This is the first posting in a series on the process of translating the short story “Eine kaiserliche Botschaft” by the Praguer writer Franz Kafka (*1883, †1924). The individual installments will go through the text mostly sentence by sentence, quoting from the German text as well as a translation of it into English. Following these quotations, I will discuss and comment on newly coined words and thoughts I had on grammar while doing the translation.
Eine kaiserliche Botschaft
Der Kaiser – so heißt es – hat Dir, dem Einzelnen, dem jämmerlichen Untertanen, dem winzig vor der kaiserlichen Sonne in die fernste Ferne geflüchteten Schatten, gerade Dir hat der Kaiser von seinem Sterbebett aus eine Botschaft gesendet. (Kafka 1994, 280:15–281:2)
A Message from the Emperor
The emperor – it is said – sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. (Kafka 2011)
Budang lanyana iray
Yam turakaya lanyāng iray – da-ningrey – va, si kebay, avanaya dipakan, karano, si iyin marinya perinena desay iray nay si danguvāng mangasaha timangya kahu-vā: yam māy turakaya va pakas lanyāng iray budangas mangasara pinamya pang-vā yana.
‘A Message from the High King’
‘To you – as is told – the single one, the pathetic subject, the shadow that is tiny in the face of the high-noble sun, and that has fled to the furthest distance: yes, precisely to you the high king has sent a message from his final bed.’
Notes on translation
First of all, it has to be noted that I have developed only little cultural background about the fictional people that are supposed to the speak the Ayeri language so far. However, let us assume that like in many parts of both the Occident and the Orient, there used to be an empire with an emperor. Actually, the Ayeri-speaking countries themselves belonged to an empire once that crumbled and split into what is three nations today. However, there is no individual word for an ‘emperor’ in my dictionary yet because I have never seen the need for one. There is, however, bayhi ‘ruler’ as a general term, and also lanya ‘king’ as a more specific one. For the sake of translating the title of the short story and also this series, I chose to call the emperor lanya iray ‘high king’, since this person would be the Great King, the Principal of a group of rulers.
Likewise, there is no word for ‘subject’ yet. Since the whole sentence stresses how small and utterly insignificant the addressee is in comparison to the imperial court, let us go with something derived from avan ‘bottom’ here – ignoring possible connotations of proletarianism. Avanan, the direct (re-)nominalization of this word, already exists and means ‘basis, funding, groundwork’. It is possible to make a word like avanaya < avan ‘bottom’ + -maya ‘AGTZ’, though.
Another word for which there has not yet existed a definition is ‘pathetic, wretched’, for which I recycled the word dipakan ‘pity’ as an adjective. Another such recycled word is desay, which prior to this translation exercise was only defined as ‘noble’, though together with iray ‘high’, it may just as well be understood to pattern with lanya iray ‘high king, emperor’, also by extension of ‘noble’ with ‘royal’.
There has not been a word for ‘deathbed’ either so far, but I chose to translate that as pinam pang-vā ‘last bed’, thus not naming death overtly. Interestingly, pang-vā ‘(the) last’ was so far listed as a noun in the dictionary probably because it was used only in that context when I coined it earlier. However, it patterns with ban-vā ‘(the) best’, which can also be used as an adjective, since ban ‘good’ is one and -vā is an adverbial quantifier expressing superlative amounts, cf. the verb va- ‘to be (the) most’.
Syntactically, the addressee is kept as the topic of the sentence throughout the passage, as is implied also in the German and English version, albeit only by recursion to it by means of a great number of coordinated modifying clauses. The phrase that was probably the most difficult to translate in this passage is “dem winzig vor der kaiserlichen Sonne in die fernste Ferne geflüchteten Schatten” (Kafka 1994, 281:16–17), which in German is very complicated. The English translation renders this as “the tiny shadow that fled […]” (Kafka 2011), however, this is not exactly what it says in German, since “winzig” does not agree in case with “Schatten”, or otherwise it would have to be “dem winzigen […] Schatten”.
What happens instead is that “winzig vor der kaiserlichen Sonne” (‘tiny in the face of the imperial sun’) forms a syntactic unit, and “in die fernste Ferne geflüchteten” (‘fled into the furthest distance’) does so as well, so that the sentence contains two coordinated modifying clauses that refer to “Schatten”, bracketed by “dem […] Schatten” (Kafka 1994, 281:16–17). The Ayeri translation breaks this highly complicated structure up into two coordinated relative clauses. Note as well that like in the first half of the sentence, the topicalized second person pronoun va(-yam) stays in its syntactic slot after the patient as usual. However, at the beginning of the text, it is buried between the other sentence constituents, which is amplifed by the parenthesis of “da-ningrey”, thus mirroring the insignificance of the addressee even in sentence structure, while the effect is not as strong in the occurrence of this construction towards the end. Now that I’m thinking of it, why not add a grammatical rule to prevent the burying of zero-marked pronouns by moving them right behind the verb phrase if focussed?
- Kafka, Franz. “Eine kaiserliche Botschaft.” Drucke zu Lebzeiten. By Franz Kafka. Eds. Wolf Kittler et al. Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer, 1994. 280–82. Print.
- ———. “A Message from the Emperor.” Trans. by Mark Harman. NYRblog. The New York Review of Books, 1 Jul. 2011. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. ‹http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jul/01/message-emperor-new-translation›