Six Questions for Shelley Frisch on Reiner Stach and Franz Kafka

If you are a Kafka fan (or just a fan of great literary biographies), the translation of Reiner Stach’s enormous, three-part biography is something not to miss. Now that it has been translated into English by Shelley Frisch, the book offered English-language readers unparalleled insight into Kafka’s life, his world, his colleagues, his lovers, his family, and of course his writing. As a longtime Kafka devotee, I found this biography exceptional, not just a great book about Kafka but simply a great book to read.

I reached out to Frisch to answer a few questions about her work with Stach’s gigantic book (which, as we will see, took quite a long time to translate). Frisch is no newcomer to German literature, having published widely on that subject, as well as on cabaret, the political and linguistic dimensions of exile, and on translation, and she holds a Ph.D. in German literature from Princeton University. In addition to her translation of Stach’s Kafka biography, for which she has been awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, she also co-directs international translation workshops with Karen Noelle, and is currently serving on three translation juries. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Scott Esposito: Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka is a major work in terms of its size and depth. It is particularly important for audiences in the English-reading world, as much of the scholarship and biographical details that Stach brings to bear in the biography have not appeared in English (despite being well-known in the German-reading world). Can you tell us a few new things that make this project such a significant one for readers of Kafka who can’t access the sources the Stach uses?

Shelley Frisch: There is a vast array of scholarship, on both sides of the Atlantic, devoted to analyses of Kafka’s literary works, and a high degree of “cross-pollination” between American and European Kafka specialists. Readers of Kafka seeking textual analyses have ample material to draw on. By contrast, the big missing piece has been a comprehensive biography that invites the reader in to experience, to whatever degree possible, what it was like to live in Kafka’s world and see the world through his eyes. There have been startlingly few biographies of Kafka, in spite of the tremendous fascination he has held for readers over the generations, and not one has accomplished Reiner Stach’s stated objective of offering a way into Kafka’s perspective on life in general and his place in it. Max Brod’s and Klaus Wagenbach’s early biographies of Kafka are limited and hopelessly outdated, and the few other biographies to emerge over the intervening decades did little to fill in the many gaps. Until Reiner Stach embarked on this study, which spanned two decades of intensive and extensive research and writing, there was a treasure trove of untapped information that had yet to be evaluated and presented to readers, much of it tucked away within academic tomes and archives. I think the problem is less the language barrier than the huge amount of sleuthing required to track down myriad details (“mosaic pieces” or “puzzle pieces,” as Reiner calls them, often found in unlikely places) that made Kafka Kafka, and fit them together to draw an artful, compelling, and highly readable picture of the world that was Kafka’s and highlight the hows and whys of his emergence as a key writer of and in his time.

The critical edition of Kafka’s works in Germany brought together many of his unpublished writings, yet much invaluable material continued to be as unknown to readers of Kafka there as they were here. Reiner Stach’s biography has been a revelation on both continents. We knew about Kafka’s “office writings,” for example, but relatively little attention had been paid to the way the information Kafka gathered for his legal briefs shaped his literary texts. We knew that Kafka and Brod set up a contest of sorts to chronicle and compare their impressions of the air show in Brescia, but Reiner Stach was the first to highlight the ways in which their differing texts shed light on Kafka’s perceptual approach to writing. And we knew that Kafka was intrigued by technology, but now we learn how this interest informed Kafka’s narrative technique and thematic range.

Reiner Stach’s biography breaks significant new ground in Kafka studies in at least two other ways: he explodes enduring myths about Kafka’s alleged estrangement from everyday life, and his work is the very first to evaluate and integrate portions of the Max Brod literary legacy in Israel, long concealed from literary scholars.

SE: How did you come to be the translator of this book, and how long did this project take you to complete?

SF: Both parts of that question are more complex than you’d think! In a sense, I came to be the translator of this biography a total of three times, not because the work is in three volumes, but because three different publishers were involved (and even more editors!). I was first offered the project by Norton; my editor there, with whom I’d worked previously, hoped to acquire the biography when it was up for auction in the US, and to have me translate the 3-volume set. We were already discussing specifics when an editor at Harcourt, with whom I’d had no connection, outbid him, and the biography was Harcourt’s to publish. I soon bounced back from my “Well, there went that!” moment and turned my attention to other things. I believe the year was 2002 (back when I was still on aol, so it’s hard to retrace the timeline on my computer without rifling through chaotic paper files…). A couple of months passed, and Harcourt contacted me, somewhat out of the blue, as it now seemed, with a fine offer for this project. That first volume (Kafka: The Decisive Years) was published in 2005. Halfway through my work on the volume, the editor left Harcourt, and I continued to work on it with editor Drenka Willen.

Then Houghton Mifflin merged with Harcourt, and a good many of the latter’s literary projects fell by the wayside, including the Kafka project, although the first volume had been showered with glowing reviews and prizes. It was now time for a second “Well, there went that!” moment. Eventually I heard the happy news that, not too long after Reiner Stach published the second volume of the Kafka biography in Germany (Kafka: Die Jahre der Erkenntnis, which became Kafka: The Years of Insight in English), Princeton University Press decided to acquire the full 3-volume set! I was delighted by the opportunity to work with PUP, which is a five-minute bike ride from my house, and the people there are terrific. The second volume was published in 2013, along with a softcover edition of the original Decisive Years volume. By the third and final volume (covering Kafka’s early years, in quasi-Kafkaesque fashion), I was translating the book at the same time that Reiner was writing it, and it was published in the US in 2016, well ahead of schedule. At PUP, I worked with a total of three editors, first the wonderful Hanne Winarsky, who acquired it, then Alison MacKeen, who temporarily replaced Hanne when she left for California, then Anne Saverese, my current (or must I now say “former”?) editor par excellence. I cannot imagine a better home for the biography; I’ve gotten to know and admire the work of outstanding editors, and also of production, publicity, and prize-applying people (had to strain a bit to complete the alliterative set here).

How long did the translation take? Well, for the aforementioned reasons, there were substantial gaps between my work on each volume, but from soup to nuts, fourteen years went by. Each volume took me about 1½ years to translate, and an additional ½ year to work with editors and production people. I am both thrilled and woeful that the project is over; I will miss the years I spent with Franz.

SE: I wanted to ask you to discuss some of the challenges of translating this book. Usually on this website we deal with works of literary fiction, not biographies-in-translation of iconic authors, so I’m especially curious about things particular to this project that might have posed a challenge. On that same note, there is of course a lot of Kafka’s own writing in this book, and I read that you chose to re-translate the Kafka, even in cases where translations were already available. Can you also comment on why you made this decision and any challenges there?

SF: Let me start with your second question. There were several reasons for opting to retranslate textual excerpts that already exist in English. First, there is no standard or critical edition of Kafka’s works in English, so if I were to pick and choose from available translations, I’d be introducing the cacophony of several different translators’ voices. Second, the Kafka community’s understanding of the wording and import of Kafka’s texts continues to evolve as newly revealed documentation comes to light; published translations, particularly the older ones, don’t necessarily reflect our current understanding of what’s in the texts. Third, I had distinct notions of how Kafka’s texts needed to read in English, so it made more sense for me to translate them myself. The fourth and final reason is a practical one: paying for permissions to use published translations can run up a big bill if lengthy passages are reproduced.

The translation of this biography was rendered unusually complex by the volumes’ scrambled dates of composition, and because some key information about Kafka’s early life was coming to Reiner and then to me in dribs and drabs, and via clandestine paths that precluded our referencing certain information fully, so I had to work with my editors to supply only truncated endnotes in spots. One purpose of the Translator’s Preface I wrote for the Early Years volume was to address the compositional and annotational oddities surrounding this project.

A key challenge for me was to come as close as possible to the high stylistic bar Reiner Stach had set with his superb, engrossing prose. His multifaceted voice was not the easiest to capture. An anonymous reviewer of the biography when it was still in manuscript form noted in this regard:

Stach writes with a quite special voice—better, a quite special voice inside a fine and normal one: this fine and normal voice conveys social and historical data coolly and lucidly; but in this other voice, Reiner Stach aims for psychological and literary-critical brilliance in a racy diction, exploiting the vernacular and “illustrated” with (over)abundant figures of speech [that] will prove a hardship to a translator.

The text is of course studded with Kafka’s voices: Kafka as prose writer, Kafka as creator of memorable characters with their own narrative voices, Kafka as diarist, as letter writer, as wooer, as drafter of legal briefs … Because Kafka wrote in German in a Czech-speaking community, the Czech language made numerous appearance in the biography. I had to devise a system for choosing German, Czech, or Anglicized place names, and be sure to double-check the Czech. And because I worked on the three volumes over a prolonged period of time, with extended gaps between each volume, I had to keep cross-referencing each volume-in-progress with the earlier ones to recall the myriad decisions I’d made along the way in order to ensure a uniformity of tone and terminology.

And then there’s the issue of my own voice. I deliberately inject my idiolect and flavoring into the texts I translate to make them live in their own right and not be reduced to mere translationese. After all, one of the cruelest possible barbs about a writer’s style in English is to accuse a text of sounding “translated from the German.” As an acoustically minded translator, I read much of the material out loud to hear its effect, and to make the medium mesh with the message. (I do enjoy alliteration, as you can see.) I’m quite fond of this comment by Toni Morrison: “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.” Though not a smoker, I strive to send up intriguing smoke.

SE: Could you tell us about this book’s reception, both in Germany and in English translation? I’m also curious to know if you have been asked to represent it (and, by that token, to represent Kafka) in things like conferences, book events, and the like, and how it has been to take on that role.

SF: The biography has enjoyed a dazzling critical reception on both sides of the Atlantic. John Banville, Michael Dirda, Colm Tóibín, Cynthia Ozick, Joy Williams, Robert Alter, Gary Giddins, and Imre Kertész are among the biography’s many reviewers in the English language. The most intriguing narrative stance adopted by any reviewer to date has certainly been that of William Gass, in his essay called “Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” which was published first in Harper’s Magazine and then as a chapter in Gass’s Life Sentences. The narrator of this piece is none other than Gregor Samsa himself!

The very latest review came out just the day before yesterday, in Open Letters Monthly. Here’s a link to Robert Minto’s incisive essay, which offers a sweeping overview of all three volumes of the biography. My favorite passage in the review is this:

Reiner Stach’s biographical trilogy belongs in the company of the masterpieces of literary biography, [l]ike Leon Edel’s Henry James, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky. Thanks to the superb work of Stach’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the trilogy also stands out in English at the sentence level, for the unbroken clarity, verbal ingenuity, and unflagging momentum of its prose. … With the care of an archeologist, Stach picks up each available piece of Kafka’s history, habits, and personality, brushes off the dust, holds it to the light, and turns it carefully to examine every side.

The biography has received numerous awards in Germany (the prestigious Bavarian Book Prize) and here (the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, and longlisting for the PEN Translation Prize). As for whether I’ve represented the book for the English-language readership: most assuredly! I’ve lectured about the biography in all kinds of venues, recorded podcasts, translated essays by the biographer and others for news publications, took part in an extended book launch, and promoted the work to journalists, on the social media, and to anyone else willing to listen. How has it been to take on the role? It’s been exhausting but exhilarating and rewarding, because the biography is that good.

SE: As someone who has lived in a sort of intimacy with Kafka for several years now, I’m curious to know what are some of your favorite moments from his life, and if you could name one or two textual moments in Kafka’s writings that stand out for you.

SF: Off the top of my head, I’d say that the moments in his life I most enjoy recalling are the ones that bring a smile to my lips, or a belly laugh to my—well, belly. I marvel at Kafka’s parents’ decision to give Franz a healthy start in his professional life by setting up an asbestos factory for him to run. I picture him arriving at a Christian fundamentalist nudist colony and refusing (initially) to part with his swim trunks. I see him getting a coveted promotion at work and responding with a roar of laughter instead of the expected somber expression of gratitude. I watch him getting engaged and disengaged, several times, at the drop of the proverbial hat, most startlingly while courting Felice Bauer, a woman whose looks (her teeth in particular) are repulsive to him. I laugh every time I see him, in my mind’s eye, “Fletcherizing” his food while his father cringes behind a newspaper so as not to witness this act (you’ll have to read the biography to follow that one . . .).

I also find instances of hilarity throughout his writings, such as in the story fragment about the Olympic swimmer who cannot swim. My funny bone is also tickled by numerous episodes in all three of Kafka’s (unfinished) novels: Josef K.’s visit to the painter Titorelli in The Trial, Karl Rossmann’s time with Brunelda in The Man Who Disappeared, and K.’s encounters with a whole host of kooky characters in The Castle. One of my favorite short stories is “Report to an Academy,” narrated by an ape who’s been forced to become human to gain some degree of freedom. Here we learn an intriguing set of elements (spitting, getting drunk . . .) that are said to constitute humanness, and hence freedom.

I could go on and on, but I’ll end this question simply by quoting in full my favorite Kafka parable, the spare prose of which says it all:

Give Up

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and empty, I was walking to the station. When I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “You want to know the way from me?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give up! Give up,” he said, and turned away with a big sweep, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.

SE: Having read the biography, I think I can say that among the most fascinating things about Kafka are the lacunae. What do you consider the most fascinating unanswered questions about Kafka, and do you think we will ever know the answers to them?

SF: Here are some questions I’d love to know the answers to, and I’m highly doubtful of ever getting them: What texts have been irretrievably lost, and what pleasure might they have afforded us and revealed about Kafka? Why didn’t he complete any of his novels (or did he?)? Why was he so reluctant to part with his writings and get them published? And finally: although Kafka appears at long last to have found a reasonable degree of happiness with Dora Diamant when he was already confined to his bed and near death from tuberculosis, in what circumstances might he have found contentment while still able to enjoy it?

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