Books

Scattered Links, 1/7: William H. Gass’s ‘The Pederson Kid,’ Franz Kafka, and Michel Houellebecq’s new novel

Let Me Build You

Funnily enough, I told a friend of mine the other day (who will hopefully contribute something here very soon) that this blog wasn’t meant to be a link dump; that is, I wanted everything to be original content. But I’ve read enough interesting stuff recently that I feel I ought to share—partly because I don’t update the books/film section enough and because, like the album reviews, it’ll give me a chance to jot down some thoughts on things that piqued my interest and allow me to revisit them and react to those thoughts at a later date. So here we go.

Gass-In-the-Heart-of-the-Heart-of-the-CountryI couldn’t be more excited about the reissuing of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. When I was at university I had to do an inter-library loan in order to get my hands on a copy, and I urgently wanted to do so after a curious and—until recently—little-examined novella entitled ‘The Pederson Kid.’ John Gardner discussed it in his guidebook The Art of Fiction, describing it as “a more or less perfect example of the form.” And he’s right. There’s a tendency in modern, short fiction (at least in America) of jumping around in time, be it in flashbacks or in moving forward weeks or months ahead, but ‘The Pederson Kid’ is virtually real-time save for a minor flashback towards the beginning. It’s an enigmatic little thing, more style than substance, or at least it appears to be that way. In two wonderful essays I discovered a while back—Nick Ripatrazone’s ‘Let Me Make a Snowman’ and Ted Morrisey’s ‘The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse’—both writers examine some of the unexplored elements of Gass’s masterpiece.

kafkaI recently revisited Kafka’s Complete Stories, flipping through the labyrinthine short fiction section, which is crowded with dozens of extremely brief tales, parables, and allegories. I once again came across ‘A Little Fable,’ which features a mouse lamenting the journey of his life before an ironic twist, all in three sentences. I searched online for a better explanation of the fable, one that David Foster Wallace used to begin his essay ‘A Few Remarks on Kafka.’ Naturally, Wallace doesn’t really give much of an explanation as to what the fable’s about, just kind of beating around the bush, hinting and nudging as if we should already know. Interestingly, though, I found this blog post ripping the Muirs’ translation a new one—a translating team Wallace approves of heartily. In it, the author shows how the Muirs’ poor choice in words alters the meaning of the fable considerably, a mistake considering the commentary I’ve read concerning translations of Kafka’s work suggests it is anything but mercurial. It leaves me to wonder just how accurate anything else I’ve read by the Muirs’ is reliable, and how much their translations altered my reading experience,

On a similar note, Rivka Galchen attempts to explain, in a review about Reiner Stach’s extensive Kafka biography, just what kind of funny Kafka is, since Wallace once again doesn’t really explain that. Perhaps the dark comedy (which feels horribly wrong to use) in his work stems from this real life experience, surely reminiscent of The Castle: “Here he is reading a letter from the tax office asking about capital contributions to the First Prague Asbestos Works, here he is writing back explaining that the factory had ceased to exist five years earlier, and here he is receiving another letter asking what his reply meant as no record could be found of the referenced original letter, and then here he is a few months later receiving a third letter threatening him with charges and a fine if he persists in not accounting for the capital accumulation on the First Prague Asbestos Works.”

soumission1Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Soumission (Submission) has caused quite a stir in France, if not the entire Western literary world. Set in 2022, a Muslim candidate named Mohammed Ben Abbes wins the election, and the country is forever changed. I’ve never read any of Houellebecq’s work, although what I understand is that he’s rather rightwing and usually dismissed save for one of his more recent books.The Paris Review, true to form, is a bit aggressive in its questioning, something I like and admire about the magazine. A nice exchange opens up between interviewer and interviewee, and I’ll let you decide how well Houellebecq holds up in defense of his controversial novel. Maybe I’ll read it before I wait to judge, but I’ll go ahead and say he’s got some kooky ideas as to what racism is, and I find it confusing that he thinks anti-Semitism and racism don’t often go hand-in-hand.

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3 thoughts on “Scattered Links, 1/7: William H. Gass’s ‘The Pederson Kid,’ Franz Kafka, and Michel Houellebecq’s new novel

  1. Thanks for linking to my post on Kafka. I should say that I am by no means an expert in German, though I know enough to be confident that the Muirs really mucked up “Little Fable”.

    In the other Muir translations I’ve compared to the original German, I haven’t found anything so egregious as this story, but I do find them frequently lacking, and I think they have an inscrutable tendency to translate non-literally where there is no pragmatic reason to do so.

    • Hello!
      After I originally read your post, I had my wife take a look at it (who is also by no means an expert in German, but she knows enough), and she also found the Muirs’ translation to be awfully strange. Maybe “A Little Fable” is one they dashed off. Any other examples you’ve come across that might considerably alter important moments in other Kafka texts? Perhaps one of his novels or a notable short story, like “In the Penal Colony”?

      • Most of the Kafka translation I’ve done was for a German class, where I only looked at his very short work (I’ve also translated “The Next Village” and “The Truth About Sancho Panza”). In neither case do the Muirs make Kafka incomprehensible in quite the way they do for “A Little Fable,” but they show the same general tendency of translating non-literally in ways that lose a lot of the tension in Kafka (especially by changing grammatical elements). So, for instance, in “The Next Village,” what the Muirs translate as “Life seems so foreshortened” is more strictly something like “Life so crowds itself together.” They’ve got the rough sense, but they change a reflexive verb, an action that life takes upon itself, into a mere seeming – much less dramatic. In “The Truth About Sancho Panza,” they change the clause ordering. In the original, both sentences start with “Sancho Panza,” but in the Muirs’ translation, both sentences have a later portion of the sentence moved to the front (“Without making any boast of it” and “A free man” respectively). This is somewhat understandable; the German sentence is deliberately convoluted in a way that is very hard to render sensibly and smoothly in English (I haven’t yet seen a translation of it I really like, and I think my own attempt is a failure), but it still importantly changes the emphasis from the original.

        I haven’t really compared the German original of any of the longer works with the Muir translations. My German is good enough that I can produce a translation with a dictionary and a lot of time, but I can’t really read smoothly yet, so long works are difficult. The one story I have looked at a little bit is “The Metamorphosis,” but only the first paragraph. I do think there is a major problem with how they translate the first sentence. The title, “Die Verwandlung” could be “The Metamorphosis” or “The Transformation.” The Muirs translate the first sentence as:

        “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

        The word they render as “transformed” is “verwandelt” – the verb form of the word from the title. So, no matter how you translate the title, you should be using the same word in the first sentence. I also find the translation of “Ungeziefer” as “insect” to be pretty flabby – from what I can tell, the word really seems to always have the implication of being a pest/vermin, something no one would want around (which is obviously of incredible importance later in the story). “Insect” doesn’t have that connotation to nearly the same extent as a word like “vermin”.

        I’d translate the opening paragraph as follows:

        “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself metamorphosed in his bed into a tremendous vermin. He lay on his armor-like hard back and saw, when he raised his head a little, his domed, brown belly, divided by arch-shaped braces, on which height the blanket, ready to slip down completely, could hardly preserve itself. His many legs, miserably thin in comparison to his other dimensions, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

        I guess I’ll point out one last thing, looking at the Muirs again. In the last sentence, aside from adding a mouthful of words (“which were”) that are simply not present in the original, translate “flimmerten” as “waved”. That is a decidedly non-literal translation which captures the objective movement of the legs, but doesn’t capture the subjective aspect of Samsa’s perception, the legs going in and out of sight (remember, he can only see his belly when he raises his head). I also like “flicker” because it captures something of the unreliability of his “miserably thin” legs, which “waved” does not do.

        Basically, in my (limited, and, again, non-expert) experience, what you get with the Muirs is a stripped down version of Kafka: you more or less get the action right (except in “Little Fable”), but the tone of Kafka you really only get through a fairly heavy filter. It’s a sort of Kafka-lite.

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