Franz Kafka is the most commonly listed writer in a study of online dating profiles, followed by Milan Kundera and Paolo Coelho. Kafka has his own adjective and, as Michelle Woods points out in her fascinating Kafka Translated, has even made it into The Wire. You can’t get much bigger. And yet Kafka made it big in English via a series of translators. Woods sets out to make those translators a little more visible, and to explore other aspects of translation in and of the writer’s work. Her book’s tagline is How Translators have Shaped our Reading of Kafka.
She begins with his first translator, into Czech in this case, Milena Jesenská. Many readers know of her through the collection of Kafka’s Letters to Milena. I read these letters once, only once, and then tucked them away safely on the shelf because I knew I ought never to read them again. Love letters between a writer and his translator. They can’t be un-read and it’s an idea a translator would probably do better not to have in her head. Too late. Jesenská’s side of the correspondence has been lost, and she remains so invisible to this day that she rarely warrants a surname. Woods tells us how she has been dismissed as a “bad translator” by all sorts of people who don’t read Czech, and romanticized by novelists. Her story as Kafka’s lover and a victim of the Nazis is inviting but is rarely told with her as an active protagonist. Being a reader of Czech, Woods goes some way to redeeming Jesenská’s translations and certainly lends her a voice of her own, as a journalist and translator. She also gives us some fascinating information on the literary climate in which Kafka’s Czech translations were first published – a new nation interested in writing experiments and new styles, with much scope for non-domesticating translation.