Navigate to Arts & Letters section

A Letter on Kafka

On faithful translation and who it is for

by
Ross Benjamin
and
Marco Roth
January 19, 2023
Mondadori via Getty Image
Franz Kafka in Prague, 1922Mondadori via Getty Image
Mondadori via Getty Image
Franz Kafka in Prague, 1922Mondadori via Getty Image
Earlier this week, Tablet Critic at Large Marco Roth reviewed a new translation of Franz Kafka’s diaries (“A Kafka for Our Times”). Translator Ross Benjamin responds:
Earlier this week, Tablet Critic at Large Marco Roth reviewed a new translation of Franz Kafka’s diaries (“A Kafka for Our Times”). Translator Ross Benjamin responds:

Marco Roth notes that an important text in Kafka’s diaries—his first draft of what became the opening of the unfinished novel posthumously titled Amerika—appears in his diary notebooks out of chronological order, because Kafka broke it off in mid-sentence and then resumed writing it in one of his earlier notebooks. Roth then misleadingly implies that the new Schocken edition of the Diaries, in my translation, doesn’t provide guideposts to help readers navigate this: “The reader must stumble on the second half first, without benefit of footnotes or an index entry.” He neglects to mention that the words Continuation of the text from page 256 appear in parentheses and italics before the second half of the draft begins (on p. 86), and that a superscript at the end of the first sentence refers readers to endnote 219, which explains “Continuation of the first part, contained in the Sixth Notebook (pp. 244-256), of the text …” In the Sixth Notebook the first half of the draft likewise refers readers to an endnote after the first few words: note 606, which cross-references the earlier pages and notes. At the end of the first half there’s another italicized parenthetical: Continuation of the text on page 86. Finally, in the Translator’s Preface, on p. xiv, I highlight the fact that this draft was published in this sequence as one of the idiosyncrasies of a faithful transcription of Kafka’s handwritten diaries. The necessity of keeping to the sequence of the notebooks arose from Kafka’s occasional habit of grabbing an older notebook that happened to be at hand to continue his diary writing in its remaining blank pages, sometimes from the back, without dating every entry. 

I have long admired Marco Roth’s critical intelligence and eloquence. Even those of his arguments here that I disagree with seem to me worth thinking through. I’m inclined to register explicitly only one point of disagreement—with his assertion that “anyone with a scholarly interest in Kafka would be able to read him in the original German.” Even if this were true, and I don’t believe that it is, it doesn’t say anything about all of the readers whose interest in Kafka is not necessarily scholarly, but who until now had no access to his complete, unexpurgated diaries, that is, to a translation based on what he actually wrote.

Ross Benjamin

I’m grateful to Ross Benjamin for his gentle chastisement. I feared he might suggest I have the parenthetical continuations tattooed on my body, in the manner of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” As for the experience of navigating “The Stoker” in the new, complete Kafka diaries, Ross’ letter provides an even more accurate sense of what that’s like than I was able to convey, for which I’m additionally grateful. On the question of who might read the diaries and in what form, I hope we can agree that Kafka—like the law—should be open to everyone.

Marco Roth

Ross Benjamin is the translator of The Diaries of Franz Kafka.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.