“My kids have never known me to be doing anything else. This is my entire job to them. My daughter found it easier to remember that I ‘do Kafka’ than ‘translation’ as my career. If people ask what I do, she chimes in, ‘Daddy does Kafka!'”
Acclaimed translator Ross Benjamin returns to the show to celebrate the publication of his translation of The Diaries of Franz Kafka (Schocken Books). We get into the twisted history of the diaries, Ross’ monumental achievement of bringing them into English, the how ambiguity and circularity pervade Kafka’s very language, and the question of whether one can be qualified for this sort of task before actually doing it. We also talk about how this edition restores the bodily, sensual, sexual, and public-facing Kafka (& speculate on why K’s literary executor, Max Brod, bowdlerized the diaries in their initial incarnation), what it was like to translate the private writings of someone who was the personification of ambivalence, what the process taught Ross about his own life and how it revealed new aspects of Kafka to him, and what it’s like to catch Kafka in the act of writing. Plus, we discuss the feeling of accomplishing a dream project like this by the age of 40 and having the sense that he’s served the purpose he was meant for (which leads to the question of What Comes Next), the blurbs that made him plotz and the post-pub tribute from his daughter that brought him to tears, and a lot more. Give it a listen! And go read The Diaries of Franz Kafka!
(And go listen to our 2016 conversation!)
“You have to translate something that’s baffling to you, and if it at the end it’s less baffling, then you feel you haven’t done it justice.”
“As an editor, I think what Max Brod did was a travesty, but in terms of his motivations, I understand them very well.”
“Even when Kafka was writing entries that seemed private, everything was potentially a literary piece.”
About our Guest
Ross Benjamin‘s translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Joseph Roth’s Job, Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left, and Tyll. He was awarded the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his rendering of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on Franz Kafka’s diaries.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Ross’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4 digital recorder & interface. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Ross by me. It’s on my instagram.