Translating Kafka’s Diaries Reveals a New Side of the Writer

Thanks to Brod’s efforts, Kafka rose to worldwide prominence far beyond what he experienced during his lifetime. But readers, whether in German, English, or other languages, had access only to Brod’s skewed adaptations of Kafka’s literary bequest. Until Brod’s death in 1968, his versions served as the basis for all translations of Kafka, among them those my friends and I had read in the school library.

After Brod, new German editions of Kafka’s posthumous works appeared, which hewed more closely to Kafka’s manuscripts, preserving their rough edges and idiosyncrasies, flux and instability. These included the restored version of the diaries that so captivated me. A record of his abortive attempts to transfer to the page what he called “the tremendous world I have in my head,” they contain much that is fragmentary and disjointed, stumbling and stuttering. In the same notebook he would alternate among different modes of writing, jotting down observations and reflections, drafting letters and fiction, describing his dreams, now and then interspersing drawings. He crossed things out, made corrections and insertions, relentlessly reworked texts in successive variations. He wrote in fits and starts, constantly breaking off and beginning again. In the haste and spontaneity of diary writing, he penned unpolished, error-strewn prose.

This fertile disarray had hardly been visible in Brod’s edition and its English translation. Sometimes, where Kafka’s efforts to write resulted in a staccato series of false starts and new iterations that veered off in different directions, Brod rearranged the discontinuous scraps and stitched them together to fabricate a seamless composite, discarding whatever wouldn’t fit into a single, integrated whole. Gone, too, were Kafka’s misspellings, slips of the pen, sparse and unorthodox punctuation, occasionally muddled or mangled syntax, repetitions, abbreviations, contractions, regionalisms, and other stylistic quirks and infelicities.

Brod’s impulse to cover up what he saw as defects went beyond ironing out technical imperfections. In Kafka’s description of a prostitute, for example, Brod excised the line “Hair runs thickly from her navel to her private parts.” He deleted the subordinate clause of this sentence Kafka wrote during his stay at a nudist sanitarium: “2 beautiful Swedish boys with long legs, which are so formed and taut that one could really only run one’s tongue along them.” Passages he judged unflattering to Kafka, himself, or others, Brod doctored or simply cut.

Diaries stand at the threshold between life and literature, and Kafka’s were a testing ground for an idiom and sensibility he was in the midst of bringing into being. Since 1990 this Kafka, restlessly self-revising, unable to be pinned down, had been known to the German-speaking world but not to the English-speaking one. I was driven to remedy this by the urge to convey to other readers in my native tongue all that struck me as singular, important, and enthralling in the unfiltered diaries.

My translation, which I delivered to my publisher shortly after turning 40, Kafka’s age when he died, was the result of eight years spent groping and straining to make sense of Kafka’s groping and straining to make sense. Not only could I not always — or even often — be certain that I knew what Kafka meant, but I also didn’t know whether at any given moment he himself knew what he meant. Like many diarists, he didn’t always achieve a clear-cut articulation of his inchoate consciousness, to say nothing of his unconscious, but often relied on a kind of mental shorthand or associative logic hinted at only barely in the words and syntax.