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Kafka's 'Trial' Gets New Translation




By Franz Kafka

Translated by Breon Mitchell

Schocken Books

$24, 304 pp.

Josef K. awakes one day and instead of getting breakfast discovers he has been arrested. It is at this moment that Kafka begins The Trial, probably his most widely read work after The Metamorphosis. Known for the strange quality of his writing and the presence of ambiguity and ambivalence in his texts, Kafka presents here a work that seems to almost define his style and his voice. Full of feelings of alienation and an ostensible hatred for authority, the novel manages both to convince and mislead its readers in a burst of sadness, rebellion and surrender that is quintessentially Kafka-esque.

Born in late nineteenth century Prague, Kafka struggled with the anti-Semitic sentiments of his countrymen and his father's controlling personality. Finding escape only in writing, he created a personal and innovative style. While fighting with his feelings for his father, soaked through with love and hatred, Kafka brought to paper the meditations of a mouse in a cage desperately looking for a way out. The Trial is a brilliant and lucid vision of this search, of a man who desperately searches for freedom against unknown and unknowable constraints, refusing to believe in these constraints and yet forced in the end to submit to them.

This new translation of The Trial is the first to appear in sixty years. Unlike the translators of the previous edition, Edwin and Willa Muir, who tried to clarify the text through interpretation, the new translator, Breon Mitchell, makes an effort to preserve the hidden meanings present in the original. To this end he painstakingly reviews Kafka's diction and syntax, searching for connotations not readily apparent in the German.

In addition to having decades of critical studies to rely on, Mitchell also has recourse to a new German edition of the work. The Muirs, translating from the original German release, were forced to work with an already altered text. Not only were some changes made converting Kafka's writing to High German, but some additions to the original text were made by Max Brod, Kafka's friend and the editor of his posthumously published works. The new text released in Germany disposes with these numerous alterations, presenting the novel in the form most closely resembling Kafka's initial writing. Using this new edition, Mitchell is able to better penetrate to the heart of the novel.

The previous translation seems to lead our understanding of the work in a specific direction, whereas the new edition leaves the theme more open to interpretation. K. is arrested in his room. The inspector he meets refuses to tell him of what he has been convicted, insisting that he lacks this knowledge. Throughout the novel, K. is continually denied the right to know what it is that he stands accused of. He is first informed that he has been arrested and later called to court for various proceedings relating to his trial. He takes on a lawyer and encounters numerous individuals with insight into court proceedings, yet no information is revealed to him about his trial.

From the very first sentence, the original English translation insists on K.'s absolute innocence, for the Muirs' formulation does not leave his claim of wrongful arrest open to doubt. Sticking more closely to the German, the new edition states that K. is arrested "without having done anything truly wrong." The result is to cast light on the possibility that the narrator, taking K.'s perspective, is somehow distorting the truth.

References hinting slightly at the protagonist's guilt emerge again throughout the novel. At one point K. refuses to confess, for example, causing the reader to wonder what he could possibly have to confess. At another time, when K. gets lost while searching for the court, he observes that he should be able to find the court automatically since he has been told that the court is attracted by guilt.

The changes in the new translation while subtle, are amazingly significant. The original translation views the situation as one of injustice, of a man who has been arrested for crimes he has not committed, by a judicial body of which he knows nothing. The new translation allows for the possibility that K. is indeed guilty of wrongdoing and the court that condemns him may in fact be right to do so.

There is no denying that the novel leaves us with an unpleasant impression of the court, a secret and hidden organization moving along at a slow pace with each procedure being delayed by bureaucracy, hiring incompetent and often corrupt employees and mistreating them. Yet there is a contrast that clearly emerges between K. and anyone associated with the court. The court employees and lawyers tend generally to be poor, unhappy or sickly. K., on the other hand, is well off, holds a prestigious job at a bank, is confident of his abilities and generally pleased with his own behavior. Invited to the court for the first time, K. discovers with an emotion akin to condescension that it is located in a slum. Often showing scorn or disdain for those poorer than him, K.'s attitude seems designed to irritate the reader. The persona that emerges by the end is almost deserving of the troubles imposed on K. by the year-long trial and subsequent conclusion.

The Trial is an unfinished work. Kafka apparently did not intend it for publication and did not prepare it by correcting the numerous errors that abound. Inconsistencies in such matters as time or the spelling of names abound. Yet the rough and unfinished quality of the novel lends power to the ambiguity of its meanings. K. seems unjustly accused, yet his punishment may be appropriate. The court is presented in a negative light, yet compared to K. it sometimes seems to be the lesser of two evils as gross incompetence is contrasted with overplayed cockiness. The new interpretation finally presents Kafka's voice in an authentic way, showing how his style clearly lays out events before us while wildly obfuscating their meaning.

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