Franz Kafka had a touch of the Celt in his humor


How it’s New York: Michelle Woods teaches at SUNY New Paltz, and on top of that, I’m pretty sure the word “Kafkaesque” was coined in New York. If not, it should
Franz Kafka had a touch of the Celt in his humor

Franz Kafka had a touch of the Celt in his humor

have been. There will be a launch for the book at the Czech Center in the city on Feb. 11. Be there!
How it’s Irish: Michelle is half-Irish, half-Czech, and on top of that, one of Kafka’s contemporary re-translators is Irish.

So, finally, it’s out! My book, Kafka Translated: How Translators have Shaped our Reading of Kafka
might be best explained by its subtitle, “How Translators Have Shaped Our Reading of Kafka” – by translators, I mean translators, but also adaptors.

And, it may not seem so, but there is actually an Irish connection:

one of the contemporary re-translators, Mark Harman, is Irish, although he has lived and taught in the States for 30 years. Thanks to a fascinating interview with him, I explore not only his Irishness and its effect on Kafka’s prose in English, but also the effect of his Irish literary background, especially Harman’s love of Beckett. When he was re-translating The Castle for Schocken publishers, he went back and re-read Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, and, in my book, I look at the effect that this re-reading of Beckett informs the new Kafka.

Irish writers also affected Kafka – I argue that Kafka was a literary re-interpreter and that writers like Jonathan Swift influenced his work, and, especially, in Swift’s case, the humor in the work.
Harman is not the only Celt to translate Kafka – Kafka’s first translators, Willa and Edwin Muir, were both island Scots – Shetland and Orkney – and Kafka Translated looks at how Willa Muir’s experience of growing up as native Scots speaker led to a kind of closeted translation in very proper English of Kafka’s work. Oh, and also her private claim to have been the only translator of the work (as opposed to her husband), a fact she felt the (her words) “patriarchal” world would never accept.
There’s sex, love, lust and scandal in here!



Last Frebruary, Michelle was interviewed by Michelle Johnson about her book. Here is an excerpt from that piece:


MJ: In an essay for Harper’s, David Foster Wallace writes about teaching Kafka, particularly Kafka’s humor: “the particular sort of funniness Kafka deploys is deeply alien to kids whose neural resonances are American.” Might translators feel tempted to update and Americanize Kafka’s expression—translate his humor—when working on American translations of his work?

MW: I give my students the DFW essay the first Kafka class they take because you have to persuade them that Kafka is funny, and part of it relates to a dominant (and mostly cinematic or televisual) idea of what funny is. Wry, dark, ironic central European humor is not necessarily on their radar (wait till they hit middle-age!). And yet, a lot of Kafka’s humor is quietly slapstick with some connection (possibly through Yiddish theater) to vaudeville and silent movies (Kafka was a movie-goer when he wrote Amerika). For instance, the opening scene of The Trial has Josef K. handing the guards a bicycle license and then, later, he physically acts out his arrest scene to impress Fräulein Bürstner. Kundera says Philip Roth suggested the Marx Brothers should play the characters, and I think you can see that physical humor. I usually show the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera when my class reads “The Stoker”—the opening chapter of Amerika, but Robinson in Amerika being wrapped up in bandages and pedestrians just hopping over him, and Karl being chased by the police are other examples.


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