Penn prof exposes Kafka as comedian

Kafka's hot and he's also funny.

Last week, several high-profile events in honor of a new translation took place in New York City. More than 15,000 turned out at New York's Town Hall for a panel discussion on Kafka, including the participation of E.L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag and Christopher Plummer.

Also participating in the panel discussion was the translator, Kafka scholar and critic Mark Harman, Ph.D., a lecturer who teaches the author's work at Penn and last month released a new, much-anticipated translation of Kafka's "The Castle" (Schocken Books).

Reading at the Kelly Writers House last week, Harman purposely read from passages of his new translation that highlight Kafka's humorous leanings, some of it downright buffoonish, he said.

The new translation reintegrates a considerable amount of material that had been excised from the text of previous German editions. And, in doing so, Harman attempts to reveal the novel as one of surprising humor, energy and intellectual complexity, "in which the author's modernity and subtlety of vision are at last allowed to emerge fully," Harman said.

"It's something I really want to draw attention to. My point in doing so is sharing the lightness that was there underneath the darkness. It was quite apparent to the first hearers of Kafka's work that it was humorous."

Harman refers to "hearers" of Kafka's work because the famous writer, for whom the term Kafka-esque was created, himself liked to read out loud, Harman said.

"He would laugh so much he couldn't continue reading," Harman said. "It's something that really doesn't fit with his usual image of doom and gloom."

The gloom is still there in the new translation, which Harman based on a German critical edition edited by Oxford professor Sir Malcolm Pasley, which first appeared in 1982.

"The 'Kafka-esque' angst is there too, and the existential insecurities, but there are other perspectives there, as well," Harman said.

In addition to restoring more of the humor and sequencing (the previous Muir translation was considered interpretive and conservative), Harman's new translation leaves the ending of the novel intact -- ending in the middle of a sentence.

Since publication of his version, Harman said he has discovered another translation based on the same edition as his own, but that it was something being looked into by his publisher.

Originally published on April 2, 1998