I decided to go ahead and do full-fledged liner notes for “County Doctor,” my translation of the Franz Kafka short story “Ein Landarzt” (typical translated “A Country Doctor”). If you have not read the translation, you can find it here. Read it first because what follows does contain “Spoilers.”
I began the translation in June 2004 — shortly after the debut of A Motley Vision. I had an hour and a half each way daily commute on public transportation at the time and had finished up my low-brow fiction binge that had occurred in the 8-9 months after completing my master’s degree. I wanted to write but didn’t have the time or focus for fiction. So I decided to translate my favorite Kafka story. I found the original German text on Project Gutenberg, copy and pasted it in to a word document and then went through a inserted page breaks after every 2-3 paragraphs of text. I printed out the resulting document (I can’t remember how many pages it ended up being) and every workday or two I’d slide one of the pages, one other blank piece of paper, a letter-size portfolio and my 1952 Langensheidt’s German-English/English-German paperback dictionary in to my backpack. Every night on the way home I’d have a 40 minute ride on the BART (metro/subway) train to work with. First I’d do a very rough word-by-word translation of the section, then I’d verify several of the words with the pocket dictionary. For some the words I’d list multiple choices based on the dictionary or my own poetic license. Then the next morning during the casual carpool and streetcar rides (I had a very complicated commute) I would take the rough translation and turn it in to coherent English. Sometimes I’d do a third run through, but the goal was to keep everything for that section on two pieces of paper.
Once I had the complete set translated (I believe this took about a month), I typed all the polished translations into a word processor and triple-checked a few words in my big old Oxford-Duden dictionary. Then I went through 2-3 revisions where I mainly messed with syntax and punctuation. Laid out bare like this it sounds rather tedious and boring, but it wasn’t at all. There was a rhythm and energy to the process and because it was broken in to easily worked with pieces, I never got bogged down.
There is one very important correction I made to my translation that, as far as I have been able to determine, has not been made in any of the other English translations out there that have been published in print. Part way in to the story in the German version, Kafka switches from past to present tense. He then switches pack to past near the end of the story. I don’t know why that wasn’t carried over in other translations (most notably the Willa and Edwin Muir translation, which is the one most widely sold in the U.S. over the years), but I follow the original.
In addition, there were a couple of incorrect (as in could not simply be chalked up to literary preference) word choices and some added interpolations in the Muir translation that I fixed. Sadly, I did not keep a record of these. I did not consult the Muir translation until mine had been completed. Another choice I made was to restore the parallel between the name of the doctor’s servant girl and the adjective applied to the wound (Rose and rose-coloured). Generally, the name Rosa is carried over from the German. I’m listing this as a correction rather than a literary choice because the parallel is very clearly intentional and when a literary device is that clearly intentional in the original text, my feeling is that you should preserve it if at all possible. There is a lot going on with the psycho-sexual and religious symbolism of the wound so I wouldn’t reduce it to that parallel — but it is important to the story that Kafka made it in the first place.
The most noticeable literary choice is the decision to change the setting to the American West/Southwest through the use of words like buckboard, ranch hand, hired girl and county doctor instead of carriage, groom, servant girl and country doctor. Why make such changes? Because I wanted to emphasize that parabolic and fairy tale elements of the story are not to be chiefly found in the setting. That is, I’m afraid that some of the details — because the are so vaguely Eastern European — come across to American readers as more fairy tale-ish than they should. I took a Kafka course at UC Berkeley from Bluma Goldstein. One thing she brought out for me is how we shouldn’t tear Kafka’s stories completely from their roots in history, sociology and politics. The change of setting is an attempt to invoke a different set of groundings in reality for the American reader so that perhaps some of us can experience it in a more, shall we say, direct way.
Another literary choice I made was to torture the English syntax and sentence structure a bit to preserve some of the choppy, matter-of-fact (but at times blooming in to overstatement) tone of the original. To be sure, there are places where I chopped up or combined, but in general, I hope that the flow you get from the English has a similar effect to the flow you get from the German.
I also decided to not rhyme the songs but rather give them a rhythm in the English because nothing diminishes the effect like strained rhymes.
And, finally, perhaps the most interpretation-influenced choice was to change the title from “A Country Doctor” to “County Doctor” and to have the doctor assure the sick boy that he was a “Harvard-trained doctor.” This choice was influenced by Prof. Goldstein’s reading of the story — and one that I, of course, agree with — which focuses on the fact that the doctor puts this barrier between himself and the rest of the community and falls back on his bureaucratic status (that is a Landarzt isn’t just a doctor who lives in the country, but rather a rural doctor paid by the state — thus the switch to county doctor) to explain away his seeming helplessness with the situation and that his assurances to the boy are hollow because . In short and to put it bluntly (and I apologize to Prof. Goldstein since her reading is much more nuanced and thorough): the doctor is given supernatural help and called by the community to use his supernatural powers (that’s the whole laying in bed thing is about) or perhaps more correctly be the conduit for the powers of nature and the community to heal the boy and he can’t do it because he’s a wimp, a lazy, whiny bureaucrat and obsessed with his servant girl.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this story. I didn’t even get in to Jewish folk tales or the horses or the whole Rose thing. But this is why the translation ended up the way it did, and revisiting it after several years, I’m very pleased that I decided to do it. Sadly, my German is even worse than it was in 2004 (which wasn’t great). On the other hand, there is “Josephine, die SÃ¤ngerin, oder Das Volk der MÃ¤use” (Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk).