Lost in Translation: Kafka & the Impossibility of Writing
By Timothy Frawley
At the turn of the twentieth century, Prague was a cosmopolis, a linguistic crossroads, where Czech, German, Yiddish, and their various dialects merged and mingled. This was to have a great influence on Franz Kafka’s literary language and style. In a letter to his longtime friend Max Brod from June 1921, Kafka reflects on the relationship of contemporary Jewish writers to the German language—a generation of writers, he says, who fled to the German language to leave their Jewishness behind, but were not entirely successful—and wonders whether it is possible that they are indeed capable of producing German literature. The unexpected image Kafka employs to portray their situation is evocative of a multipedal animal or even a bug. They wanted to begin writing German, “but their little hind legs were still glued to their father’s Jewishness while their little front legs found no new ground,” writes Kafka.
These writers, he tells Brod, are confined by a series of “linguistic impossibilities:” the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently, and the impossibility of writing as such. They thus find themselves in a nest of contradictions. They cannot write, but they must; and they cannot write German, but they cannot write differently. The Jewish-German writer is thus not at home in his language; he has appropriated it, even made it his own, yet it remains foreign to him. For this writer, language is, in a word, uncanny.
Such uncanniness is virtually omnipresent in Kafka’s literary works; indeed, at times it appears as if his works are nothing more than the embodiment of it. They present the translator with the gargantuan task of rendering an impossible writing into another language, with its own set of obstacles and hindrances.
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