Franz Kafka’s “Amerika: The Missing Person”

Reviewed by Eugene Sampson

Image of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika: The Missing Person”

Literary translators strive to make their texts count as literature in the language they are translating into.

In English, more often than not, this means producing a text that will not threaten to break the spell of reading. Sensitive translators know that there are any number of things that can sever the connection between the reader and the translation. Tastes in style differ between literary cultures. Readers from German-speaking countries are said to be more tolerant of long, sometimes page-length sentences. English readers of these same sentences who find themselves wondering when the period will show up—oops: the spell is broken.

Sometimes readers will be unfamiliar with the culture in which the text originated. I recently spent several hours trying to explain baseball to authors Peter Weber (Switzerland) and Jan Böttcher (Germany), who were utterly baffled by references to baseball in Don DeLillo's Underworld and Phillip Roth's American Pastoral. Did their unfamiliarity with baseball compromise their ability to appreciate the books as a whole? A few footnotes might have gone a long way in squelching their doubts. But nothing breaks the spell of reading like the intrusion of a footnote. True, the mere mention of lead-off men, bunts, and ground-rule doubles would already have broken that spell, but footnote opponents feel that since, by and large, today's fiction writers don't use them in their stories and books, footnotes are an unwelcome intrusion in literary translations.

These are just two examples of the kinds of challenges that confront translators while they work on making foreign literature accessible to new audiences. Let's say we can make a complete list of all of these factors. The textual history behind a given work might rank low among all the cultural and linguistic differences existing between languages and literary cultures. And yet it is the textual history behind the publication of Franz Kafka's novels that complicates the process of translating them, which makes the challenges more challenging. Mark Harman's recent retranslation of Amerika: The Missing Person reflects this textual history. It also demonstrates that putting foreign books into the hands of readers who otherwise lack the ability to read them can also result in gentle challenges to literary convention.

Amerika: The Missing Person chronicles the wanderings of the teenage Karl Rossmann. Banished by his parents for his role in a scandal, Karl aspires to establish himself in a career but instead must often settle for what work he can get. His ties to his homeland and family wither away while he is forced into allegiances with other immigrants, in which distrust is a built-in feature, and he is taken advantage of. The novel, in this edition, ends in a handful of fragments which leave Karl's fate undecided; the book's ending is not the same thing as the conclusion of the novel, for it has none. This is not due to Kafka's experimentation with literary form. Instead, this edition reflects the condition the manuscript was in when Kafka abandoned the project.

The Missing Person (Der Verschollene) was the novel Kafka started first; between the time he began working on it, in 1912, and his death in 1924, Kafka wrote much but published comparatively little. His friend and de facto literary executor Max Brod rectified this situation by persuading a small Berlin publisher to take a chance on all three of Kafka's (unfinished) novels, a task that required invasive editing on Brod's part, since Kafka's handwritten manuscripts could never have been published in their raw form. Brod deleted the lines and paragraphs Kafka had crossed out, added punctuation to bring Kafka's text in line with standard High German as it was, and is, used by the publishing industry, moved material from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, titled some chapters, omitted fragments that didn't clearly fit into the book's larger chronology, and indicated changes in speaker with new paragraphs. (This list is not exhaustive.)

In shaping Kafka's texts into something publishers would recognize as a formal submission for publication, if not as literature, Brod's work swerves close to the translator's own task of making her or his texts count as literature according to the standards of the language in which the text will appear. This is because translators and editors sometimes think alike when they consider how audiences will react to the decisions they make or do not make. After Kafka was admitted to the canon of world literature (thanks in no small part to the translations based on Brod's editions), scholars and critics who could read the German manuscripts discovered that Brod had gone too far in his editorial work; the omission of certain passages and fragments in some of the novels steers interpretation solely toward theology, while standardizing Kafka's German effaces his roots in Prague's Jewish-German milieu. This discovery provided the rationale for new critical editions in German, which in turn justified a new round of translations. The covers of these German editions claim to present Kafka's works "…in unadulterated form" ("… unverstellter Gestalt"), while the corresponding English-language editions refer to the "restored text" of Kafka's work.

Unadulterated. Restored. I'm not sure if these words are suitable for describing a draft of an incomplete novel from which the edits have been factored out. But Brod's treatment of the manuscripts—however necessary it was to get Kafka's books published in the first place—has resulted in a kind of "hands off" editorial policy that threatens to intrude upon the process of translation. One can imagine a translator of lesser skill and expertise than Harman feeling cornered and resorting to translating literally, that is, to substituting English words for German ones wherever possible, as a way of avoiding the appearance of "adulteration." Yet Harman's text reads like English through and through, even though he wisely retains almost all of the textual inconsistencies that have been reinstated in the German critical edition, despite the threat they may pose to the spell of reading. Sometimes there are changes in the spelling of characters' names (Mack to Mak).

Sometimes, when characters talk to one another, a change in speaker is not set off in a new paragraph ("'So the balustrade along this corridor opens out into a chapel?' 'Yes.' 'Just as I thought,' said Karl."), resulting in paragraphs which can go on for a few pages. Sometimes punctuation vanishes in the course of a sentence ("What was this village that had such bells!). This grouping of examples gives the impression that the text plods along from one impediment to the next. But spread out, as they are, over the entire book, these idiosyncrasies yield a certain charm. Harman's translation gives us the opportunity to see once and for all that, sometimes, deviation from convention (be it orthographical or otherwise) does not have to be a real stumbling block to a satisfying reading experience.

Harman's diction does double-duty for him too. His use of the impersonal "one" (as in "One doesn't say that…") gives the text a slightly antiquated feel, which contrasts nicely with the then-futuristic inventions Kafka slips into his vision of America, like the showerhead as long and wide as the bathtub over which it is suspended. Translators of German and other languages go back and forth about whether this word isn't too formal and frequently prefer the impersonal form of "you." But when Karl thinks, he refers to himself as "you," a word occasionally placed in quotations marks, and this may leave the reader wondering if Karl is addressing another character or himself, until context or the phrase "Karl thought to himself" clarify the matter. Using "one" instead of the impersonal "you" avoids further confusion and helps to differentiate between the protagonist's thoughts and the voice of the narrator.

Does the publication of an edition that approximates the handwritten manuscripts give us a new Kafka? Readers looking for the stylist they got to know in the translations of Willa and Edwin Muir, that is, the English translations based on Brod's editions, will have no problem finding him here.

 

Whereas Mr. Pollunder kept a friendly eye on Karl as he headed toward the door, Green did not even turn to look at Karl—even though one does instinctively tend to meet the eyes of the person opposite—and Karl thought that this behavior reflected Green's belief that each of them should try to get by on the strength of his own abilities—Karl for himself, Green for himself—and that it would take the victory or annihilation of one or the other before the inevitable social relationship could be established.

We probably don't need to be told that purposefully ignoring someone requires fighting off natural visual impulses in order to recognize rude behavior—that's just Kafka twisting the knife in the worldview of his protagonist and narrator. This display of disrespect allows Karl to extrapolate, or exaggerate, an understanding of the world in which social relationships require victory or annihilation. How a relationship that presupposes annihilation is even possible, to say nothing of inevitable, is less a question than a feature of the world that Kafka's figures inhabit. One of the features of the world we inhabit when we read Kafka is an encounter with contradictions that, rather than impeding the flow of the story, sometimes, surprisingly, propel it forward.

The ability to recognize in this early novel the Kafka who would later become a major twentieth-century author lays the foundation for casting The Missing Person as the fledgling effort of a literary genius—something worthy of attention only in its relation to later books and stories and aphorisms. In his introduction, Mark Harman argues strenuously and persuasively against thinking about the book in this way only. Whatever the degree of completion the text may be in, The Missing Person is a sturdy enough novel to accommodate multiple readings (Harman identifies six: "episodic picaresque tale," "bildungsroman," "a story of immigration or exile," "a dark vision of urban civilization," "a self-reflective modernist novel," and "a send-up of the American dream"). For me, what sets this book apart from all of Kafka's other texts is the palpable feeling of tenderness he extends to his hero Karl. Because this feeling never wavers, it holds the book together both in the absence of a formal ending and despite all the inconsistencies in the manuscript edition. Mark Harman has not wavered from translating this tenderness consistently; it's there on every page.

Nothing brings together the interests and work of authors, translators, editors, and publishers like a title. In a few letters, Kafka referred to his manuscript as Der Verschollene, the missing person. Max Brod renamed the book Amerika, which was properly anglicized to America in the first translation. The problem facing publishers today is how to remain true to the project of the manuscript editions while not inadvertently giving the impression that this book may be a new discovery in Kafka's oeuvre. (The titles of the other two novels, The Trial and The Castle, are Kafka's.) Mark Harman's Amerika: The Missing Person strikes a compromise between the publication history of the book and the unedited manuscripts. "Amerika" is more than the German cognate of "America." It names Brod's editorial undertaking per se, the work of getting Kafka into print. Appropriately, Kafka's title follows Brod's like a descendant. Amerika: The Missing Person. The title also signals that Kafka is even more complicated than we had thought; that this complication stems from publication history and literary convention does not mean that Kafka's book suffers from it.

Eugene Sampson has an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. His translations have appeared in this journal, 91st Meridian, and The Modern German Library. He has taught courses in comparative cinema, politics, and literature in Germany, and is presently the program coordinator at the Goethe-Institut Chicago.