Kafka in India
How to translate “Ungeziefer”?

Common cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha)
Common cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) | © mauritius images / Christian Hütter

Franz Kafka’s impact extends far beyond Europe. Rosy Singh tells us how the literary giant’s works transcend not just time but place. In this case: India. Rosy Singh is professor of German literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and has studied Kafka for many years. In this interview, Rosy tells us about the challenges of translating Kafka’s work, about his reception in India and about her passion for texts that are just 15 lines long.

By Dina Elsayed

Dina Elsayed: How did you first come across Kafka and his works?

Rosy Singh: There are certain coincidences which end up changing your life. Somebody suggested I read Kafka. They thought I might find a topic for my PhD. So I went to the library and I started reading Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis. I was so fascinated that I decided then and there that I was going to do my PhD on Kafka. It was like love at first sight. I teach Kafka to my students today. So it’s an ongoing project, I would say.

Which of his books do you like best?

Oh, that’s very difficult, I like so many stories. I started with the long stories, the novels. After that, after some years, I got started on his shortest narratives. Short means half a page, or less than one page. And I realised that the short narratives, aphorisms or whatever you want to call them, are even better. I found them very stimulating in their super short form. They’re usually ten or 15 lines long. The Sudden Walk, for example, is brilliancy in just 15 lines. That’s my current obsession.

Although Europe is very far from India, I could relate to Kafka’s work.

Why did you choose to embark on a PhD on Franz Kafka’s works?

Frankly speaking, at that point in time, I used to find literature tough to read. It was hard work. But reading Kafka, literature suddenly became really interesting. Somehow, I could relate to what he wrote. The form interested me, the words interested me, the stories. Even if I didn’t understand much of it, somehow I could relate to it. There was something in the language, German language, how he produced the language. Although Europe is very far from India, I could relate to his work. This was something fundamental about human existence; it’s not really culture specific.

Is Franz Kafka a famous name in the Indian literary scene?

I would say in high culture, in the academic community, he is known about, he’s read. But, of course, it’s not for the masses. People who are highly educated read German literature – whether Brecht or Kafka. Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka are writers who have transcended the boundaries of Austria and Germany. They are popular here in India.

How do you translate certain, very cultural-specific concepts or ideas?

Does the essence of Kafka’s work translate easily into the scores of official and unofficial Indian languages? Or is there a language barrier to understanding what Kafka is writing about?

Many of the translations of Kafka have been done through English. So they’re already using a translated version, not the original, to translate into Indian languages. So it is already a translation of a translation. And frankly speaking, in every translation, something is lost. There are issues with translations – they may start with some very small things. How do you translate the title? How do you translate certain, very cultural-specific concepts or ideas?

I’ll give you a small example from his famous story Die Verwandlung. In English, this means “Metamorphosis”. Now, who is metamorphosed? A human being is metamorphosed into an insect, an “Ungeziefer” in German. Now, how do you translate “Ungeziefer” into English? Is it an insect? Is it a cockroach? Or a beetle? How to go about it is a dilemma. I am fortunate enough to know German. So I can read the original.

A century has passed since Kafka’s death. What do you think he would write about today?

The world has not changed much in one century. We still have wars like in Kafka’s time. So actually, the world is still a mess. It is still a difficult place to live in. I think he would still write about bureaucracy, about the trap that bureaucracy has become for ordinary citizens. He would still write about justice, about freedom, about human relations. These are eternal topics, eternal motifs and timeless motifs.