indeed, their mystico-theological slant influences their translation from the first page to the last, and it is this, beyond obvious inaccuracies of language, to which Harman and others have taken exception. Incidentally, while Harman is entitled, and even obliged, to draw attention to the Muirs’ faults as translators, he has no right to patronize them, as he does in his rather shameless introduction, as merely “a gifted Scottish couple.” Edwin Muir was a superb poet (championed by T. S. Eliot), as well as an autobiographer of genius, and Willa Muir an eloquent memoirist.

The Muirs worked from the edition of Das Schloá by Max Brod published in Berlin in 1926 by Kurt Wolff. In order to secure an audience for Kafka’s work, Brod smoothed out and rationalized a text which Kafka had abandoned, after nine months of work, in a fragmentary state. The Muirs’ translation of 1930 used this early, and quite imperfect, version of the novel. Brod and Heinz Politzer then brought out an improved edition of the German text with Schocken Verlag, Berlin, in 1935, hardly an auspicious time or place to launch a still obscure Jewish novelist. This edition, which reappeared as the “definitive” version in 1951, contained a number of missing chapters as well as fragments omitted from the 1926 edition. (It is this version, combining the Muirs’ translation with new translations of the restored material by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, that forms the basis of Knopf’s widely available Everyman edition). The significance of Harman’s version lies principally in the fact that he has worked from the later “critical” edition prepared, after some twenty years of meticulous toil, by the Oxford Germanist Malcolm Pasley and his colleagues.

This baffling novel, at once slapstick and byzantine, is ambiguous even in its title.

Kafka had come to Spindelmühle at the urging of his doctor, who accompanied him there, and the visit proved salutary. He wrote two short stories as well as the opening scenes of The Castle. This baffling novel, at once slapstick and byzantine, is ambiguous even in its title: in German, the word Schloss denotes “lock” as well as “castle” and, needless to say, the novel is a lock to which innumerable keys have been fitted. Harman’s new version has been greeted with unusual acclaim immediately upon publication. Not mentioned in the notices I have seen, however, is the fact that Harman’s is not the second but the third translation of The Castle and appears close on the heels of the 1997 Penguin U.K. “Twentieth-Century Classics” version by the English translator J. A. Underwood. No acknowledgement is made in the Penguin volume that it is the 1982 critical text (and not the “definitive” edition of 1951) that forms the basis for Underwood’s translation. This, together with the fact that Underwood has produced an elegant translation—superior, in my opinion, to either the Muirs’ or Harman’s—seems to me to undercut much of the crowing self-praise in which both Harman and his publisher Schocken engage. (By contrast, Underwood’s translation has been greeted with little more than the thunderous silence that often accompanies good writing not conducive to bombastic hype.) Harman makes no allusion to the Penguin version in his introduction, but could he have been totally unaware of his rival, given the almost claustrophic little world of Kafka studies? Curiously, there are at times surprising, almost exact, coincidences of phrasing between the Harman and Underwood versions. This may of course be accidental, yet, as I compared both translations, I occasionally found myself wondering whether some surreptitious consultation had not taken place between the two translators.

No detailed line-by-line, or even word-by-word, comparison is needed to demonstrate that Harman (and Underwood as well) is almost always more literally accurate than the Muirs. This is not only because Harman has had a superior text on which to draw, but because he is scrupulously faithful to the bare lexical denotations of Kafka’s German. But literal accuracy isn’t always felicity, and in the translation of a classic, such as The Castle, more is required than the plugging in of studiously correct equivalents. Again and again while reading Harman’s translation, I found myself wondering how Kafka had become so stylistically unappealing (even, it must be said, so boring) in his hands; and again and again, in turning to Pasley’s German edition, I found that while Harman was usually right in his meanings, he was often wrong, and sometimes completely off, in his ability to catch the correct tone or register of a phrase or sentence. At certain moments, this occurs because Harman injects American colloquial expressions into his translation; had Harman been consistent in this “Americanization” of The Castle, his translation might have been truly fresh and new. But it is disconcerting to find, in the midst of some lengthy and tortuous disquisition, redolent of the later Habsburg bureaucracy, such interjections as “come on!” (for the German geh!). Or again, incongruously, Harman will avail himself of a term with British rather than American overtones such as “cheeky” for the German keck (instead of, say, “impudent” or even “smart-alecky”). Now “cheeky” and “cheekiness” are perfectly correct as translations of keck and Keckheit, but in an American context they have an unavoidably arch overtone. To such overtones—and there are, alas, many--Harman remains deaf.

The Castle is a novel populated by voices. Accordingly, the various characters engage in soliloquies and disputations, perorations and harangues, that often clash head on but as often intertwine and harmonize with one another, as in a duet. So pronounced is this feature of the novel that one could almost envisage it as a kind of oratorio, perhaps in Sprechgesang. Even the final, unfinished chapter breaks off with the words aber was sie sagte, “but what she said . . . ,” as though the hubbub of voices that animates Kafka’s narrative might have gone on unchecked forever. The voices in Kafka’s original speak, moreover, in widely variegated tones and accents. There is K.’s voice, increasingly strident, self-important, and litigious; there is the softer, more winning voice of Frieda, his onetime fiancée; the voice of the landlady, at once choppy and serpentine. There are the voices of the landlord, of K.’s wacky assistants, of the mayor, of Barnabas, Olga, and Amalia, of the child Hans, not to mention the “singing” voice of the telephone, and, even, in a letter, of the dread Klamm himself. All these voices, together with many others, are distinctive, if not inimitable. As Malcolm Pasley himself has pointed out (his comments are translated in an appendix to Harman’s translation), the text of The Castle as Kafka left it was largely a kind of script for his own public readings; this accounts for his unpredictable punctuation, among other things. (Readers with German may get a sense of this remarkable “spoken” aspect of Kafka’s prose by listening to the recordings made by the actor Gert Westphal of the complete Trial and of passages from The Castle. There is also an electrifying reading of “A Report for an Academy” by the great Klaus Kammer).

A translator should at least attempt to convey this pervasive aspect of Kafka’s text. The Muirs, whatever their other failings, did so, and so does Underwood, but here, too, Harman falters. If his version were to be read aloud or performed, it would sound farcically stilted, if not garbled; this is decidedly not the effect when Kafka is read aloud in the original German. The problem lies, it must be said, not in Harman’s grasp of German, but in his English. Too often while reading his translation I was reminded of an obsessive hobbyist painstakingly assembling some gingerbread castle out of prefabricated pieces: each piece has been correctly positioned in its specific slot, but the resulting structure is crabbed and unharmonious. To cite but one example (I cannot bear to quote more), it is hard to imagine any English speaker giving vent to the following, under any circumstances: “You’re pursuing me, oh K., why are you pursuing me. I will never, never go back to you, the very thought of it makes me shudder. Do go to your girls; they’re sitting in their chemises on the oven bench by your side, so I’m told, and when anybody comes for you they snarl at him.” Whatever Harman may claim, such a passage (and a number of others like it) does not fairly represent Kafka’s German or the German of his time. The Muirs render the same phrase as “they sit beside you before the fire in nothing but their shifts;” this is less literal than Harman but, I would argue, closer to the sense of the original. (Underwood doesn’t do much better here than Harman.) Harman would probably argue (as indeed he does in his introduction) that he is merely faithfully reproducing Kafka’s own German prose which, especially in the later chapters of the novel, often does read poorly. But, this clumsiness is characteristic of all of Harman’s version, and not merely of the sketchier later portions. Indeed, it would be impossible for an uninitiated reader coming to Harman’s translation to fathom Thomas Mann’s praise of Kafka as a superb prose stylist or to appreciate why Hermann Hesse could term him the geheimer König deutscher Prosa (“the secret king of German prose”).

Harman and his publisher boast that he has for the first time conveyed the speed of Kafka’s prose; in the introduction, as in the Schocken press release, much use is made of the word “breathless.” There is some truth to this, but the matter is more complex than Harman imagines. Kafka’s prose in The Castle is often swift, but it is just as often slow and contorted and even ponderous. Harman attributes Kafka’s narrative “speed” to a number of factors, including his sparing use of punctuation, a device to which he is undoubtedly right to draw attention; his own version may be drab, and deliberately so, as he claims, but it does move along at a swift clip, unlike the Muirs’ more stately version. Nevertheless, in so “faithful” a translation as Harman’s, the reader without German cannot always easily distinguish between what is original in Kafka’s style and what is merely a convention of German literary prose. Thus, one of the factors that accounts for Kafka’s narrative swiftness is, contrary to what Harman claims, a standard device of German literary prose: the linkage of brief, often staccato, declarative sentences, separated by commas, within a single overarching “compound” sentence. To an American ear, a clipped style gives the effect of celerity, for we register such sequences of abrupt or even choppy sentences as swift. Narrative speed is the classic device of the thriller, after all. But in German this is not necessarily the case, and many authors, particularly Kafka’s beloved Kleist, avail themselves of comparable parataxis. Moreover, even if swiftness had been Kafka’s principal object, we should still have to account for the effect of the complete sentence which these terse components form. While there may indeed be a sense of rapidity within a sentence of Kafka’s as it hurtles and accumulates, the full stop which invariably closes it conveys quite another effect. Indeed, it is one of Kafka’s most characteristic stratagems to corral a bevy of impetuous and jostling utterances within the confines of an encompassing, definitive sentence. (As it happens, Malcolm Pasley himself has dealt with this very matter magisterially in a chapter of his recent collection of essays, Die Schrift ist unveränderlich [Frankfurt, 1995].)

Perhaps all study of Kafka involves a kind of “trip to Spindelmühle” which not only his biographers, exegetes, and translators must make but also, indeed, all lovers of Kafka.

The growing tendency in Kafka studies and in translations of Kafka, which Harman well exemplifies, has been to assume that the closer we get to the actual text, the Urtext, as it were, the closer we shall come to understanding Kafka’s meaning, whatever it may prove to be. There is some truth to this, of course. And the Kafkalogues from an early date have applied this reasoning not only to the texts themselves, but also to the facts of Kafka’s life. I am not sure that such an approach, ever more obsessively pursued, can ultimately produce the understanding that is being sought. And yet, as Kafka himself might have said, what other way lies open to us? Perhaps all study of Kafka involves a kind of “trip to Spindelmühle” which not only his biographers, exegetes, and translators must make but also, indeed, all lovers of Kafka. An extreme illustration of this relentless tendency can be found in the monumental (and often monumentally silly) Kafka-Handbuch which the German scholar Hartmut Binder edited in two plump volumes in 1979. There, for example, amid much that is valuable and even indispensable with reference to Kafka and The Castle (and, in particular, its literary, political, and historical sources), we find several pages dedicated to the infant Kafka’s “pre-Oedipal phase” and a full seven pages given over to his “anal phase” (“die Analphase”)! I cannot say that I had ever before burst out laughing so frequently in reading a German scholarly tome as during my consultation of this prodigious yet weirdly maniacal handbook.

Of course, the ultimate Kafkaesque complexities involve his texts and the manuscripts thereof. Though since 1982 a definitive edition of Kafka has been in progress in the Kritische Ausgabe—lovingly and painstakingly prepared under Malcolm Pasley’s direction (and beautifully produced by S. Fischer Verlag)—in 1995 Stroemfeld/Roter Stern Verlag, based in Frankfurt and Basel, announced that it would soon begin publishing yet another parallel “historical-critical edition” of Kafka’s works. This is an edition with a vengeance, in more senses than one.

Roter Stern (the name means “red star” and suggests the political orientation of the press) became known some fifteen years ago for its controversial edition of the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, an edition intended to correct, challenge, and supplant the monumental Gross Stuttgarter Ausgabe of that poet’s works. The Stuttgart edition of Hölderlin is, like the Pasley Kafka, a patiently constructed and elaborately appointed edition of Hölderlin’s works and, at first glance, it is hard to imagine how any further editorial intervention might be needed, or even possible. The edition gives Hölderlin the kind of marmoreal immortality his work seems to claim as its natural due. Alas, nothing is permanent, even in the transcendent realms of German scholarly editing, once a virtual guaranty of aere perennis!

Roter Stern nurtures the philologically subversive ambition of revealing classic texts not as some ultimate, and immutable, final product but as works in a continual state of emergence. That is, not merely the posthumous, unedited, previously unknown works of classical authors, but the very works of those authors accepted as “canonical” are grist for the Red Star mill. Though Hölderlin was the first, the press has not lagged behind, for completely new editions of such authors as Hebel, Keller, Kleist, and Trakl, among others, are appearing or have been announced. In a typical Roter Stern edition, it is not a reading text that is intended so much as a scrupulous facsimile reproduction of the author’s original manuscripts with all the erasures, second thoughts, marginal jottings, overstrikings, squiggles, doodles, false starts, and aborted passages. (The closest parallel that comes to mind in the English-speaking world is the Cornell edition of Yeats.) When consulting a Roter Stern edition, one has the oddly conspiratorial sensation of looking over the writer’s shoulder as he writes.

The maiden publication in Roter Stern’s H.K.A.—or Historisch-kritische Ausgabe—of Kafka’s works is a completely new facsimile edition of The Trial; the volume was announced for 1997 but is only now appearing (although a handsome and fascinating prospectus, which contains many facsimiles of the original manuscript and a rather prickly apologia for the edition as planned, has been available for some time). The Kafka heirs, however, who own the manuscripts deposited by Max Brod (with the notable exception of The Trial) in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, remain adamantly opposed to Roter Stern’s project. As I write, the struggle has worsened to the point that the question of Roter Stern’s right to proceed with a new edition of The Castle (or any of the other Bodleian materials) must now be decided by a court in Frankfurt. Whatever Roter Stern’s motives may be, their endeavor does not seem to me to be quite as threatening as supposed. In the case of Hölderlin, for example, the Roter Stern edition is now regarded as an indispensable supplement to the Great Stuttgart Edition, and has actually afforded new insights into that poet, his working methods, and intentions that could not perhaps have been achieved in any other way than through an exposure of his actual holographs.

No translation of The Castle, given its tangled textual history, can ever be a straightforward venture; for the translator or editor, Kafka’s very words must appear at times to evanesce in a welter of variants, like sleigh trails in snow. Behind each choice of words there may often lie vehemently contested alternatives. Of the three translations into English of The Castle, Harman’s is certainly the most literal. In this it stands in a modern tradition of literal renderings, such as the Buber and Rosenzweig version of the Old Testament done in the 1920s, which seek to convey not merely the meaning, but also the very feel, of a text in a foreign tongue. Though his translation is hardly enjoyable to read (Harman would perhaps argue that this is what Kafka intended), it does give a sense of the harsh and jagged texture Kafka’s prose on occasion displays. There is of course more than one tradition in the art of translation, and the Muirs, and now Underwood, follow another, older tendency, that of Florio’s Montaigne, Smollett’s Cervantes, Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát. Such translators, while they strive for accuracy, are also concerned with the final formal shape of the work at hand; when successful they create equivalents which assume a kind of classic status that is at once desirable and dangerous—desirable because they help us understand the genius of an alien text, dangerous because they are often accepted unthinkingly as exact renditions, which they cannot be. For all their clunkiness, therefore, alternative versions such as Harman’s will always be necessary.

In dealing with difficult masterpieces like The Castle, the quest for ever more accurate readings, for profounder interpretations, for scrupulous and yet artful translations, will continue to tantalize. The trip to Spindelmühle will always be long and there will remain many obstacles along the way. Even to book passage will seem uncertain. The buses will be packed with boisterous workers on holiday; the trains will idle interminably at forlorn switching stations. And if you do get there, the names will look alien, the old landmarks will have been replaced, the hotels will have new façades, and when you register they will mistake you for somebody else. The peaks all around will be unsightly, the paths muddy, the snow mere slush. And yet, to approach that forbidding and whimsical domain that constitutes the Castle and its precincts, it is a trip that will need to be attempted, and attempted often, even in the dead of winter.


  1.  The Castle, by Franz Kafka, translated by Mark Harman; Schocken, 352 pages, $25.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 3, on page 32
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/1998/11/franz-kafka-the-trip-to-spindelmuumlhle

Popular Right Now