Returning to Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him’ I’ve just been given the following delightful account of using public baths in Budapest last week.
It was initially one of the most disorientating and baffling experiences I’ve ever had with a series of cryptic rules of etiquette, bizarre pricing systems and an unguided labyrinth of rooms. The locals naturally knew exactly what they were doing and looked at us oddly when we were trying to figure out the complex locker use system that involved several keys of non-matching numbers, at least two attendants and a mystery swipe card that, as far as I could see, served no purpose whatsoever. In other words, I was thoroughly uninitiated into the practices and customs of the community (not just linguistically). What I found remarkable was that in some sense, light did indeed dawn over the few hours we were there. I still didn't get the intricacies of the system but grasped enough to get by, accompanied by hand gestures and liberal tipping. Thus the bathing experience turned from being daunting and unfathomable to, if not relaxing, then quirkily pleasant.
What I particularly like is the idea that one might somehow get the hang of this without knowing how one has the hang of it. Chicken sexing, perhaps. About the same time I was (rather less interestingly) in Borders in York, passing time whilst my folding bike was serviced and thus comparing translations of Kafka’s The Trial.
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K…/ Somebody must have been spreading lies about Joseph K… / Someone must have been traducing Joseph K… / Somebody must have been telling tales about Joseph K…/ Someone must have made a false accusation against Joseph K…
But aside from the quirky pleasure in re-reading familiar scenes in slightly different voices (like the very real pleasure in cover versions of familiar pop songs), I realised that in some translations K is just much more rational than in others. In one, for example, he is worried that his refusal to be interviewed might be taken seriously. In another he refuses to be interrogated. In a third he fears he has somehow refused to be tried. As a result he plans to return to the court / the court room / the council offices. Whilst the differences are subtle they slowly mount up such that K is either doing pretty much reliably what one would do oneself, or systematically always drawing slightly the wrong conclusions. This, I think, nicely illustrates the deep Davidsonian connection between interpretation and rationality.
Suddenly it dawned on me that part of what had seemed bizarre, off-kilter, and alienating about the writing (there's a word for this!) might be the result of the translation and not the original text. (This strangely depressing thought came in the same week as the revelations about Raymond Carver.)