Kafka translator showcases 'Castle'

The Daily Pennsylvanian
March 26, 1998

Much of Franz Kafka's work tends to be surreal, dark and bitterly cynical.

But at a reading this week, Mark Harman, a Penn English professor who recently published a new translation of Kafka's final work, Das Schloss -- or The Castle -- purposely chose passages to read aloud that highlighted the book's humor. The novel is about a man's nightmarish attempts to gain access to a mysterious castle.

More than 40 people turned out at the Kelly Writers House Tuesday for an evening of conversation about the Czech author, who died in 1924 at the age of 40. A panel discussion followed Harman's reading.

Harman's translation, the first in a series of retranslations of Kafka's works by several literary critics, was recently featured in a New York Times article.

"I hope my translation will focus on the other sides of Kafka," Harman said.

This is the first English translation of the novel -- originally published in German in 1922 -- since the 1930 edition by Edwin and Willa Muir. Harman returned to Kafka's original manuscript and tried to stay true to the author's style.

Noting the attention the book is getting in the literary community, Writers House Resident Coordinator Kerry Sherin said Harman's translation "gives a different sense of who Kafka is."

Harman began reading Kafka as an undergraduate at University College Dublin.

"I found myself identifying very strongly with the heroes of Kafka, particularly in The Castle," he said.

Harman received his doctorate from Yale University and taught Irish and German literature at Oberlin and Dartmouth colleges before coming to Penn. He has also published essays on Kafka and James Joyce.

The lively reading was followed by a panel discussion with Penn German Professor Liliane Weissburg; Haverford College Professor and psychoanalyst Elizabeth Young-Bruehl; Temple University Professor and Kafka Society of America President Maria Luise Caputo-Mayer; and John Zilcosky, a Comparative Literature graduate student at Penn.

The panelists shared their opinions of Kafka and their appreciation of his work.

"It's so modern, so poignant, that we all can relate to it," Weissburg said.

Zilcosky added that "reading Kafka is the ultimate reading experience."

Harman also discussed Kafka's Jewish identity.

"Kafka's writing in the '20s becomes increasingly preoccupied with what it means to be a Jew," Harman said. "But in a lot of scholarship the question was not taken seriously."

Many of the students from Harman's "Joyce, Beckett, Kafka" class were also present in the audience.

"I thought the discussion represented a variety of perspectives really well," said College senior Casey Torstenson, who added that Harman "is a lot of fun" as a teacher.