Zeitgeister On Air Being Kafka #7 with Ross Benjamin

Being Kafka #7 with Ross Benjamin

This time, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson’s guest in our Kafka podcast is Ross Benjamin. Ross lives in New York and translates German literature into English. He has received awards including the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize for his work. His latest project is a translation of the diaries of Franz Kafka. He spent eight years on this, and came to know the author from Prague like a close friend in the process. What does Ross admire most about Kafka? He tells you that in the podcast – listen in and find out.

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Welcome to Being Kafka, the second season of ZEITGEISTER ON AIR, a joint project of Common Ground Berlin and Goethe-Institut. I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, a former war correspondent and a big fan of Franz Kafka. Over the last few weeks, we’ve brought you interviews from around the world about the impact the iconic author has had on literature, music, and personal choices. You can also read about his impact back then and now at goethe.de/kafka. Today we hear from Ross Benjamin, an American translator of German literature in New York, who was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. I talked to him via Zoom about his latest translation, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, which is getting a lot of attention. I asked him when and where he first learned about Kafka and his works.

Ross Benjamin: I was in high school, actually, I was 15. It was through kind of my first two friends that I made based on our shared interest in literature. And we started reading Kafka to each other. I think they introduced me to him and to other authors like Dostojewski. And we were reading The Trial, The Castle, and some of the stories in the old Muir translations aloud to each other in the high school library. I don’t know whether we were supposed to be in the library, whether we had a free period or we should have been somewhere else. But I have vivid memories of the three of us reading to each other and often bursting out laughing, reading The Judgment to each other. And in particular, I remember us laughing at the gags in The Judgment like the father’s dirty underwear or just the physical comedy of it when he gets up on the bed and starts berating the son. In some introduction to some edition of Kafka, we read about how Kafka himself would often end up laughing when he would read his work aloud to his friends. And that was portrayed as somehow surprising because Kafka was already supposed to be this grim, nightmarish figure reputationally. But to us, it wasn’t surprising at all because partially by virtue of reading him aloud, we were tuned into that humour from the very start.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Do you have a favourite Kafka book?

Ross Benjamin: Well, I mean, I should say the diaries because I spent so much time translating it and it may have been at one time my favourite. After having spent so long translating it, it’s that kind of love-hate relationship that you have with something that you’ve poured so much of yourself into. So of course I have the most intimate, complex relationship with the diaries than I do with anything else. But there was…I think when I discovered the diaries and the letters, they really were a revelation to me. I came in through the fiction and fell in love with Kafka through his fiction. And then soon found that there were the letters to Felice and to Milena [Kafka’s partners], and the diaries, these personal writings that were as rich as anything you find in the fiction and had that added level of intimacy with many more sides of the person, even then came through in the fiction, or sides of who Kafka was that do come through in the fiction once you’re made aware of them through the letters and diaries, like his Jewishness, for example, which is so present in all the letters and diaries and which is actually incredibly present in the fiction, but which, depending how it comes to you, you might not be as attuned to at first. So even still as a teenager reading what was the old edition of his diaries and the previous translation that mine sort of seeks to supplant, I was completely taken away by them and began writing diaries that were a pale imitation of Kafka’s own diaries in terms of the voice and the form of diaries that I tried to undertake on my own. That doesn’t exactly answer your question. If I had to pick a fiction piece, it changes all the time. Somebody recently asked me – so I’m not really going to answer it, I suppose – but somebody recently asked me for my favourite very, very short fiction piece of Kafka’s, because he wrote sometimes incredibly brief little parables, sometimes just a few lines. And this one is just a few lines. Maybe I’m not sure if it’s more than one sentence, I think, and it’s about a mouse in the maze, a ‘cat and mouse story’ called A Little Fable.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: You mentioned the diaries. Do they differ from his dark approach some associate with Kafka’s books?

Ross Benjamin: Well, most of his work, the dark approach is so such a one-sided view of his work that most of his work doesn’t really conform to it once you really get into the text and sort of leave aside our expectations of who Kafka’s supposed to be. Most of his work has much more joyfulness and humour in it, as well as sort of nightmare and agony and anxiety. And I’d say the diaries too, the dark side is there if you’re looking for it. He agonizes a lot in his diaries. He even has thoughts of suicide in his diaries and presents himself often as a tormented soul and describes his sometimes dark fantasies and writes fiction in the diaries too, some of which has that nightmarish quality. In fact, he writes pieces of In the Penal Colony in the diaries, which is one of his most gruesome, grisly stories. And he writes several alternate endings of it as literary attempts within the pages of the diaries. But what comes through just as much in the diaries, but also elsewhere, is his playfulness. And sometimes it’s coming through at the exact same time, like where one read of a diary entry about one of his headaches is, “Wow, that must have been such an agonizing headache,” he’s describing it as an “inner leprosy” and he’s describing it as “a dissecting knife, like slicing his membranes close to his working brain parts.” That’s how he describes his headache. What agony he’s describing. On the other hand, what a flight of literary imagination and was the headache really that bad or as he started to kind of self-dramatize and hyperbolize in a way that’s almost comic. The kind of comedy that is closer to Larry David or somebody that we might initially associate with Kafka where there’s a comic art of kvetching or of exaggeration of his own agonies. So the two often go hand in hand – the humour and the horror. And that happens in his fiction too, like The Judgment, for example, since I already brought it up, where the father stands over the son and literally stands up on the bed in a way that physically is comic. It’s also an image of, you know, authoritarian intimidation that ultimately – spoiler alert – leads to the death of the main character by his father’s own condemnation. So it’s a nightmare as well in that same moment that it’s comic and it’s exaggeration or in its kind of hyperbolic imagination.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Correct me if I’m wrong, but German isn’t your native language, right?

Ross Benjamin: That’s right, yes.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So why take on the project of translating his diaries?

Ross Benjamin: You know, by the time I was translating his diaries, I had been a German translator for some time. So I guess the question is more: Why did I learn German to the extent that I would become a translator or…?

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Yeah, sure.

Ross Benjamin: [Laughs] Which also I don’t have a great answer to other than I started to learn it because I was so taken with a number of specific German authors, including Kafka, who’s one of my first literary love affairs, – was with Kafka. And by the time I started learning German, there was kind of a preponderance of authors that I wanted to be able to read in the original, Nietzsche and Celan...and I was already in college once I started learning German. In fact, I was in Prague, I’d gone to Prague for a semester abroad. Probably the first time I heard of Prague was also through Kafka and knowing that he’d lived there. And so the association with Prague was strongly ‘Kafka-based’ as much as I became interested in many other things about Prague in my time there. That’s when I began learning German in that junior year of college. And at the time, I thought it was only to be able to read these great works of German language literature in the original, Joseph Roth...I mean, I could keep naming names – Hölderlin. But once I started learning German, then an affair with the language itself began where I was just very taken with this language, became infatuated with it as a language in a way that led to my going to Berlin for a year, becoming fluent and becoming a German translator thereafter. So all along Kafka stood as maybe what would be a dream project for me. But probably it was for the best that I first approached Kafka’s writing and especially the diaries when I’d already had a good deal of experience as a German translator having done other difficult books. That said, I waded into the diaries as naively as I waded into some of the early works that I translated as a beginning translator. I started with Hölderlin’s Hyperion, which is far from a beginner’s translation project. And I think it’s helped that I kind of overreached a little as part of my interest in translation as maybe to get out of my comfort zone and do something really challenging, but also maybe ought to have been more intimidated at the beginning of the project – but maybe never would have undertaken the project if I was more intimidated. So it ended up taking me eight years to translate it when I had gone into it, thinking maybe a couple of years.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: [Laughs] You wrote in The New York Times that you were 40 – the same age as Kafka when he died – when you turned in your finished translation to your publisher. In the eight years you said it took to do the translation did you find any surprises when you went through his diaries?

Ross Benjamin: Yes, for sure. I’m just trying to think where to go with the answer. I found a lot that was surprising, even things that I, this is going to sound paradoxical, but even things I knew would be there that I expected to be there because I’d read the diaries in German and because I’d read sort of scholarship about what had been censored from the previous edition of the diaries and what was in this one. So I kind of knew what was less…what I would run across that fit less with our kind of preconceptions about Kafka. Those surprises such as the homo-eroticism, some of the more lewdly sexual passages that I knew would be there, were nonetheless, as I started to translate them, surprising in their sheer carnality, the embodiedness of these passages – but also others that aren’t sexual at all, but are just so attuned to his body, his physicality. Sometimes it’s his sense of the sickliness of his body, which long precedes the time when he was actually diagnosably ill with tuberculosis. His sense of his body is sickly and ailing. His headaches, his insomnia, his digestive issues…but also the pleasures of the body and of the flesh. It’s the vividness with which he describes them. So again, it’s a sense of him in his diaries as always also crafting his literary sensibility so that these physical descriptions are so alive and embodied. And I think in translating them, because I was being faithful to the rough edges and idiosyncrasies of the text itself, the technical imperfections in the manuscripts that had been faithfully reproduced in this German edition, that was the basis of my translation. Sort of the embodiedness of his writing was much more clear too, because his punctuation would start dropping away when he started writing more hastily, caught up in inspiration or in excitement and enthusiasm, while he’s writing. All of that was striking and I suppose surprising if one were used to the more formalized, sort of sanitized ‘Kafka-writing’ that was always very conscientious, you know, every punctuation mark in its proper place and very perfected and polished. So putting those two things together was always very striking in translating it. Yeah, and then there were surprises for me in just as a translator as well in how indeterminate his writing could be, how indecipherable it could be as I got closer and closer to the text.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: How many translations are there of Kafka’s diaries?

Ross Benjamin: Just mine and the previous…in English you mean of course?

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Yes.

Ross Benjamin: Mine and the previous one. And they’re based on different German editions. So that’s really one of the biggest differences between my recent translation of the diaries and the one that came out in 1948 to ’49 is that the one that came out in ’48, ’49, it had multiple translators. Joseph Kresh translated the first volume of diaries and then Martin Greenberg translated the second in collaboration with Hannah Arendt, who was the editorial director, at the time, of Schocken Books. That was the first time the diaries were published. In fact, in any language was the English edition that came out in 1948, ’49. It was based on a manuscript, a German manuscript, prepared by Kafka’s literary executor Max Brod, his closest friend. And Brod had intruded quite heavy-handedly in the text to reshape it, to polish it, to censor or to cut passages that he found unflattering to Kafka or to himself or that he found all too revealing of sides of Kafka that maybe didn’t fit with the image and reputation that he was wedded to making public. And he had complete control over all of Kafka’s writings as the literary executor from Kafka’s death in 1924 until his own, Max Brod’s, death in 1968…and decided to publish the diaries in the mid-40s, prepared this German manuscript, and presented it to the New York offices of Schocken Books, which also had an office in, then, Palestine where Brod had escaped with all Kafka’s papers in hand, I think on the train out of, before the borders closed, after the German invasion. Brod sent the manuscript to the New York office and it was translated into English and actually came out shortly before the German edition came out. And that was the only existing translation until I undertook mine. The German edition that supplanted Brod’s [unintelligible], censored edition, the new German edition of Kafka’s diaries that went back to the notebooks and transcribed them faithfully without polishing or rearranging – that came out in 1990. And so a good 20 years had elapsed before I began my translation. In that time, I discovered the German edition, discovered what was, you know – I’d read it when I was in Berlin and found that there was all this material in there that I’d never read before, but also that the text was so alive in that way I’ve described, where you could really catch Kafka in the act of writing because he would write, you know, dozens of literary drafts of the same material within the pages of his diaries. He not only wrote about his personal life, but also made a lot of attempts at literary pieces. And sometimes you can’t even tell when he’s doing which. There’s a kind of blurry line between the personal and the literary. And reading that, I was so excited. It was the early 2000s. I figured, okay, it’s taking some time for them to get around to bringing out an English edition of this new German edition of the diaries. They had begun – at Schocken Books, which also published my version of the diaries – they had begun to come out with new translations of The Trial, The Castle, the novel that Brod titled America, and that the new edition at Schocken titled The Missing Person – more accurately titled The Missing Person, it’s also been published by other publishers in other translations as The Man Who Disappeared. Those novels, which were also based on manuscripts that were unpolished and in the same sort of disorganization as the diaries or in at least some level of disarray, and that Brod had similarly restructured and made his own intrusive decisions about how to present the text. Those had begun to come out in English translation in the [19]90s, and I expected the diaries to be next. And then I became a translator, years passed and still no one had undertaken this project. And in retrospect, after spending all this time on it and finding it to be such a complex and consuming undertaking that I’d ever imagined, I wondered if maybe everyone had just been savvier than I was for all those years and had seen what a complex project would be in that. But I really don’t know the story of why no one had brought out an English translation of the new German edition of the diaries until I did my translation. By the time my translation came out, it had been 30 years, over 30 years, since the German edition had come out.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: What do you want readers of your English translation to come away with?

Ross Benjamin: I would hope that they would be as thrilled and baffled by the many-sidedness and the richness of Kafka as I was. Perhaps that some…if they came into the diaries with some of the old preconceptions of Kafka, many of which are being dismantled, you know, not only by me in this translation, but have been questioned by scholars and by new editions for a long time now. But if they’ve come into it with some of those myths in hand or expectations that Kafka would be this kind of literary saint or this kind of ascetic, pure, monkish, martyr to literature, any of these, I would hope that the diaries would burst open that kind of narrow myth and show them a much more multifarious and exciting figure. That’s, I guess, a major thing I hope people would come away with. But really, what I find so fertile about the diaries is how provisional and open they are. So that openness, I think, would extend to readers being able to do a lot with what they find here a lot that I couldn’t necessarily anticipate because I think that sort of indeterminacy and ambivalence and multivalence of the text in these diaries – the ways in which he’s constantly reimagining things and never really comes to an end point or terminus – leaves it open for a lot of creativity, I think, on readers’ parts, where they would take it, how they would take it, what they might do with it. So I hope that it feels open. And I tried to translate it in a way that I wasn’t imposing my own preconceived, or at least not narrow preconceived or reductive interpretations of Kafka on it. Of course, you’re interpreting when you’re translating, but I tried not to have any overarching or narrowing kind of predetermined interpretations, but rather to go with the flow of the text, however, which didn’t always flow, which was really written in fits and starts and which shift style all the time. And I tried to be as flexible as I felt the writing was in a way that would hopefully leave it open.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So my last question is, how do you find Kafka’s works relevant to our lives today?

Ross Benjamin: In many ways. I mean, there are sort of straightforward ways in which themes of his fiction are relevant today. A lot of his fiction deals with authority and our relationship to authority. And of course, that’s a perennial theme and a theme that matters a lot in our current climate. There’s kind of an almost topical relevance to certain themes in his fiction, like The Trial – where a man is arrested without ever being charged and becomes consumed with a trial where he never even knows what he’s guilty of – is unfortunately a situation that probably existed in Kafka’s time exists in the world today of indefinite detention. So the kind of political relevance, social relevance is one aspect of how Kafka is relevant today. But there’s, you know, other forms of relevance than political and topical relevance, including, I think, just the power of his imagination. Since I’ve been going around with the diaries, doing readings and talks and so on, it’s become clear to me that there’s like a really strong appeal among audiences and readers that Kafka still has today that he seems to have always had since his work started to come out – especially after his death and his lifetime you know, the people who discovered him were extremely enamoured of him, but he didn’t have his worldwide prominence until Brod started publishing his work after his death. But that appeal that’s so enduring of Kafka, I think comes from the power of his imagination, from his sort of openness to externalizing his own psyche, what he called “the tremendous world inside my head” in a way that I think will never stop being immensely appealing to readers and immensely sort of, to use a cliché, kind of mind expanding or enlarging of their sense of possibilities. And that’s a different kind of enduring importance than the simple sort of, it’s not simple, but the kind of one-to-one political relevance of some of his themes or social relevance, which also endure. I mean, you know, I mentioned that I find Jewish themes to be really prevalent in his work – a work that never really mentions, within the fiction, never mentions the word Jew or gives his character’s Jewish names. It’s never sort of specifically coded or contextualized as Jewish, but he was so preoccupied with themes of pariahdom, of abjection, shame, guilt, of outsider-ness, which are also perennial themes that can speak to so many experiences that people all around the world have always had and have today. And I think that that partially accounts for why his appeal seems to be in ways that have – that’s something else, you know, that’s partially surprised me. I think I went into this not knowing what to expect, knowing that how much Kafka had appealed to me, had appealed to many people. I had known throughout life – but was his appeal, you know, was it a sort of 21st century appeal? Is it still, is the excitement still out there? And I felt very tangibly that it is in such a way that almost seems that each generation kind of discovers him anew.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Well, thank you, Ross. This was very informative.

Ross Benjamin: Okay, thanks.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: That was American author and translator Ross Benjamin, and I’m your ZEITGEISTER ON AIR host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Join us next week for the final episode of our Being Kafka series, when we interview a Polish philosopher, critic, and translator, who will get you thinking about Kafka in new ways.

Host: ZEITGEISTER ON AIR is brought to you by the Goethe-Institut. Thanks to all of our friends and partners for making this series possible. [Music]