Franz Kafka Stories

Translations of Kafka

It is important to note when reading Kafka in English that he originally wrote in German. Any English version you may read is a translation, and therefore a subjective interpretation of his work. The translation you select can have a reasonable effect on your experience of the work. Some points you may want to take into consideration when selecting a translation may include:

  • How well the translator preserves the meaning of the original.
  • Whether the translation closely resembles the rhythm of the original.
  • How easy or enjoyable you find it to read.

How varied translations can be is evident from the famous opening sentences from The Metamorphosis and The Trial. The following are three different translations of The Metamorphosis.

Willa and Edwin Muir:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
David Wyllie:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.
Stanley Corngold:
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

The difference between "uneasy dreams", "troubled dreams" and "unsettling dreams" is a subtle one, but the difference between "gigantic insect" and "horrible vermin" is not so subtle. The former gives a very specific image of what our protaganist has transformed into, while the latter seems intended to leave more to our imagination.

A problem with all of these versions is that Kafka's efforts to introduce some delightful alliteration are lost. The original German is:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

As for translations of The Trial's opening sentence, I can do no better than this article by James Higgs.

There is no "correct" translation and there is always debate about which is the best, so do some research and choose one you prefer. Of course if you don't have the time or inclination to do any research, it's probable that the first one you pick up will be just fine.