A Century On, the Search for the Real Franz Kafka Continues

The first time Franz Kafka’s voice entered my head, I was 15. Two new friends I’d made through our shared interest in literature had introduced me to his fiction, and we took turns reading the Willa and Edwin Muir translations to each other in the high school library. I distinctly recall the three of us reading “The Judgment” aloud and bursting out laughing at the passage when the protagonist discovers his father’s underwear is unclean and again when his father stands up on the bed to berate him. Later I learned that Kafka himself would erupt into laughter while reading his stories to his friends and was surprised only that this was portrayed as surprising. The nightmarish visions that made Kafka’s name synonymous with modern alienation and anxiety had come to eclipse other facets of his work, including humor. That humor, and so much else about Kafka, is nowhere more evident than in his most intimate writing, his diaries. But for decades, English-language readers had no way to know their full richness. As readers, we often don’t think about how translations can vary based on access to different versions of an original text. In the case of Kafka’s diaries, this was a particularly fraught matter. The only English translation available at that time, published in 1948-49, was based on a bowdlerized and substantially altered German edition that Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, had prepared. Brod had sanitized and sanctified Kafka, diminishing his complexity as a writer and […] | Virginia Gabrielli

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