Imperial Messages IV – “Nay marin yenuya silvayana ikan …”

This is the fourth 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.

The text

Und vor der ganzen Zuschauerschaft seines Todes – alle hindernden Wände werden niedergebrochen und auf den weit und hoch sich schwingenden Freitreppen stehen im Ring die Großen des Reichs – vor allen diesen hat er den Boten abgefertigt. (Kafka 1994, 281:6–11)

And before the entire spectatorship of his death – all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways – before all these he dispatched the messenger. (Kafka 2011)

Nay marin yenuya silvayana ikan tenyanena yana – manga adruran merengyeley-hen bidis nay ang manga bengyan nyānye tiga similena hicanya ling rivanya ehen, siya lingreng iray nay apan – sā tavya mayisa ya ninayāng marin enyaya-hen.

Interlinear glossing

[gloss]Nay marin yenu-ya silvaya-na ikan tenyan-ena yana – manga adru-ran mereng-ye-ley=hen bidis nay ang manga beng-yan nyān-ye tiga simil-ena hican-ya ling rivan-ya ehen, si-ya ling-reng iray nay apan – sā tav-ya mayisa ya ninaya-ang marin enya-ya=hen.
and in_front_of group-LOC spectator-GEN complete death-GEN 3SM.GEN – PROG destroy-3P.INAN wall-PL-P.INAN=all obstructing and AF PROG stand-3PM person-PL honorable country-GEN circle-LOC top_of mountain-LOC stair, REL-LOC ascend-3S.INAN high and wide – CAUF become-3SM ready 3SM.FOC messenger-A in_front_of everyone-LOC=all[/gloss]
‘And in front of the whole group of spectators of his death – all obstructing walls were being destroyed and the honorable persons of the country were standing in a circle on top of the mountain of stairs which ascended high and wide – in front of everyone of them he dispatched the messenger.’

Notes on translation

Few new words needed to be coined here: one is bidis ‘obstructing’, which I derived from the previously existing verb bidisa- ‘to block, obstruct’, which seems to be a causative derivation of the noun bidan ‘block’. Also, there was only a word for ‘stair in a staircase’ in the dictionary, ehen, but I discovered the lack of a regular way to derive sets of things. I left the word as ehen in the text, but made a compound with rivan ‘mountain’ as its head, since the setting Kafka describes reminds me strongly of Mayan pyramids or similar religious architecture with long and high-climbing stairs found in Asia. It should be noted that the compound is rivanehen ‘stair-mountain’ as an individual word, but the compound, headed by a noun, is regularly split after the the head for case marking: ling rivanya ehen ‘on top of the stair mountain’. Tiga ‘honorable’ was derived as an adjective from tigan ‘honor’.

One striking thing in the German text that has not been translated in the same way into English is the change to present tense in the parenthesis: the walls “werden niedergebrochen” (Kafka 1994, 281:8) in present tense, dynamic passive, while in English the walls “have been torn down” (Kafka 2011) in present perfect, stative passive, although the great ones “stehen” (Kafka 1994, 281:9) as well as they “stand” (Kafka 2011). Since Ayeri uses morphologic tense rather sparingly and does not employ an epic preterite like German and English do, I used the progressive marker manga to achieve a similar effect of immediacy.

A nifty feature of Ayeri comes into play in this sentence: usually, verbs have agreement in person and number with the agent of the clause, however, in “manga adruran merengyeley-hen bidis”, the verb adru- ‘to destroy’ has third person plural inanimate agreement (-ran), which refers to “merengyeley”, from mereng ‘wall’ + yePL’ + -leyP.INAN’, which is itself marked as a patient so that the clause does not contain an agent and thus is in passive voice.

What’s more, the German text has an adverbial clause right at the beginning of the sentence that is picked up again for emphasis after the parenthesis. However, usually Ayeri requires the verb phrase to come first, with the verb phrase here marked for location focus, since this seems like the prevalent perspective in the original. Still, for stylistic purposes, I think it might be better to keep the original structure, so that the constituent order of the sentence becomes marked in the face of this epic moment.

An issue I found problematic is that in the original, the circle of dignitaries is so strongly emphasized, while the structure in the last part of the sentence, “before all these he dispatched the messenger” (Kafka 2011) is translated in the most straightforward way by using a causative construction again (“sā tavya mayisa ya ninayāng”), thus the locative topic that should have been used must be replaced with the causative one out of syntactic constraints. I tried to compensate by overspecifying enya ‘everyone’ with the quantifier -hen ‘all’, which basically results in the meaning ‘all of them all’.

  • 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. ‹›