Once upon a time, I was irritated by how many glaring liberties most translators of poetry seemed to take in their ‘translations’, so I made an attempt at some of my own, trying to let the German sing in English. I was happy enough with one of them to enter it into a competition (the Times Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, 2005), and it was highly commended. Here it is: Rilke’s eighth Duino elegy.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Eighth Elegy [Die achte Elegie] (trans. E.T. Troscianko)

Creation looks with all eyes into
the open. Only our eyes are
as though turned inwards and ranged around it
like traps encircling its clear escape.
We can tell what lies outside from the animal’s
face alone; for we turn even the newest child
and force it to see, behind it,
something fashioned, not the openness that
is so deep in the animal eyes. Free from death.
Death is all we see; the unfettered animal
is ever poised with downfall behind it
and before it – God; and when it moves, it moves
into eternity, as a stream moves.
Never, not a single day, do we have
before us pure space, into which flowers
ceaselessly bloom. There is always a world
and never a nowhere without nothingness:
pure, unwatched, which you breathe and
know to be infinite and do not desire. One child
loses himself in silent contemplation of this and is
shaken. Or another dies and becomes it.
For close to death one loses sight of death
and stares out beyond, with a wide animal gaze, perhaps.
Lovers, but for their beloved other, who
blocks the view, are close to it and lost in wonder…
As if by accident there opened forth to them
behind the other… But through him
no one can pass, and there is only world for him again.
Forever turned towards creation, we
see only on its surface the reflection of the free,
eclipsed by ourselves. Or an animal,
mute, looks calmly through us.
This is what destiny is: to be opposite
and nothing else and always opposite.

If our consciousness were in the
assured animal that moves towards us
the other way – it would tear us round
in its advance. But its being is
infinite to it, ungrasped and without a glance
at its conditions, pure, even as its gaze.
And where we see the future, there it sees everything
and itself in everything and forever healed.

And yet in the warm watchful animal there is
weight and strain of great melancholy.
For always clinging to it too is that which
often overpowers us – a memory,
as if once already what you strive towards
had been closer, more faithful, and its touch
endlessly tender. Here all is distance,
and there it was breath. After the first homeland
the second is blustery, androgynous.
O how blessed is the tiny creature
that stays forever in the womb which bore it;
o how joyous the gnat that still leaps inside for joy
even when it weds: for the womb is all there is.
And see the half-certainty of the bird
that very nearly knows both these things from its origin,
as if it were an Etruscan soul,
from a dead man welcomed into an empty space,
but with the resting figure as a covering.
And how bewildered is that which must fly
having come from a womb. As if in
alarm at itself it criss-crosses the air like a crack
through a cup. Thus the trace
of the bat rips through the porcelain of evening.

And us: onlookers, forever, everywhere,
looking at it all and never beyond it!
It overflows in us. We order it. It crumbles.
We order it again and ourselves crumble.
Who then has turned us round so that
whatever we do we look like
someone who is leaving? As the man on
the last hill that can show him his whole valley
one more time turns, pauses, lingers –,
so we live and take eternal leave.

And then, because I’d spent many years studying Kafka before discovering he’d ever turned his hand to poetry, I had to try translating this: a rendition of the verses he wrote in a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak on 9 November 1903. (The German is here.)

…Here are a few verses more.  Read them in the gentle hours.

Today is cool and hard.
The clouds are transfixed.
The winds are straining ropes.
The people are transfixed.
The footsteps resound metallic
On bronze stones.
And the eyes behold
Wide white seas.

In the small old town stand
Small bright Christmas houses,
Their vivid panes look
On to the small snow-shrouded square.
Over the moonlight square walks
A man silently barefoot in the snow,
His tall shadow is blown
By the wind up the small houses.

People who walk over dark bridges,
past saints
with dimmed lamps.

Clouds that drift over grey skies
past churches
with dwindling towers.

A man who leans on the angular parapet
and looks into the evening water
his hands on old stones.

Yours, Franz

And here’s a translation of a story of Kafka’s I’ve always found a mixture of funny and sad in that way Kafka has. I’ve found two existing translations of it (including the reliably bad Muirs’ one from the 50s), but neither is much good. I hope this does slightly better justice to the German.

The Worries of the Family Man, Franz Kafka (orig. Die Sorge des Hausvaters, composed 1917, published 1919 in the “Landarzt” (Country Doctor) collection), trans. E. T. Troscianko

Some say the word Odradek comes from the Slavic and try to establish the etymology of the word on that basis. Others again believe it comes from the German, only influenced by the Slavic. The uncertainty of both interpretations suggests, however, that neither is correct, especially given that neither helps us work out the word’s meaning.

Of course, no one would bother with such inquiries if there weren’t actually a being called Odradek. To begin with it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and in fact it does seem to be upholstered with thread, though not more than old torn-off pieces, knotted together but also tangled up together, of all kinds and colours. But it isn’t only a spool, out of the middle of the star a small crossbeam comes out and then at right angles to this little beam another is joined on. With the help of this second little beam on one side, and one of the radiating points of the star on the other side, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

One might be tempted to believe that this creature had previously had some sort of functional form and it’s now just broken. But this seems not to be the case, or at least there’s no evidence for it; there are no appendages or cracks to be seen that would point to anything of the kind; the whole thing seems pointless but in its own way complete. Nothing more detailed can be said on the matter, since Odradek is extraordinarily nimble and impossible to catch.

He hangs around by turns in the attic, on the staircase, in the corridors, and in the hallway. Sometimes he’s nowhere to be seen for months; he’s presumably relocated to other houses; but then without fail he comes back to our house. Sometimes, when you come out of the door and he’s right underneath leaning on the banister, you feel like talking to him. Of course you don’t ask him any difficult questions, instead you treat him—his tininess alone encourages it—like a child. “What’s your name?”, you ask him. “Odradek”, he says. “And where do you live?” “No fixed abode”, he says and laughs; but it’s only the kind of laugh one can bring forth without lungs. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. Normally that’s the end of the conversation. Incidentally, even these answers aren’t always forthcoming; often he stays long silent like the wood he seems made of.

In vain I ask myself what will happen to him. Can he even die? Everything that dies used to have a goal, a kind of activity it has worn itself out with; that doesn’t apply to Odradek. Will he one day rumble down the stairs at my children’s feet and my grandchildren’s, with his threads trailing after him? Well, he doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone; but the idea that he might outlive me is almost painful to me.

And finally, here is a story of Kafka’s which barely anyone ever reads. My mother read my rendition of it many years ago and still mentions it now and then as having stayed with her, haunting her with its lonely strangeness and its rats.

Remembering the Kalda Railway, Franz Kafka (orig. Die Erinnerung an die Kaldabahn), trans. E. T. Troscianko

I was once – years ago now – employed by a small railway in the Russian interior.  Never have I been more isolated than I was then.  For various reasons I won’t go into here, I was looking at that time for just such a place, the sharper the slap of solitude the better, and so I won’t complain of it now.  In the early days it was only activity that was missing.  The small railway had perhaps originally been built for some economic reason or other, but the money ran out, the building work ground to a halt, and rather than running all the way to Kalda, the nearest sizeable place to us, five days by road, the railway stopped at a little settlement in the very middle of nowhere, still a days away from Kalda.  Now, the railway, even if it had been extended as far as Kalda, could never have been anything but unprofitable, for the whole plan was misguided, the country needed roads not railways; but as it was it couldn’t survive at all, the two trains which ran daily carried goods that a light wagon could have transported, and the only passengers were a few fieldworkers in summer.  But they didn’t want to abandon the railway altogether, for they still hoped that by keeping it running they might attract money to continue the construction.  This hope, too, was in my opinion less hope than despair and laziness.  They let the railway run as long as there were still trains and coal, they paid the few workers reduced and irregular wages, bestowed like blessings, and waited meanwhile for the whole thing to collapse.

So I worked for this railway, and lived in a wooden shack which had been left behind from the building of it, and which doubled as the station building.  It had only one room, in which a plank bed was set up for me – and a desk in case I wanted to write.  Above it the telegraph apparatus was installed.  When I arrived in the spring, the first train would pass through the station very early – it changed later on – and sometimes a passenger might arrive at the station while I was still asleep.  Then of course – the nights there were very cool right into midsummer – he wouldn’t stay outside but would knock at my door, I would unbolt it, and we would often spend whole hours in conversation.  I lay on my plank bed, my guest squatted on the floor or, at my invitation, made tea which we then convivially drank together.  All those villagers are characterized by their extreme good nature.  I noticed, moreover, that I wasn’t well-suited to bearing complete solitude, even if I had also to admit that this solitude I had imposed upon myself swiftly began to dispel my past sorrows.  All my experience tells me that a great test of strength for unhappiness is whether it can hold lasting sway over a human being in solitude.  Solitude is more powerful than anything else, and pushes one back towards others.  Then, of course, one seeks other, seemingly less painful, in fact simply as yet untrodden paths.  I sought out more company there than I had expected.  Of course it wasn’t regular contact.  Of the five villages that were anywhere near, all were several hours’ journey away both from the station and from each of the other villages.  I didn’t dare venture too far from the station, for fear of losing my post.  And, at least in the early days, I truly wanted to avoid that.  So I couldn’t go as far as the villages, and remained dependent on the passengers, or whoever was undaunted by the long journey, to visit me.  In the very first month some such people appeared, but friendly as they were, it was easy to see that they came only in the hope of selling me something, indeed they made no attempt to hide their intent.  They brought various wares, and at first, for as long as I had money left, I bought them all, so grateful were they, especially those who came alone.  Later, though, I cut back my purchases, in part also because I thought I sensed that they despised my way of buying from them.  And then there was, after all, the food that came by train, though it was of poor quality and far more expensive even than what the farmers brought.

Originally I had intended to lay out a little vegetable plot, to buy a cow and thus to make myself as independent of others as I could.  I had even brought garden tools and seeds with me, there was no shortage of land, it stretched uncultivated in an unbroken expanse around my hut, without the smallest hill, as far as the eye could see.  But I was too weak to conquer that land.  Intractable land, frozen well into the spring, and resistant even to my sharp new hoe.  Any seed sown in it was lost.  I fell into fits of despair over that work.  I would lie on my bed for days on end and not even go out for the arrival of the trains.  I simply stuck my head out of the skylight directly over the bed and announced that I was ill.  Then the train personnel, made up of three men, came in to warm themselves, but they found little warmth, for whenever I could I avoided using the old, highly explosive iron stove.  I preferred to lie wrapped in an old thick coat, covered with several furs, which I had bought one by one from the farmers.  ‘You’re ill often,’ they said to me. ‘You’re a sickly creature.  You won’t get out of this place alive.’  They didn’t say this to sadden me, they strove simply to tell the plain unadorned truth whenever they could.  They usually did so with a strange stare in their eyes.

Once a month, but always at different times, an inspector came to check my log book, to take receipt of the money I’d collected, and – but not every time – to pay me my wages.  I was always warned of his arrival the day before, by the people who had dropped him at the previous station.  They considered these warnings the greatest favour they could possibly do me, even though of course I had everything in order every day.  That took no effort at all.  But the inspector, too, always entered the station with a look on his face as if this time he must surely expose my mismanagement.  He always thrust the door open with his knee, looking right at me as he did so.  Hardly had he opened my book than he found an error.  He was always dissatisfied with my takings; then he gave the book a slap and looked at me sharply again.  ‘We’ll have to close down the railway,’ he said every time.  ‘It’ll come to that,’ I usually replied.

Once the audit was done our relationship changed.  I always had schnapps, and sometimes some delicacy or other ready.  We drank each other’s health, he sang, with a tolerable voice, but only ever two songs, one was mournful and began, ‘Where are you bound, in the woods, my child?’, the second was cheerful and began thus: ‘My merry fellows, I’m one of you!’  According to the mood I was able to put him in, I received my wages, paid out bit by bit.  But only at the beginning of such conversations did I observe him with any intent, later we grew quite comradely, shamelessly cursed the management, I would have secret promises whispered in my ear about the career he would orchestrate for me, and finally we would collapse together on to the bed in an embrace that often for ten hours remained unbroken.  The next morning he always departed as my superior.  I stood by the train and saluted, he usually turned back to me as he climbed aboard and said: ‘So, my young friend, in a month we see each other again.  You know how much is at stake for you.’  I can still see his swollen face turned effortfully towards me, everything was pushing its way to the front in that face – the cheeks, the nose, the lips.

That was the single great event of the month, and I let myself go; if by accident any schnapps had been left I would gulp it down as soon as the inspector had gone, usually the departing whistle of the train was still in my ears as already it gurgled down into me.  The thirst after such a night was terrible; it was as if a second man was inside me, stretching his head and neck out of my mouth and screaming for drink.  The inspector was well provided-for, he always carried plenty of liquid in the train with him, but I had to make do with the leftovers.

But then the whole month I drank nothing, nor did I smoke, I did my work and wanted nothing more.  There was, as I say, not much work, but I did it thoroughly.  It was one of my responsibilities, for instance, every day to inspect and clean the tracks a kilometre to the right and left of the station.  But I didn’t let myself by restricted by the regulation, and often went much further, so far that I could only just still see the station.  In fine weather that might be five kilometres away, for the land was perfectly flat.  If I was so far that the hut was little more than a shimmer in the distance, I would sometimes see, in a trick of the vision, lots of black dots moving towards the hut.  They were whole packs, whole armies.  But sometimes someone really did come, then I ran, hoe swinging, all the way back.

Towards evening I would have finished my work and returned to the hut for the night.  Usually no visitors came at this time either, for returning to the villages by night was not entirely safe.  There were various riff-raff roaming in the area, they weren’t locals, they came and went and came again.  I saw more of them than anyone, the lonely station drew them in, they weren’t exactly dangerous, but one had to be tough with them.

They were the only people who disturbed me around the hours of the long twilight.  Otherwise I lay on the plank bed, not thinking of the past, not thinking of the railways, the next train didn’t pass through till between ten and eleven at night, in short not thinking of anything.  Now and then I would read an old newspaper that had been thrown to me from the train, there were stories in it of scandals in Kalda, which would have interested me but which from a single edition I couldn’t unravel.  In every edition there was also an instalment of a novel called ‘The Commander’s Revenge’.  I once dreamt of that commander, who always carried a dagger at his side, on occasion even held it in his teeth.  And then, I couldn’t read much, for it grew dark early and petroleum or a tallow lamp were prohibitively expensive.  I received only a half-litre of petroleum for the month, delivered by the railway, which I had always used up long before the month was out, just in order to keep the signal lamp alight for half an hour for the trains.  But this light wasn’t even necessary, and later on I stopped lighting it, at least on moonlit nights.  I quite rightly foresaw that by the end of the summer I would be in urgent need of the petroleum.  So I dug a hole in a corner of the hut, placed an old blackened beer barrel there, and every month poured in the petroleum I had saved.  The whole lot was covered with straw, and no one noticed anything.  The more it stank of petroleum in the hut, the more satisfied I was; the stink grew so very great because the barrel was made of old crumbling wood that soaked up the petroleum to saturation.  Later, in caution, I dug the barrel in outside the hut, for the inspector once was taunting me with a box of wax tapers and threw them, as I lunged for them, one after the other, burning, into the air.  Both of us, and more especially the petroleum, were in grave danger, I saved us all by throttling him till he dropped them.

In my hours of leisure I often mused on how I could prepare myself for the winter.  If now, at the warmest time of year, I was freezing – and it was, they said, warmer than it had been for years –, how very hard it would be in winter.  My hoarding the petroleum was just a whim, if I had been sensible I would have stockpiled all sorts of things for the winter; there was no doubt that I could hardly look to the locals for help, but I was too stupid, or rather, I wasn’t stupid, but I cared too little about myself to make much effort in this regard.  Now in the warm weather it was bearable, I left it at that and undertook nothing more.

One of the allures of that station had been the chance of hunting – I had been told that the area was rich in game, and I had already procured a gun for myself, which, once I had saved up enough money, I was going have sent on to me.  Now it became clear that there was no trace of any game to be hunted here, there were said to be wolves and bears, in the first few months I saw none, and besides them were the unusually large rats I watched running in packs, as if blown by the wind, over the steppe.

But the game that I had looked forward to did not exist.  I had been misinformed, the abundance of game did exist, only it was three days away – it hadn’t occurred to me that the locations in these lands, uninhabited as they are for hundreds of kilometres, must necessarily be approximate.  In any case, for now I didn’t need the gun, and could use the money for other things, but for the winter I would have to get myself one, and regularly put money aside for it.  For the rats, which sometimes attacked my food, my long knife was enough.

In the early days, when I was still inquisitive about everything, I once speared one of those rats and held it up against the wall at eye level.  You don’t see small animals clearly until you have them before you at eye level; when you bend down to the ground towards them and look at them there, you get a false and incomplete idea of them.  The most remarkable thing about these rats was the claws, large, slightly hollowed out but pointed at the ends, they were perfect for digging.  In its last death throes, the rat that hung before me on the wall stretched out its claws stiffly, as if against its will; they were like a little hand held out towards you.

In general those animals gave me little trouble, only in the night they sometimes woke me, when they ran past the hut, clattering on the hard ground.  If then I sat up and perhaps lit a night light, I could see, somewhere in the hole beneath the wooden posts, the claws of a rat, stuck in from outside, working feverishly.  It was labouring quite in vain, for in order to dig a big enough hole for itself it would have had to work all day long, but it would flee at the very first glimmer of daylight; yet it worked like a worker who knows his goal.  And it did good work, admittedly the pieces thrown up by its digging were minuscule, but never was a claw set to work for nothing.  I often watched long into the night, till the regularity and calm of the sight of it sent me to sleep.  Then I no longer had the strength to blow out the night light, and for a little while longer it lit the rat at its work.

One warm night, when I heard the claws at work again, I went out, cautiously, without a light, to see the animal itself.  Its head with its sharp muzzle was sunk in deep, almost in between the front legs, just in order to get as close to the wood as possible and to force[?] the claws as deep under the wood as possible.  One might have thought that someone was in the hut holding on to the claws and trying to pull the animal in, everything was under such great tension.  And yet it was all ended by the kick with which I struck the animal dead.  I couldn’t, wide awake, allow my hut, my only possession, to come under attack.

To secure myself against these rats, I stopped up all holes with straw and tow, and every morning inspected the ground all around.  I also intended to lay the ground of the hut, which was then only trodden-down earth, with boards, which might also be useful for the winter.  A farmer from the nearest village, by the name of Jekoz, had long since promised to bring me good dry boards for this purpose, and for this promise I had several times already hospitably entertained him, and he never stayed away for long, but came every fortnight, also sometimes had business with the railways to conclude, but the boards he never brought.  He had various excuses, mostly that he himself was too old to haul such a load, and that his son, who would bring the boards, was just now busy with work on the fields.  Now, Jekoz was by his own account, and it seemed believable, well over seventy years old, but he was a tall, still a very strong man.  And then, he also varied his excuses and spoke another time of the difficulties of obtaining such long boards as I needed.  I didn’t press him, I had no urgent need of the boards, it had been Jekoz himself who had first given me the idea of laying the floor, perhaps laying it wasn’t such a good idea at all, in short, I could listen to the old man’s lies with equanimity.  My invariable greeting was: ‘The boards, Jekoz!’  The excuses began immediately in a half sing-song, my name was Inspector or Captain or simply Telegraphist, he promised not only to bring the boards forthwith, but with the help of his son and a few neighbours to dismantle the whole hut and build a good solid house in its place.  I listened until I was tired of it and threw him out.  But even from the doorway he raised, to beg forgiveness, his arms, supposedly so weak, but with which in reality he could have crushed a grown man.  I knew why he didn’t bring the boards, he thought that when winter came closer I would need the boards more urgently and would pay more for them, moreover he himself, as long as the boards hadn’t been delivered, was more valuable to me.  Now, of course he wasn’t stupid, and knew that I knew his motives, but in the fact that I didn’t act on my knowledge he saw his advantage, and held firm to it.

But all the preparations I was making to secure the hut against the animals and to keep myself safe for the winter had to be abandoned when – the first three months were drawing to a close – I fell seriously ill.  For years until then I had been spared all illness, even the slightest indisposition, this time I was ill.  It began with a racking cough.  About two hours inland from the station there was a small stream from which I used to fetch my water supplies in a barrel on a wheelbarrow.  I also bathed there once in a while, and this cough was the result.  The coughing fits were so violent that I felt I had to bend double with the coughing, I thought I couldn’t resist the coughing unless I bent double and so gathered together all my strength.  I thought the train personnel would be horrified by the coughing, but they recognised it, they called it wolf’s cough.  After that I began to hear the howling in the coughing.  I sat down on the little bench in front of the hut and howled a greeting at the train, saw it off with howling.  At night I knelt on the bed rather than lying down, and pressed my face into the fur, just to spare myself the sound of the howling.  I waited nervously for the bursting of some major artery to put an end to it all.  But nothing of the sort occurred, and indeed, in a few days the coughing had passed.  There is a tea that cures it, and one of the engine drivers promised to bring it to me, but explained to me that one may not drink it until eight days after the coughing begins, otherwise it does no good.  On the eighth day he really did bring it, and I remember how, along with the train personnel, the passengers too, two young farmers, came into my hut, for the sound of the first cough after the drinking of the tea was supposed to be a good omen.  I drank, I coughed the first mouthful into the faces of my audience, but then really did feel an instant improvement, though admittedly the coughing had in the last two days been growing weaker.  But a fever remained and would not leave me.  That fever made me very tired, I lost all power of resistance, it could happen that quite without warning a sweat would break out on my forehead, then my whole body would tremble and wherever I was I had to lie down and wait till I came to my senses.  I saw quite clearly that I was getting not better but worse, and that it was imperative that I travel to Kalda and stay there a few days, until my condition improved.