Friday, May 29, 2015

I don't want you to think you've overlooked anything: translating a Kafka story

Before the Law

a short story by Franz Kafka (translated by S. Bailey)

Before the law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and begs admittance to the law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant entry now. The man thinks this over and then asks if this means he'll be allowed to enter later. "It's possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not now." The gateway to the law stands open and the doorkeeper stands to one side of it. The man from the country bends over and looks through the gateway to see what lies within. As the doorkeeper notices this, he laughs and says, "If you're so tempted, go ahead and try to get in despite my prohibition. But take note: I'm powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. In one chamber after another there are doorkeepers, each more powerful than the last. I can no longer even bear the sight of the third doorkeeper." The man from the country has not expected such difficulties; the law, he thought, should be open and accessible to everyone. But he now looks over the doorkeeper more closely, taking in his fur overcoat, his large pointed nose, his long sparse black beard like a Tatar, and he decides he'd rather wait until he has received permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives the man a footstool and allows him to seat himself to one side of the door. There he sits, for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, tiring the doorkeeper with his requests. Often the doorkeeper conducts brief examinations of the man, asking about his home and many other things, but the questions are asked in the disinterested manner of powerful men, and in the end he only says once again that the man from the country cannot yet enter. The man from the country has equipped himself with many useful things on his journey, and no matter how valuable these things are, he offers them to the doorkeeper as bribes. To be sure, the doorkeeper takes all these things, but he always then says, "I'm only taking it because I don't want you to think you've overlooked anything." The man observes the doorkeeper without interruption as the years pass. He forgets about the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the only impediment to his admittance to the law. In the first years he curses his bad luck in a loud and thoughtless way, but when he is old he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childlike, and during the long years spent in study of the doorkeeper he gets to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur overcoat, and he begs the fleas to help him change the doorkeeper's mind. In the end his eyesight weakens and he doesn't know if it is really getting dark around him, or if his eyes deceive him. Probably now he can only see, in all the darkness, a radiance that shines eternally through the door to the law. He will not live much longer now. Before his death, everything he's experienced during the time there by the door gathers together in his head to form a question, one he's not thought to ask the doorkeeper before. He waves at the doorkeeper, no longer able to move his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend over very low, as the difference in size between him and the man from the country have become very great. "What do you want to know?" the doorkeeper asks. "You are insatiable." "Everyone strives toward the law," the man says, "so why is it that in all these years no one else has ever come to demand admittance?" The doorkeeper sees that the man is coming to his end, and in order to overcome the man's diminished hearing, he roars his answer: "No one else can come here for admittance, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now I can go and close it."
I translated this very short story into English during my lunch break. Why? Because I am interested in the process of translation, especially from German into English. I have an idea, you see, for a novel about a translator who will be hired to produce an English version of a German philosophy text. She will have to meet and interview the author, who speaks no English, in order to understand the philosophical terminology. Hijinks will ensue. Anyway, it seems to me that one good way to approach writing a translator character is to try my hand at translating texts. Hence this business. What interests me most is the way something can be perfectly clear in the original language, but one may still struggle to express it in English, because concepts are not grammar+syntax. The languages encapsulate concepts in different ways. I have noticed this with Russian and (as I dimly recall from my youth) Latin as well. When I get to it, my translator book will be interesting to write. I am sure I've made some errors in the Kafka translation. Some of my paraphrases may be less exact than some people might like, which was another quite interesting discovery.

No comments:

Post a Comment