Yoknapatawpha Crossing

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We read a short fable by Kafka today in the German literature course I’m kind of taking here in Münster. It seemed really good to me, so feast your eyes upon both the original, a translation by my own hand, and some comments we made about it.

Ein Kommentar

Es war sehr früh am Morgen, die Straβen rein und leer, ich ging zum Bahnhof. Als ich eine Turmuhr mit meiner verglich, sah ich, daβ es schon viel später war, als ich geglaubt hatte, ich muβte mich sehr beeilen, der Schrecken über diese Entdeckung lieβ mich im Weg unsicher werden, ich kannte mich in dieser Stadt noch nicht sehr gut aus, glücklicherweise war ein Schutzmann in der Nähe, ich lief zu ihm und fragte ihn atemlos nach dem Weg. Er lächelte und sagte: “Von mir willst du den Weg erfahren?” “Ja,” sagte ich, “da ich ihn selbst nicht finden kann.” “Gib’s auf, gib’s auf” sagte er und wandte sich mit einem groβen Schwunge ab, so wie Leute, die mit ihrem Lachen allein sein wollen.

And here follows my attempt at a translation:

A Commentary

It was very early in the morning, the street clean and vacant, I was going to the train station. When I compared the clock in a tower with my own, I saw that it was much later than I had thought, I needed to make great haste, the shock of this discovery left me unsure of my way, I did not yet know this city well, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He laughed and said: “You want to learn the way from me?” “Yes,” I said, “for I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up, give it up” he said and turned away with a great swing, as people do who wish to be alone with their laughter.

This was a great story for me, first because it’s short enough for me to get my head around in German, and second because it’s very interesting. I was surprised by how quickly problems arose in translating it; there are always certain elements of language that can’t be conveniently rendered in another tongue, but the fact that I saw instances of that in a piece this short was unexpected. There are two places in this story where my translation fails to capture the subtext of the original.

The first, and less problematic of the two, is the part which reads “luckily there was a policeman nearby.” The word Kafka uses, “Schutzmann,” is definitely referring to a police officer, but its literal meaning is more along the lines of “man who protects,” the implication being that he is both a representative of the authority of the state, but also has a more allegorical function, which I’ll mention below.

The second problematic passage is the ‘answer’ the policeman gives when he is asked about the way: “Von mir willst du den Weg erfahren?” The important point here is that, in the original, the policeman addresses the narrator with ‘du’ rather that ‘Sie.’ In German, there are two ways to say ‘you’ to someone, one of which is formal and used for speaking to most people you meet, and the other is informal and used only for speaking to friends, peers, and children. Unless the policeman and the narrator are very well acquainted, he is being very rude and patronizing by implying that the narrator is like a child.

Now for deeper meaning: in our class, we read this as a parable pointing out the futility of looking to the state/church authority for guidance. Consider: we have the character of the narrator walking through an empty city who raises his head to a clock tower, just as a man will look to heaven for guidance. Instead of a traditional god, however, the narrator’s eyes meet with a symbol of earthly authority. Comparing his clock with the one in the tower and finding that they don’t match, he naturally assumes his is incorrect. The picture we have is that of a man who seeks to work within the system, where the system is the church or the bureaucracy, which are equivalent in Kafka’s eyes.

The problem for the narrator comes when he finds that he does not know how to find his way through the city; he is an alien there. Going to the obvious figure in search of help leads nowhere- the policeman either doesn’t know or isn’t telling. The narrator asking for the “way” is an obvious metaphor for finding the way in a religious sense, and Kafka again equates religion and bureaucracy by posing such a loaded question not to a priest but to a police officer. The narrator naturally receives no enlightenment from the officer, and you could read the name “protection man” as being an implication that his function is to ‘protect’ the narrator from the discovery of the empty void behind the facade of authority. We’re left with the image of the narrator running through empty, meaningless streets looking for a way that does not exist.

Of course, it’s easy for me to interpret it that way, since I hate bureaucracies too. We should all just stop paying taxes and live in a demand-driven econo-government. Yeah. Anyhow, I thought it was a pretty well-crafted little story, and hopefully you at least enjoyed reading Kafka, if not my comments.

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Written by Daniel Grady

June 16, 2005 at 17:30

Posted in Books

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