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Lytal on new Kafka translation

In the Sun, Ben Lytal provides a brief overview to the new translation of Kafka’s stories by Michael Hofmann. It certainly sounds like it’s worth picking up, as are the Shocken translations he mentions, if you don’t have them already.

Now a new volume, “Metamorphosis and Other Stories” (Penguin, 320 pages, $14), also translated by Mr. Hofmann, rounds out this generation of major Kafka translations. By positioning this volume as a collection of everything that Kafka published in his lifetime, Mr. Hofmann pokes another hole in the old image of Kafka as “someone we are encouraged to think of as a publication-averse recluse.” Many of the stories collected here, especially the title story, are extremely well-known. But by packaging “The Metamorphosis” — which has lost the definite article in this translation — with 42 other stories and prose sketches in a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, the publishers make a bid to change the way new readers are introduced to Kafka.

Like many recent Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, the cover of “Metamorphosis” has been illustrated by a well-known graphic artist (“Candide” got Chris Ware, “Metamorphosis” gets Sammy Harkham). The stark, modernist faces of yesterday’s Kafka paperbacks are gone. One of Harkham’s drawings, for instance, shows a messy bourgeois scene: Three men sit grumpily at dinner, while a young woman plays a violin and an older man snores in his armchair. A preponderance of detail — armchair, side whiskers, grandfather clock — combines to give the illustration a 19th-century, rather than modern, ambience. And over the whole image looms what seems at first to be a giant willow tree, massing in wavy black bunches that somehow droop, dividing into tendrils, over the bourgeois furniture — until we realize that the black bunches are no tree but, quite sensibly, hordes of little black beetles.



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