Translating Kafka’s Life: An Interview with Shelley Frisch

I have posted about my love for Franz Kafka’s work many times in these pages. Today I’m lucky enough to talk with Shelley Frisch about translating Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka into English. Frisch holds a Ph.D. in German literature from Princeton University, taught at Columbia University and Haverford College, where she served as Chair of the German Department, before turning to translation full-time in the 1990s. Her translations from the German, which also include biographies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich/Leni Riefenstahl (dual biography), have been awarded numerous translation prizes. She is currently completing a translation of filmmaker Billy Wilder’s early essays. A complete list of her books can be found here.


How did you decide to become a translator; or better yet, how does one become a professional translator at all?

Most translators I know haven’t followed a set path of enrolling in translation programs and amassing credentials; indeed, there were few such programs when I began to translate. Often, serendipity reigns. In my case, it was a matter of geographical proximity to an edition-in-progress of a now-classic volume compiled by Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, that brought me to translation. Back in the 1980s, when I was teaching at Columbia University, I was approached by editor Bonny Fetterman at Schocken Books, in midtown Manhattan (this was pre-Internet, when being nearby was of greater consequence), asking if I would agree to translate an essay for an expanded edition of this volume. I believe Bonny had read some of my publications about German literature. My first reaction to this request was bafflement, as I’d never tried my hand at translation, though I’d written a dissertation on language theory and dabbled in a good number of languages besides German, such as a grueling year of Sanskrit study that entailed memorizing the first 16 lines of the Mahabharata and deriving grammatical principles from the forms that appeared in those lines.

When I had a look at the contents of Simon Wiesenthal’s volume, and pondered the ethical question about repentance and forgiveness in the face of evil that Simon Wiesenthal posed for the contributors, who ranged from the Dalai Lama to Cynthia Ozick to Primo Levi to Tzvetan Todorov, I could not walk away from the assignment. As I worked my way through the translation of an essay by Smail Balić for this collection, I realized that I had found a path I wanted to pursue for years to come. More translations started to come my way, most of them nonfiction works, including many biographies—Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl—and the 3-volume biography that is the subject of this interview, Reiner Stach’s monumental biography of Franz Kafka.


How did you come to be the English translator for Reiner Stach’s trilogy of Kafka biographies? Did you seek out the job when the first volume appeared in German, or were you already set as its translator beforehand?

I was approached by Bob Weil, an editor at Norton for whom I’d translated Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche biography and another project, when he put in a bid to acquire the rights for this work. When I heard that Norton was outbid by Harcourt, I assumed they’d go with one of their fine translators. To my happy surprise, Harcourt asked me to take on the translation. After the first volume (Kafka: The Decisive Years) was published, Harcourt merged with Houghton Mifflin, and some of its planned literary projects, including this one, were canceled. Luckily, Princeton University Press subsequently acquired the full 3-volume set, and I continued with the second and third volumes. PUP has done a magnificent job with the set. I am now working on a new translation project with PUP editor Anne Savarese, a compilation of early Billy Wilder essays, so stay tuned!


I’m wondering what you thought of Kafka before starting the project, and if your opinion of him changed along the way? What new aspects of his life you find that were admirable, surprising, disturbing, etc.?

I have always been a great admirer of Kafka’s writings, primarily of his three novels (none of which he completed, interestingly). As an undergraduate I was given the opportunity to design an independent study course on the works of Franz Kafka, and my interest continued in the ensuing decades. As I worked my way through Reiner Stach’s panoramic account of Kafka’s life story, and in the process retranslated many of Kafka’s shorter texts, I was drawn more and more deeply into his parables, diary entries, letters, drawings, and fragments of all kinds. Kafka’s writings yield ever-evolving insights to those who read and reread his words.

Reiner Stach’s research findings were a scholarly revelation, and his biography has greatly enhanced my—and all readers’—understanding of this elusive writer. All three volumes shed startling new light on Kafka’s everyday life, for instance on his work as a lawyer at an insurance company, and present a convincing case that Kafka was not “otherworldly,” as has often been asserted, but firmly grounded in reality. Kafka’s work brought him in daily contact with wounded war veterans, and with accident victims in the workplace, and his beautifully crafted legal briefs exhibit a profound understanding and empathy with their plight and sound proposals for improving the lots of these individuals and groups. I certainly had to rethink some of my assumptions about Kafka in this respect. Reiner Stach’s eye-opening passages about Kafka’s love life, sense of humor, and passion for technological innovations brought new insights to texts I thought I knew well. I certainly miss the years I spent with Franz.


How long did it take for you to translate each of the three volumes in the Kafka biography?

It took Reiner Stach nearly twenty years to write the full three volumes (indeed, he continues to write about Kafka to this day). I entered the project just as he was completing the first volume, and submitted my translation of that volume about 1½ years later. Then there was the reshuffling at Harcourt that I mentioned earlier, and an extended pause. During this time Reiner wrote the second volume, and it was taken on by PUP. Translating the subsequent volumes took me, once again, about 1½ years per volume. And of course there was an additional break between volumes 2 and 3, while Reiner composed the final volume in German. My work on this project came to span a full decade. By the final volume, Reiner was sending me portions of the German chapters in draft form as he wrote them, and we would discuss the text as it evolved.


This might be like asking how a poet writes poetry, but can you describe the process of translating the Kafka biography? As reviewers have noted, its great success is that it doesn’t seem like a translation at all. Is there even a tentative way you can talk about how this is achieved?

My overall approach to this project was similar to the way I work on each of my translations: First, I quickly type out a rough draft—and I mean rough! My first draft is full of synonyms separated by slashes, alongside untranslated bits and pieces of German, notes to myself in brackets, question marks (single question marks signal one kind of mess to me, double question marks a more complex kind, and triple question marks—well, I’d rather not say), and myriad other indications of full-fledged chaos. Basically, it’s my way of reading the text and jotting down first reactions. It’s quite the eyesore, and intended only for my increasingly sore eyes. Then I go about introducing order into the chaos, little by little, and the textual bits are transformed into actual sentences that convey meaning. This process goes on for several rounds, with lots of “aha moments” when the proper word or phrase springs to mind, until there is a full text before my now-chronically-bloodshot eyes, and I can put aside the German original and focus on the English-language text. Then comes the truly transfixing phase, namely the acoustic one: I read aloud, and check on the melody and flow of the sentences. There is so much talk about “faithfulness” in translation, but not nearly enough about how that plays out in a text’s readability and musicality.

Good prose needs to sing. Reiner Stach’s prose certainly does, and it was my responsibility and privilege to render his prose just as captivatingly as he had in the original German. I was gratified to see critics on both sides of the Atlantic compare the style of the biography to a novel. That is one of the key qualities I was impressed by in the German text and sought to recreate in the English. Reiner and I were delighted at the reception by English-language reviewers, such as John Banville (who also wrote me several letters about my translation that I will always treasure), Robert Alter, Cynthia Ozick, and Colm Tóibín.  William Gass’s review in Harper’s, “Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” took the prize for the most inventive perspective: It was narrated in the first-person by the bug (Gass’s term for the much-debated Ungeziefer that Gregor Samsa became) who somehow survived his travails in “The Metamorphosis” long enough to read Reiner’s biography, in my translation, no less. I was eerily gratified to find this bug praising the translation as “wonderfully supple.” We translators yearn for memorable adjectives; doubled up with an adverb, they are even sweeter.


Why did Reiner Stach have to write the first volume of his biography last?

Needless to say, I get this question often! The three volumes came out in a decidedly unconventional order: Kafka’s middle years (Kafka: The Decisive Years) first, then the final years (Kafka: The Years of Insight), and finally, the long-awaited Kafka: The Early Years. This topsy-turvy order prompted me to write a preface to the last (aka first) volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, explaining the logic behind this counter-chronological decision, so I hope you won’t mind if I go self-referential here and quote from the preface on this issue:

As the titles reveal, the last volume to be written covers Kafka’s early years, and the volume written first covers Kafka’s middle years.  This order of publication, which may appear counterintuitive—even fittingly “Kafkaesque”—was dictated by years of high-profile legal wrangling for control of the Max Brod literary estate in Israel, during which access to the materials it contained, many of which bore directly on Kafka’s formative years, was barred to scholars.  The justice system there has now ruled against the family claiming the right to keep these materials in private ownership and away from the public, a welcome ruling for scholars and the general reading public.  Reiner Stach has been able to examine three volumes of Brod’s diaries in this collection, the diaries from the years 1909 to 1911; these are referenced in the text simply as “Max Brod, diary,” followed by the date(s) in question.  He has also been able to draw on a detailed (170-page) inventory of the literary estate as a whole.  Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography is the first to mine and incorporate these hitherto unknown materials as well as much other information that has never found its way into a biography of Kafka, such as the unpublished memoirs of Kafka’s classmate Hugo Hecht.  These materials shed new and revelatory light on Kafka’s early years, and more than justify his decision to hold off on this final (that is, first) volume until he was able to assess and integrate them.

Of course I penned that preface back in 2016, and the situation has since evolved. Just last week (as I write this) there was a ripple (tsunami, even) of excitement in the world of Kafka devotees when the final documents were retrieved at long last, from safe deposit boxes in Zurich, and brought to the National Library of Israel, where they were unveiled for scholars and the general public to examine, after decades of inaccessibility. This piece in the New York Times is one of many to reveal the pleasures to be had in this new treasure trove. And for those of us who enjoy Kafka’s whimsical drawings, there is still more cause for delight.


Can you describe how you worked with Reiner Stach on your translation? You each mention the other in your acknowledgments, and I’m curious how you collaborated. Did you seek his advice when translating (and do you do this in general, when possible)?

Reiner and I first met when he was visiting New York, and I was partway through translating the Decisive Years volume of the Kafka biography. Together we went to a multimedia Kafka exhibit (I believe it was at the Jewish Museum—it’s coming on two decades since this initial meeting!), with Reiner serving as an exhibit guide par excellence. We had already been in touch by email, and it must have been at roughly this point in the project that I began sending him various and sundry questions. When I begin a new translation project, I typically send a brief note to my author, introducing myself and expressing an interest in ongoing communication as the project progresses. Most authors have welcomed this contact, and several have remained close friends to this day. Every time I went to Berlin, Reiner and I would meet for lunch at the intriguingly named “Mythos” restaurant, and talk Kafka for hours at a time. I certainly asked textual questions as I worked through all three volumes, but our discussions typically expanded into broader issues about Kafka’s life and writings, and about the “Mythos,” if you will, of how readers understand him. Reiner was born on January 24, and I on January 23 (one year later), so we never fail to send birthday greetings and catch up on our respective writings and lives, now that we’re “done” with Kafka’s—though one isn’t ever fully done with Kafka, I suspect.


You have translated biographies from German on a huge number of subjects, from Kafka and Nietzsche, to da Vinci and Einstein, as well as novels, all of which must have their own technical difficulties (philosophical, scientific, artistic). Can you mention anything that comes to mind about these books, the challenges, the fun, the revelations?

The major challenge translators face, regardless of subject matter, is that texts resist translation. They were created along language-specific lines, and the linguistic medium is often of greater consequence than the surface message, so the process is fraught from the start. (This is not to say that texts are untranslatable, because they are, just that they are firmly grounded in their source language.) There are moments of pure delight when a phrase comes to mind that captures—or even exceeds—the impact of the original. In other instances, you just have to make do with the best your target language seems able to yield. I have never worked on a text that is “easy” all the way through, even though my reaction to a new project is typically (and erroneously), “Well, this is certainly easier than the last one.” By the end of the first page of translation, I invariably revise my estimate of its difficulty.

Still, the joys of translating are many. I’ll list just four: the puzzle-solving, the deep immersion in news ways of thinking and envisioning the world, the writing in a voice that is someone else’s yet still yours, and the sharing of books you love with a new readership. Those “aha moments” when the translation clicks just the way you’d hoped are deeply fulfilling. As might be evident by now, I love my profession.

I have also been struck, again and again, by the personal and local dimensions of translation. Logically enough, I found it very handy indeed to be living in Princeton, Einstein’s home for many years, when I translated Jürgen Neffe’s Einstein biography—I was able to walk the paths described in the book (and even amend one misconstrued passage) and to ask local physicists about key technical matters when I wavered on the terminology. Although I was translating the biography for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I spent long hours in the conference room at Princeton University Press, studying PUP’s Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. And I met “Einstein people” who remain close friends.

I never thought I’d discover any familial connections to Kafka in Princeton, which was so remote from Kafka’s own orbit, but how pleased I was to be proven wrong! I learned one day that Kafka’s closest childhood friend, Hugo Bergmann, had two granddaughters living right here! Miranda Short and Lydia Frank have since become two of my dearest friends. Indeed, I plan to see them in about an hour, when I head to the community pool.

I am also deeply grateful for the camaraderie in the translation community as a whole. We cheer one another on, celebrate any and all successes, and seek out all manner of advice. When I first left the classroom to translate full-time, I found the experience isolating, but having found “my people,” I cherish this community, with members near and far.


Are you working on any translations right now?

Yes indeed. I used to work on one at a time, but I now seem to have gravitated to Noah’s Ark-style two-by-two pairings. I have two coming out this fall (this in September, with NYRB Classics, Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45  and this in November, with Simon & Schuster, The Zookeepers’ War: An Incredible True Story from the Cold War). I also have two in progress: the aforementioned Billy Wilder essay collection (for PUP) and a book about Early German Romanticism (for Farrar, Straus & Giroux). And I’ll be co-directing an international translation workshop in Switzerland in fall 2020, and chairing two translation juries (just to while away any spare hours).