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Rory Macbeth, ‘The Wanderer, by Franz Kafa’, 2009. A reading at Wiesbaden, March 2009

‘The Wanderer’ by Franz Kafka is an English translation of a Kafka story, undertaken with no knowledge of German and without using a dictionary. The hardback copy I have before me has 65 pages. Twenty-nine are blank, for this is an unfinished translation, produced for two recent shows at Standpoint gallery in London and the Kunstverein in Wiesbaden, where it was read aloud by an actor on the private view night and left for visitors to peruse for the remainder of the exhibition.

The text begins: ‘As Gregor Samsa wandered dishevelled from Morgens to Traumen, distracted and sick since reaching Bett, he came unexpectedly to Ungeziefer.’ The translator has got something right here. Can you guess what it is? Yes: the name of the protagonist. But those other words with capital letters—they’re not place-names. They mean ‘morning’, ‘dreams’, ‘bed’ and ‘insect’, and they belong to one of the most famous sentences in fiction: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’

By the end of the second paragraph of his version of The Metamorphosis, the translator has taken us to Augen (‘eyes’) and Tuchwaren (‘cloth samples’). I’m not sure whether Macbeth knows that all German nouns, not just proper nouns, take a capital letter, or is merely playing dumb for literary effect, but the geographical back story is decisive, paving the way for a more picaresque narrative than we encounter in the original text. In Kafka’s original tale Gregor is incarcerated in a bedroom. In Macbeth’s he is free as a bird.

‘The Wanderer’ relates the mysterious death, by murder or suicide, of Gregor’s wife Betty, and the investigation of that death by a policeman; the invasion of that policeman’s body by Betty’s spirit; a disagreement between Gregor and his father (who appears in a golf cart, and who also happens to be a judge); the unmasking of the father by the policeman (assisted by a transvestite); and a tussle in which evidence implicating the father is found in a rucksack.

Even from the synopsis you can see that this is no translation, but a text in its own right. Basically, Macbeth is playing blind man’s buff: his task – like that of Kafka’s protagonists—is merely to keep moving forward, and what we read on the page are the murmurings-to-self, the wails of agony as he gropes through the labyrinth of the original German. And yet, despite long tracts of purple gibberish and consciously bookish passages that presuppose a collective notion of ‘the Kafka-esque’, the prose has a tension of sorts: ‘Gregor hated the cop who had forced open his knap-sack like some tin of peas, and emptied it out. All the wool was marked, and the same stains were all over the girl’s hat. And there were earwigs that had ruined it with their hunger.’ Admittedly, it’s the tension of someone in possession of few facts desperately striving for narrative continuity (under the ’pataphysical supervision of Alfred Jarry, perhaps), but read the text alongside a conventional translation and I promise you a good time. The most arresting lines come when narrative continuity is forsaken and the translator appears to reach for the ouija board: ‘Slumped in the sight of their straining engines, they halted, and went shivering and muttering to their holes.’

In ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, Borges delegates the task of writing the Quixote to an imaginary author, who produces a version that is identical to, yet different from, the original. Wisely, Borges keeps this masochistic undertaking off the page, allowing us only brief glimpses of Menard’s text in his critical review. Macbeth gives us the actual thing. Where Borges imagines a literary protagonist, Macbeth becomes one, assuming the role of a deluded belletrist. It is this actualisation that qualifies the project as art rather than literature (which always begins with banishing the actual).

‘I simply stare at a sentence,’ said Macbeth, when I asked about his method, ‘until I can see what I think a couple of words mean, and then I gradually construct the sentence around those words until it snaps into place.’ This translation-by-staring could be interpreted in a number of ways. The rendering of Die Verwandlung as ‘The Wanderer’, and Bettdecke as ‘Betty’, suggests full advantage is taken of German words that share sequences of letters with English ones. Orthographic correspondence aside, Macbeth is increasingly able to deduce the rhythm of Kafka’s prose as the distinction between nouns, adjectives and verbs becomes clearer to him. And there is a system here, of a kind: according to Macbeth, once the meaning of a word has been established it is retained. There is a lexicon, then, albeit one in which each word’s meaning is forged in a moment of unalloyed error.

As Walter Benjamin noted, the translator’s task is not to reproduce the meaning of an original text, but to render its ‘mode of signification’. Paradoxically, translation reveals the foreign-ness of two languages to one another by revealing an underlying ‘language of truth’ to which they both refer. We must understand this language of truth not as some (pre-structuralist) substrate of ‘authentic’ meaning, but as an active principle of cross-reference that becomes possible only in the moment of translation. Reading ‘The Wanderer’, it occurred to me that, just as there is never an absolute semantic fidelity between a conventional translation and an original text, so, with Macbeth’s unorthodox translation, there can be no absolute semantic infidelity . Cross-referring his and Kafka’s texts produces moments of convergence. ‘It was no dream,’ reflects Gregor on realising he has become a huge insect. Macbeth’s equivalent, ‘The war had reached Traum’, uses different words but conveys an equally rude awakening.

Sean Ashton is a writer living in London