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Re: [kafka-list] Re: Language in "In the Penal Colony"

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  • Andrew Sydlik
    Rick, I m not sure that I agree with you about Kafka s stories always making sense in a conventional way. Despite the level of concrete and sometimes
    Message 1 of 5 , Aug 8, 2009
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      Rick,

      I'm not sure that I agree with you about Kafka's stories always making sense in a conventional way. Despite the level of concrete and sometimes microscopic detail he gives, bizarre things happen, and what is common sense to the characters is not always what would be common sense to the readers (such as the condemned man's infraction being worthy of execution).

      Another thing I keep in mind when reading Kafka is that he often left works unfinished, such as the novels and stories such as "Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor." While "In the Penal Colony" has more of a sense of completeness and cohesion than some of his other works, and was in fact among one of the five works of his that he considered good enough to not be totally blotted out from the minds of the public (the others being "The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis," "A Hunger Artist," and "A Country Doctor"), he never liked the ending (according to Ernst Pawel's biography of Kafka, The Nightmare of Reason). As amazing as Kafka's works are, I think there are still imperfections in them, sometimes glaring ones, or at least things that are incomprehensible. No work of art is perfect, but in Kafka's case I think his mental turmoil, the pressures put on him by his family, his job, and those he was close to, as well as his debilitating health affected the quality of
      his work (in positive as well as negative ways, of course).

      As far as not agreeing that the explorer understands what the officer tells the condemned man because the narration can tell us things the explorer doesn't experience - we'll just have to agree to disagree on this. I would argue at the least that it is left ambiguous whether he does or not. But since I see the story as told through third-person limited, rather than third-person omniscient, to me I get the impression that all narration is filtered through the mind of the explorer.

      There is pretty definitive evidence from the text that the explorer is not from the same country as the officer (the country that runs the penal colony). In paragraph 19:
      "The explorer thought to himself: It's always a ticklish matter to
      intervene decisively in other people's affairs.  He was neither a
      member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it
      belonged.  Were he to denounce the execution or actually try to stop it,
      they could say to him: You are a foreigner, mind your own business." (Muir translation)

      As for French not being a common language, I would agree that it is not likely, though not completely impossible. Again, the narration is filtered through the thoughts of the explorer, even more explicitly in this instance. The text actually says, paragraph 3:
      "As for the soldier, he seemed to be in much the same condition as the explorer. He had wound the prisoner's chain around both his wrists, propped himself on his rifle, let his head hang, and was paying no attention to anything. That did not surprise the explorer, for the officer was speaking French, and certainly neither the soldier nor the prisoner understood a word of French."

      So, we are told that on the one hand, both the explorer and the soldier are not really paying attention to the officer, but on the other, the explorer thinks it is natural for the soldier not to be paying attention to the officer since he can't speak French. But isn't it just as likely that the soldier isn't paying attention because of a lack of interest, because he is tired from his work, because of the hot climate (the same reason the explorer can't pay full attention)? Because of this seeming discrepancy, I question whether the narration is to be taken at face value as the statement of a completely omniscient narrator, or again, whether we are dealing with narration filtered through the lens of the explorer.

      About the explorer knowing the local language, I think that you right about him not knowing it in any sort of proficient sense. And yes, the soldier's dialogue is too long and complicated to have been just a few words the explorer might know. I don't know if there's really an answer to this. It could have been just that Kafka needed the soldier and the explorer to speak, and he did not think of the language issue. I think it is more interesting to note the use of mulitiple languages and the difficulty in communication, even between people who are speaking the same language. These "nightmares of reason" happen often in Kafk'a world. In The Trial - which Kafka was working on in 1914, the same time as he wrote "In the Penal Colony" - the workings of the authorities who have indicted the protagonist are incomprehensible to him. The language of bureaucracy, as it were, was too convoluted for the protagonist to understand.

      I wish I could read Kafka in the original German. Yes, I am writing from the U.S., and even though it is mandatory in most schools to take a second language course, it is just not as important for everyday life as it seems to be in much else of the world. We are unfortunately too comfortable in expecting everyone else to learn English, rather than striving to understand others' languages. I took German in high school & college, but never got to the level of proficiency to read Kafka in the original.

      There is a translation other than the Muir one available online; I will read it sometime soon, and let you know if it helps at all. I'm not sure whether there are many other translations available.

      I'm enjoying the discussion, as Kafka is one of my favorite authors, so keep it up!

      - Andrew

      --- On Fri, 8/7/09, Richard Stock <stockr@...> wrote:

      From: Richard Stock <stockr@...>
      Subject: [kafka-list] Re: Language in "In the Penal Colony"
      To: kafka-list@yahoogroups.com
      Date: Friday, August 7, 2009, 4:12 AM






       





      Thanks for the response.



      I think as a first step we always do have to assume that the story is coherent, and follows (its own) narrative rules, although this in the end may not be the case. The story is told in third-person authorial narration, although focalized through characters at times, and I think when the story presents clear statements we need to (at first) believe them. And most of Kafka's stories don't violate narrative conventions in this sense.



      In the part where the officer tells the condemned man he is free, I don't agree that the narration suggests that the explorer understands this. The explorer is not the narrator; the narration can narrate things the explorer doesn't experience.



      Where in the story do you see that the explorer and the officer are from different countries? I don't see any indication that they are or aren't, but they are both foreigners. The implication is that they are from the same country, although this is less important than both of them not being locals.



      The story explicitly states: "and certainly neither the soldier nor the prisoner understood a word of French". So this is not possible as a common language.



      I think we have to assume the gravestone is written in French. It makes sense to the story. But I hadn't thought about this before, thanks for bringing it up. In the story the explorer reads the stone, no one else.



      The issue of speaking multiple languages is certainly not only a reality of Kafka's time and place, but is basic reality in European history (as in much of the world). This is not the case in the U.S. (yet?), where I suspect you're writing from. But in any case, the only way this could be used to resolve this question is that the explorer would know the local language, and we have every reason to believe he wouldn't. He clearly has been there only a short time, and will not be there long. The soldier's speech to him is long and complicated, and would require more than knowing a few words of the language. In fact, knowing multiple languages would heighten the awareness of mutual understanding, not lessen it.



      Also I wonder if this is a problem of translation. I'm reading the Muir translation, and recently I realized that in "A Country Doctor" the Muirs completely changed the tense of much of the story from present to past tense, drastically changing the effect of the story. Unfortunately, I don't read German. Is there anyone else in the group who has read other versions of the story (the original German would be best, of course), and can comment on this?



      So in general this is an interesting discussion, but I don't yet see a resolution to the inconsistency. Maybe it is just a "mistake".



      Thanks again,

      Rick



      --- In kafka-list@yahoogro ups.com, Andrew Sydlik <putrescent_ stench@.. .> wrote:

      >

      > Rich,

      >

      > No, as far as I know, no one has ever brought up this issue before. I had to re-read the story to have an idea of how to answer your question.

      >

      > You say that it's hard for you to imagine a common language that the explorer, the soldier, and the condemned man would all know, and you assume that the explorer doesn't know the local language. However, when the officer tells the condemned man he is free, the narration explicitly says that the officer speaks to the condemned man in the native tongue. So, in that instance it seems as though the explorer understood something in the native tongue; although it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this is related through the omniscient narrator or not, the POV is in third person limited, so that the narration is filtered through the thoughts of the explorer, though a rather detached and impersonal tone is kept.

      >

      > In any case, the text gives evidence for at least a shared common language between the officer, the soldier, and the condemned man. I think it is certainly possible that the explorer understands at least small snippets of the native language. (I think it is probable that the officer only understood a limited number of words and phrases too, perhaps just enough to communicate basic matters.) The explorer sounds like an important man, perhaps a very learned and esteemed individual, and as an "explorer" someone very experienced in travel and thus probably foreign languages. The officer may have overestimated his importance in his desperation, but I think the text still suggests some air of importance, considering his invitation to the execution and other things in the story.

      >

      > At the end, the conversation does sound a little too familiar, unless the explorer and the soldier were speaking in a language both knew well. It's possible that they were indeed speaking in the native tongue, or in French - maybe the explorer knew some of the native language, or the soldier some French.Maybe the conversation did not flow as easily as rendered in the text, but the explorer got enough of the gist of it, so that to make it sound fragmentary would be unnecessary. (Even though the soldier did not apparently understand the officer speaking in French, and the explorer seems to think it perfectly natural that the soldier wouldn't understand French, he could have understood enough of it to talk with the explorer, but not follow the conversation with the officer. Also, it's possible that the soldier could follow at least some of the officer's words, but he either a) was not really paying attention (as the text indicates that he was even partly

      > sleeping, and lets the condemned man get out of line), or b) he only pretended not to understand.)

      >

      > Keep in mind, too, that the condemned man does not speak to the explorer in the way the soldier does, and that they seem to communicate as much by gesture and body language as speech. Also, French is apparently not the explorer's native language, either; remember, he is of a different country than the officer, who keeps trying to anticipate the explorer's thoughts of how they do things in his country.

      >

      > Remember, too, the world in which Kafka lived, and the world in which a penal colony such as this would be set. People often knew several languages. Kafka himself spoke and wrote mostly German, though he knew some Czech, and also studied some Hebrew (though he never got very far with that).

      >

      > The inscription on the former Commandant's gravestone does seem to be a bit of an enigma; what language is it in? Everyone seems to know what is written on it - although perhaps the natives and workers only know of the gravestone's existence, not what's written on it. It seems likely the inscription is written in French, but it's not really clear.

      >

      > There seems to be a communication breakdown in this story, not just of languages, but of ideas. The officer struggles to convince the explorer of his ideas, but the explorer rejects his ideas as barbaric and antiquated. When the officer shows the explorer the old commandant's papers, and tells him to read what the scrawlings spell, the explorer cannot read them, even though the officer feels they are clear and plain. "Be Just" is the message that no one seems to be able to read.

      >

      > It is also quite ironic that the officer delights in executing a man for insubordination to a superior, when for much of the story he rails against the new commandant. This irony never seems to dawn on him or the explorer, but it is perhaps the crippling hypocrisy and unsustainable narrow-mindedness that the officer represents.

      >

      > Thanks for bringing this question up. I hope my response hasn't been too labyrinthine of a rambling. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on my response.

      >

      > - Andrew

      >

      > --- On Wed, 8/5/09, Richard Stock <stockr@...> wrote:

      >

      > From: Richard Stock <stockr@...>

      > Subject: [kafka-list] Language in "In the Penal Colony"

      > To: kafka-list@yahoogro ups.com

      > Date: Wednesday, August 5, 2009, 3:59 AM

      >

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      > Hi there,

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      > Maybe this is an obvious question, or has been answered many times before. Sorry if that's the case, but...

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      >

      > Before the officer kills himself in "In the Penal Colony", it is clearly narrated that the officer and the explorer speak French to each other, and neither the condemned man nor the soldier understand French. After the officer kills himself, though, the soldier speaks to the explorer, and they apparently understand each other, and there is a hint that the condemned man understands, too.

      >

      >

      >

      > What language are they speaking here? We'd assume the explorer doesn't understand the local language, and it's hard to imagine another possible common language other than French that the explorer and the other two might share. Does anyone have a solution to this? I think it's important to the basic narration of the story, but also to thinking about themes of language, writing, and reading in this story.

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      > Thanks,

      >

      > Rick Stock

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    • Richard Stock
      Hi again, I didn t say anything about the stories making sense in a conventional way. Rather, I wrote about a story being coherent, and playing by its own
      Message 2 of 5 , Aug 10, 2009
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        Hi again,

        I didn't say anything about the stories making sense in a conventional
        way. Rather, I wrote about a story being coherent, and playing by its
        own narrative rules. Kafka's stories are not "conventional", in the
        sense that they are realistic or adhere to general expectations of
        literature. But they can have their own logic, in fact, they have to.

        Part of that logic is that the narrator is usually not consistent
        throughout any of his works. So I think labeling the whole story as
        "third person limited", or any other narrator identity, is not helpful.
        Kafka is noted a something of a pioneer, or a good early example, of
        using free indirect discourse, which more or less depends on the
        identity of the narrator shifting. If we doubt the validity of such a
        clear statement such as the soldier and the condemned man don't speak
        French, then we can question anything in the story, which makes it
        useless to analyze except as an investigation of the explorer's
        psychology. I agree there are parts that are more focalized through the
        explorer, but not the whole story is, and there are parts that have an
        authorial narrator. But it is possible we just need to agree to
        disagree, although I think there are basic principles about how to
        approach a (modern or postmodern) narrative work at stake.

        Thanks for pointing out that probably the officer is a citizen of the
        state that owns the colony, and the explorer is not a citizen of that
        state. You're right that they are from different states, but they are
        both certainly not locals. And thinking about their characters and the
        story, it does seem more appropriate if they are from different
        countries: the explorer wouldn't really be such a guest, etc.

        In general I don't think the test of "not completely impossible" should
        be applied in reading such works. Nothing is impossible, and nothing is
        absolutely sure, so we are always operating in areas of different shades
        of gray. Also, theoretically no work is "finished", and speculating as
        to what the work would be like if it was "finished" doesn't get us very
        far, so taking what we have as a potentially coherent work is, I think,
        the best strategy. As I wrote, maybe this is just something that is not
        coherent, that doesn't fit, either for a reason or not. I'm interested
        first to find out if it does seem to be a part that doesn't fit (I'm
        beginning to be convinced of this), and then proceed to think about if
        it has a reason or not (no good reasons have occurred to me so far).

        Rick


        Andrew Sydlik wrote:
        >
        >
        > Rick,
        >
        > I'm not sure that I agree with you about Kafka's stories always making
        > sense in a conventional way. Despite the level of concrete and
        > sometimes microscopic detail he gives, bizarre things happen, and what
        > is common sense to the characters is not always what would be common
        > sense to the readers (such as the condemned man's infraction being
        > worthy of execution).
        >
        > Another thing I keep in mind when reading Kafka is that he often left
        > works unfinished, such as the novels and stories such as "Blumfeld, an
        > Elderly Bachelor." While "In the Penal Colony" has more of a sense of
        > completeness and cohesion than some of his other works, and was in
        > fact among one of the five works of his that he considered good enough
        > to not be totally blotted out from the minds of the public (the others
        > being "The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis," "A Hunger Artist," and "A
        > Country Doctor"), he never liked the ending (according to Ernst
        > Pawel's biography of Kafka, The Nightmare of Reason). As amazing as
        > Kafka's works are, I think there are still imperfections in them,
        > sometimes glaring ones, or at least things that are incomprehensible.
        > No work of art is perfect, but in Kafka's case I think his mental
        > turmoil, the pressures put on him by his family, his job, and those he
        > was close to, as well as his debilitating health affected the quality of
        > his work (in positive as well as negative ways, of course).
        >
        > As far as not agreeing that the explorer understands what the officer
        > tells the condemned man because the narration can tell us things the
        > explorer doesn't experience - we'll just have to agree to disagree on
        > this. I would argue at the least that it is left ambiguous whether he
        > does or not. But since I see the story as told through third-person
        > limited, rather than third-person omniscient, to me I get the
        > impression that all narration is filtered through the mind of the
        > explorer.
        >
        > There is pretty definitive evidence from the text that the explorer is
        > not from the same country as the officer (the country that runs the
        > penal colony). In paragraph 19:
        > "The explorer thought to himself: It's always a ticklish matter to
        > intervene decisively in other people's affairs. He was neither a
        > member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it
        > belonged. Were he to denounce the execution or actually try to stop it,
        > they could say to him: You are a foreigner, mind your own business."
        > (Muir translation)
        >
        > As for French not being a common language, I would agree that it is
        > not likely, though not completely impossible. Again, the narration is
        > filtered through the thoughts of the explorer, even more explicitly in
        > this instance. The text actually says, paragraph 3:
        > "As for the soldier, he seemed to be in much the same condition as the
        > explorer. He had wound the prisoner's chain around both his wrists,
        > propped himself on his rifle, let his head hang, and was paying no
        > attention to anything. That did not surprise the explorer, for the
        > officer was speaking French, and certainly neither the soldier nor the
        > prisoner understood a word of French."
        >
        > So, we are told that on the one hand, both the explorer and the
        > soldier are not really paying attention to the officer, but on the
        > other, the explorer thinks it is natural for the soldier not to be
        > paying attention to the officer since he can't speak French. But isn't
        > it just as likely that the soldier isn't paying attention because of a
        > lack of interest, because he is tired from his work, because of the
        > hot climate (the same reason the explorer can't pay full attention)?
        > Because of this seeming discrepancy, I question whether the narration
        > is to be taken at face value as the statement of a completely
        > omniscient narrator, or again, whether we are dealing with narration
        > filtered through the lens of the explorer.
        >
        > About the explorer knowing the local language, I think that you right
        > about him not knowing it in any sort of proficient sense. And yes, the
        > soldier's dialogue is too long and complicated to have been just a few
        > words the explorer might know. I don't know if there's really an
        > answer to this. It could have been just that Kafka needed the soldier
        > and the explorer to speak, and he did not think of the language issue.
        > I think it is more interesting to note the use of mulitiple languages
        > and the difficulty in communication, even between people who are
        > speaking the same language. These "nightmares of reason" happen often
        > in Kafk'a world. In The Trial - which Kafka was working on in 1914,
        > the same time as he wrote "In the Penal Colony" - the workings of the
        > authorities who have indicted the protagonist are incomprehensible to
        > him. The language of bureaucracy, as it were, was too convoluted for
        > the protagonist to understand.
        >
        > I wish I could read Kafka in the original German. Yes, I am writing
        > from the U.S., and even though it is mandatory in most schools to take
        > a second language course, it is just not as important for everyday
        > life as it seems to be in much else of the world. We are unfortunately
        > too comfortable in expecting everyone else to learn English, rather
        > than striving to understand others' languages. I took German in high
        > school & college, but never got to the level of proficiency to read
        > Kafka in the original.
        >
        > There is a translation other than the Muir one available online; I
        > will read it sometime soon, and let you know if it helps at all. I'm
        > not sure whether there are many other translations available.
        >
        > I'm enjoying the discussion, as Kafka is one of my favorite authors,
        > so keep it up!
        >
        > - Andrew
        >

        --
        ----------------------------
        Richard Stock
        Prague, Czech Republic
        ----------------------------



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