Back in the 1960’s some angry radicals liked to call their country Amerika, the k vaguely hinting that the land of the free and the home of the brave was in fact a cruel and alien place, with a whiff or two of Nazism. (Really angry radicals sometimes spelled it AmeriKKKa.) Curiously enough, English translations of Franz Kafka’s first novelwhich, like The Trial and The Castle, was neither finished nor published till after his death in 1924repeat this orthographical trick, as if to warn the reader not to confuse Kafka’s bizarre, hallucinatory landscapes with the real U.S.A. That warning is probably unnecessary, since in the very first paragraph Kafka’s protagonist, Karl Rossmann, sees the Statue of Liberty raising, not a lamp, but a sword, to the skies over New York harbor. At any rate, in his fine new version Michael Hofmann too adopts the German spelling, and for good measure throws in the alternate title The Man Who Disappeared (Der Verschollene), which is how Kafka himself referred to his manuscript. Then things get interesting.
For many years the only translations of Kafka available were those by Willa and Edwin Muir (1939-40). Germanless readers owe the Muirs a major debt of gratitude, and their handiwork can still be read with pleasure. It was fluent, felicitous, pleasantly quirky. Though at times it played (genteelly) fast and loose with the original, it did evoke the utterly strange and ominous world that Kafka conjures up with deadpan calm and eerie logic. But these days better-equipped translators (like Mark Harman, with his 1998 version of The Castle), possessed of more accurate texts and a clearer historical perspective on what Kafka was about, have come to replace the Muirs. As of now, Hofmann’s Amerika is unquestionably the translation of choice.
A quick comparison of what the Muirs and Hofmann do with the original is revealing. The Muirs begin by telling us that Karl is a poor boy, whereas Kafka actually says nothing about the boy’s poverty, only that he had been shipped away to the States von seinen armen Eltern, the point of which Hofmann captures with by his unfortunate parents. Arm does mean poor in German; but clearly his parents were unhappy (since their teenage son had just fathered an illegitimate child) rather than destitute (they could readily afford his fare). Even when the Muirs do not arbitrarily twist the original, e.g., translating Station (way-station) as eating-house, their version is generally less idiomatic, economical and smooth than Hofmann’s. In Chapter Three, where the Muirs write, The car was standing before a house which, like the country houses of most rich people in the neighbourhood of New York, was larger and taller than a country house designed for one family has any need to be, Hofmann says, The car had stopped in front of a country house, which, in the manner of rich people’s country houses around New York, was bigger and higher than country houses for single families needed to be. Still more tellingly, in the book’s last lines about a journey toward the Theatre of Oklahoma the Muirs have wavelets plunging underneath the bridges over which the train rushed; and they were so near that the breath of coldness rising from them chilled the skin of one’s face, Hofmann writes, They [the wavelets] plunged under the bridges over which the train passed, so close that the chill breath of them made their faces shudder. Kafka himself used the verb schaudern, and it is indispensable here.
The whole book, as Hofmann argues in his brief but pointed introduction, seems to contain more shudders than is generally recognized. Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod launched the idea that Amerika was the happiest of his fictions, with the utopian Nature Theatre viewed as a sort of heaven. But Hofmann cites the critic Hartmut Binder in reminding us that the story opens with a shameful fall, that all Karl’s efforts at finding a solid place for himself end in ejection, that in signing up for the Theatre of Oklahoma crew Karl gives the alias Negro, which sounds preposterous except for the fact that Kafka owned a book with a photo of a lynched black surrounded by grinning blacks. It was labeled Idyll in Oklahoma.
There is a lot more action in Amerika than in the later novels, and characters like Karl’s intrusive, self-appointed buddies Robinson and Delamarche have a distinctly hyperkinetic (American?) quality; but the movement is ultimately no more positive or progressive than in, say, his story An Imperial Message, or anywhere else in Kafka’s work.
Part of Kafka’s tantalizing genius is the way all his heroes’ judgments and perceptions turn out to be partially emendableand hence unreliable (so one cannot even have the secure finality of despair). The most crucial word in all of Kafka’s vocabulary may well be almost. In that sense, a Kafkaesque critic of Hofmann’s work might mention that despite its unquestionable superiority, it is printed with eye-fatiguing narrow margins and in smallish type, whereas the Shocken-Muir is splendidly legible. The Schocken edition has a very good preface by Klaus Mann and a foreword by E. L. Doctorow, and even some wacky illustrations by Emlen Etting, all of which the New Directions volume lacks. And in hardcover it costs $9 more than the Schocken paperback. In any event, American readers who have yet to venture through this weird country will find Kafka’s unique, ludicrous-baffling-haunting narrative, his fantastic Czech-German-Jewish self-portrait-disguised-as-road-movie more accessible than ever, thanks to the excellent translation of Michael Hofmann.