RIffle Backstory: Q&A with Michelle Woods, author of “Kafka Translated”
WHAT IS THE MOST UNUSUAL THING YOU LEARNED WHILE RESEARCHING THIS BOOK?
Michelle Woods: Without doubt, the details of the translators’ lives and experiences were, and are, absolutely fascinating – the book is worth reading just for their stories. Another discovery was a 1912 book on America by a Czech politician and journalist, František Soukup – Kafka went to his lecture on America, before writing Amerika (and likely read the book). Soukup travelled around the country and two highlights are: walking into the White House – anyone could go in, in any clothes, he claimed – they just had to present a business card to get in to see the President. Also, he describes the town of Zion, Illinois – a town founded by a religious cult that banned alcohol and doctors – and his very funny and wry description of its nuttiness, and photographs, find their way into the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma section of Kafka’s Amerika.
WITH WHICH BOOK OR STORY WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THAT KAFKA NEWBIES START? WHAT HIDDEN GEMS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND FOR KAFKA FANS?
It would have to be “Metamorphosis” to start – even though it tends to be a set text, it always surprises me how many people haven’t read it. The humor (Gregor’s odd and hilarious initial indifference to the change, for example) is wonderful. In terms of hidden gems, I would suggest the short, short story, “Poseidon”, which is a beautiful portrait of a Poseidon who’s too busy with paperwork to see the oceans, and perhaps Amerika – it’s the one novel that is always overlooked (because of The Trial and The Castle), but is a wry take on the immigrant experience to America at the turn of the twentieth century (and, once you’ve read it, have a look at Federico Fellini’s mockumentary, Intervista, which is “about” Fellini trying to film the novel).
GIVEN YOUR RESEARCH, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNG TRANSLATORS STARTING OUT?
Do it for love – find a voice that you love – translation is a long, difficult and often frustrating process; like any craft, you have to have a bit of passion and grit to get through. Literary translation will not necessarily provide a career, but the future is quite hopeful, with more small presses focusing on translation and a number of reviews that publish translations. Talk to more experienced translators – they will be honest and interesting about their experiences. I’ve just come back from the American Literary Translators’ Association annual conference, and I thought they were great at providing a place where you can meet more experienced translators, editors and scholars in the area – and they seem keen to mentor younger translators.
WHICH BOOK ARE YOU RAVING ABOUT RIGHT NOW?
I just read Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop (translated by Alex Zucker – it won the 2013 English PEN Writers in Translation award) and loved it – it’s a dark, funny, grotesque novella that plays around with ideas of the holocaust industry in the Czech Republic and Belarus. The first sentence of Lázló Krasznahorkai’s War & War made me laugh so hard I spilled my coffee (I’m in the middle of it and really enjoying it) – translated by the wonderful George Szirtes. Also, a non-translated book but in an English you won’t recognize – Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – a dystopian novel in which Punch & Judy become the spiritual icons in a post-Nuclear holocaust world and in which the English language has morphed into the beautiful, dark dialect. You won’t know what’s going on for some of the time, but the language carries you away.
WHO ARE A FEW OF THE LITERARY GIANTS, BE THEY TRANSLATORS OR OTHERWISE, WHOM YOU ADMIRE?
I’ve been very lucky to have spent time writing about three of my favorite authors: Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, and Franz Kafka. I tend to love darkly funny Central European literature, or books in that vein: so writers like Bohumil Hrabal, Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhard. I really admire translators like Michael Hofmann (who gives a fantastic interview in Kafka Translated – a work of art in itself), who have created a body of translated literature (in his case from German) where you can really see the translator’s sensibility come through.
WHICH AUTHOR OR TRANSLATOR DO YOU THINK IS OVERLOOKED OR UNDERRATED?
Hrabal’s work is kind of known among writers, but is often overlooked. His novels, Too Loud a Solitude and I Served the King of England, are especially good. I discovered Wolfgang Koeppen through looking at Hofmann’s translations: his novel, Death in Rome, is absolutely wonderful (a German’s Nazi family follows him – to his horror – to Rome in the 1950s) – like Hrabal and Bernhard, darkly hilarious.
I’VE READ THAT KAFKA WOULD LAUGH WHILE READING HIS OWN WORK, BUT IT MAY SURPRISE READERS TO DISCOVER HOW FUNNY KAFKA IS. HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ANY OTHER WRITERS WHOSE WORK SIMILARLY SURPRISES US WITH ITS HUMOR, OR SHARES HIS PARTICULAR BRAND OF FUNNY?
Yes – I keep coming back to the humor in the book, trying to show how Kafka is funny and how translation plays a part in conveying that humor (and how it was downplayed as an element in his work after the war). I think all of the above share a similar sensibility (and are influenced quite heavily by Kafka).
In a slightly different vein – I was reading the new Penguin translations of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time over the summer, and couldn’t believe how funny he could be.
FINISH THIS SENTENCE: YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT KAFKA TRANSLATED BECAUSE …
It’s very readable and accessible; it has (I hope) quite gripping stories about the translators and it’s the first book ever to talk about the translations; and, finally, it (hopefully) reveals a lot about why Kafka’s funny. And it talks about some great filmmakers, as well as The Wire and Breaking Bad!!