Customer Reviews: The Trial: A New Translation Based on the Restored Text (The Schocken Kafka Library)
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on November 7, 2002
Well, I've just finished reading The Trial for the sixth, maybe even eighth time, and as usual my brain is buzzing with all the unanswered questions and unspoken quandaries that this book embeds in the reader's mind.
An aside - this is the first time I have read this particular translation, having read the Muir's work before. Perhaps this translation is a bit livelier, and the chapters, or sequences, are grouped a bit differently, but the general experience of reading and digesting this book was much the same as with the Muir's version. One caution, if you are a first time reader do not read the introduction first. The author gives away much too much of the story and ending in the introduction.
Now, back to the book itself. As "they" say, the mark of a true classic is that you can reread the book several times and always find it fresh. This is most certainly the case with The Trial. I always struggle with the question of K.'s innocence. The reader is told, unequivocally, that the Law is attracted to guilt. Is this an illustration of the unreasoning, monolithic madness that
so often surrounds totalitarian states, or is Kafka tellling
the reader indirectly that K. is guilty? I think most readers,
especially me, want to like and identify with the central
protagonist of a novel, but on this particular rereading
I noticed that K. is really a pretty nasty character. He is
arrogant beyond belief, selfish, treats women and most everyone
else as objects, and is even potentially violent. He alienates
and insults people who have the desire and the means to help him
navigate the formalities and uncertainties of his arrest and
trial. Or, is he an essentially decent fellow who, beset with
unrelenting frustration and anger at being accused and arrested
for a crime he didn't commit, decompensates into irrational
actions? Don't expect easy answers from Kafka. He is not going
to wrap everything up in a pretty bow, fully resolved, so that
you can feel good. It's a damned disturbing, sometimes bizarre,
and ultimately amazing novel. What is noteworthy is how
deceptively simple the construction of the plotline is. First,
the novel is short. Second, there are no parallel or
simultaneous plotlines occurring. There is only one plotline,
that of K. as he is initially arrested and subsequently tries to
make sense of what the charges are and how to deal with them. K.
is in every scene. There's no ,"meanwhile, back at the
courthouse, Inspector Smith was...". So the story, if this novel
can be said to contain a "story", moves along quite quickly.
Kafka's prose style is crisp and unadorned, as you might expect
from someone educated in business and law in early 1900's
Prague.And it's a good thing that he writes so clearly, because
the story itself contains not only some astonishingly bizarre
scenes (the flogging in the closet springs to mind) but dizzying
explanations of the procedures and logic of the court, the Law,
the judges, and lawyers. Imagine a writer like Tom Robbins, or
Don Delillo, with their hallucinogenic segues and refusal to bow
to consistency and logic, trying to pull off the "Lawyer"
or "Painter" sequences. It would be a soggy mess. But Kafka with
his precision and austerity makes it breathtaking.
It's funny, when my friends see me reading Kafka the initial response is almost always surprise and some variation of "Yuck!"
Of course, they haven't read him, but everyone "knows" that he is weird and dark and disturbed plus the book is old and doesn't probably even have a happy ending. Oh well, their loss.
I really want to take a class on Kafka, ideally focussing on the Trial. It is puzzling and unsettling and I'd love to hear other's thoughts on the symbolism and meaning contained in the book. In fact, if you're a Kafka scholar, or just someone who likes and has given some thought to this book, email me with your thoughts.
I unhesitatingly recommend this novel. It is important. It is certainly important to me.
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on June 21, 2002
I giving the book 5 stars, because it's a really good read. Not having read any other translation, I must take other reviewer's word that it compares well. Read the other reviews, they are correct about this books quality.
Now, here's why I am mad. I read the introduction. Then I read the translator's notes. The translator is quite full of himself and his cleverness. Thus he points out the sections where he was particularly clever. In doing so, he gives away the plot, the ending of the novel, and why we should think about it the way he translated it, and not trust earlier transactions.
This should have been an afterward, not before the text. I reviewed the plot, including the ending, before reading the text. This somewhat ruined the experience for me. Skip the translator's notes, and you'll have a fine edition of Kafka's influntial novel.
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on April 17, 2000
Kafkaesque: Impenetrably oppresive or nightmarish, as in the fiction of Franz Kafka.
Indeed, "The Trial" is the epitome of this adjective used to describe the haunting novels of Franz Kafka.
Breon Mitchell's translation is fantastic as it expands and clarifies the first version by the Muirs. A lengthy translators preface is included, written by Mitchell, explaining the reasoning for this new translation based on the German definitive edition. Various examples of the text (in German) are also used in the explanations of the hows and whys.
On to the story itself. Josef K. awakens one more to find that he's been arrested. He doesn't know why and is never told. His daily life is allowed to go on over the course of the year the novel takes place, while trying to understand what is happening. Throughout this process Josef begins to sink further into paranoia and guilt, with the fate of his life in the balance....
This is a deep and dense novel, with various interpretations. It's scary to realize that this could actually happen (perhaps not on this scale) and that's one of things Kafka excels at. Taking the everyday mundane and catapulting it into the realm of the absurd and nightmarish..
The leftover fragments of "The Trial" are also included after the story, adding further insight into this tragic story. It's also worth it to pick up the Muir's translation, to see the differences, and to have the original english version to keep.
A must read.
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on March 10, 2012
I have two problems with the Breon Mitchell translation. First, the subtitle "Based on the Restored Text" is misleading in suggesting that the prior edition was somehow faulty. One German critic argued way back in 1957 that the Cathedral chapter with the famous "Before the Law" parable (Kafka had previously published it as a short story) should be moved from the second to last chapter where Max Brod, Kafka's editor, put it and put just before the Painter chapter. The order of the chapters has always been controversial because Kafka did not leave a table of contents behind when he died. There is nothing to be restored since the original order will always be unknown. Brod's order has stuck, and this edition does not alter Brod's order at all and includes the same fragments he did and in the same order. There is no difference between the text of this translation and the text of the earlier translation by the Muirs. To call Mitchell's version "restored" is merely a marketing trick.
Second, it is to be expected that a new translation of a famous work of literature like The Trial will trumpet its superiority over any previous translation, and translator Breon Mitchell does just that in his introduction to the new edition. In his introduction, he finds various fault with the earlier translation of The Trial by the Muirs. The Trial But similar kinds of faults may be found in Mitchell's less readable translation. For example, in "The Painter" section, Mitchell mistranslates the German word "Erklärung," which means "affidavit," as "certificate." Certificate in German is "Zeugnis" or "Bescheinigung." The Muirs give "affidavit of your innocence"; Mitchell gives "certificate of your innocence." Mitchell deliberately makes Kafka's highly enigmatic text more obscure without any justification for doing so. Mitchell also sacrifices readability to pedantry. In his introduction, for example, Mitchell objects to the Muirs' use of the word "postponement": The painter explains K's two options, "Ostensible acquittal and indefinite postponement." Mitchell translates the same German words as "Apparent acquittal and protraction." "Apparent acquittal" is arguably an improvement over "ostensible" because of the alliteration (both apparent and acquittal begin with the same sound). But "protraction" not a commonly used noun and has no meaning even as legalese whereas postponement does.
Since the kind and extent of legalese Kafka uses in his novel is one of the major issues Kafka scholars discuss, Mitchell's choice of an English word that any reader will needlessly wonder at (when the more obvious equivalent favored by the Muirs does just fine) may be considered as much of a flaw as any he notes in the Muirs. I do think the Muir translation, whatever its flaws, reads much better than Mitchell's does. The Muir "definitive edition" (as it was advertised on the cover in 1968) includes the three postscripts Kafka's first editor, Max Brod, added to his three editions of The Trial. The first and second postscripts tell the story of Kakfa's request that Brod all of Kafka's writings. All three postscripts are missing from the Mitchell translation. Malcolm Pasley's excellent afterword to the German edition of the Trial on which Mitchell's translation is based oddly is not translated by Mitchell whereas the Pasley's afterword to the new translation of Kafka's The Castle is translated.
However, I recommend you read both translations, as Mitchell does point out at least one major improvement he made. Mitchell rightly uses the same English word every time for one particular German word Kafka uses five times (the Muirs used different English words for the same German word, thereby negating any possible significance Kafka intended his repetition of a German word to have).
By the way, the English translator of one of the best books on Kafka, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Theory and History of Literature), used the Muir translation and it reads well when cited. In my view, the best reading of The Trial is Jacques Derrida's "Before the Law," available in Acts of Literature
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on March 11, 1999
Dense, atmospheric and truly haunting, Kafka's The Trial is quite possibly the greatest book ever written. The tale of one man's futile battle against bureaucracy, it is even more applicable to our meaningless, frustating modern existence than it probably was to turn of the century Prague. This new translation manages to capture Kafka's dark wit in a way that has never been done before - showing the author not only to be a true visionary, but an eccentric, funny human being as well. There is no doubt that it is complex and hard going, but the rewards that you may reap from perservering are more than worth the effort. And for those that fail to understand it, I suggest you take some time out for introspection - for this book may very well be the greatest comprehensive biography of our century.
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on August 3, 2014
. . . but this is the first of his works that I've read and it's puzzling to me that I've waited so long! People taking advantage of this humble review can find a synopsis of The Trial just about anywhere: It's the tale of Josef K., a successful, self-centered, arrogant young man who is accused of an unspecified crime and becomes, shall we say, unravelled by the prosecution. Anybody who has had the pleasure of dealing with a bureaucracy will relate to and appreciate K.'s dilemma. Kafka has delivered a rich, compelling, well-paced story and I relish the thought that there is much, much that he has written for me to explore.
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on January 3, 2006
The 4 star review for this book is, actually, for Kafka, not the translation. I've read some pretty bad reviews of The Trial's several editions; I think anyone attempting to start their Kafka experience with this novel would give it a terrible review. The text is rough, and of course incomplete, since Kafka never finished a full novel. If one reads his novella The Metamorphosis (one of his longer stories which was published in his lifetime), we can see where he may have gone back and edited The Trial. The story is very compelling, though, and evokes an age which is somewhat parallel to ours...simply that many things go on behind the scenes and outside our field of view, and situations may arise in which we have no idea why we are going through them. The first sentence of The Trial evokes this...we have no idea why Josef K. is being's unimportant to the novel. The important part is that he believes he never broke the Law, so we must believe him through his trial experience.

Since I've had experience with the old Muir translations of Kafka's works, I can say that this translation is so much easier to read. German is often treated to a ham-fisted English translation and warrants a certain amount of expression on the part of the translator; this one reads very easily, as if it were written in English to begin with. To conclude, this book would be a great one to get into the mind of Kafka, since it is fragmentary and not yet subject to revision which would undoubtedly have occurred had he not died in 1924. The very helpful translator's preface as well as the incomplete fragments of chapters in the back also aid this in-depth look.
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Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL is the dread-filled tale of ultimate bureaucratic doom. Josef K. awakens to find himself under suspicion, under arrest, and headed for the legal proceedings of the title. K. has a great deal of pride, position, and prestige. Even so, he is plagued by doubts about others, as well as himself. He's also not as certain about his predicament as he would like to appear. Kafka uses his own legal / administrative background to help weave this wicked yarn of procedural nightmare. K. is never told just what it is that he's accused of, which adds to the story's mystery and overall bleakness. At some points absurd, at other times terrifying, THE TRIAL is a macabre masterpiece. The Priest's allegory about the "Doorkeeper of the Law" is one of the most memorable bits of literature I've ever read. Very simple at first glance, it holds truths / implications that transcend the law. The more I think about it, the more I get out of it. Amazing! Questions arise, such as: Why did the man simply sit down and wait? What would have happened if he had simply ignored the first doorkeeper and walked right past him? Etc. This little parable is a discussion group's-worth of questions in itself! I'm only sorry that Kafka died so young and wrote so precious little...
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on July 8, 2002
First, if you don't want to know what happens at the end of the novel, don't read the translator's preface before reading the text. He may be an enthusiastic and exacting translator but not the most sensitive reviewer.
As for Kafka's story, I want to offer a somewhat different interpretation that might perhaps attract readers who are not interested in another despairing man against society theme. I think Kafka is telling us that we are free yet we are obsessed by our accusers and allow them to control us. The bad news is we choose to not to resist but to grumble and suffer subserviently. The good news is we don't have to. The interesting news is what we as a society who reads Kafka will choose to become. Do we read it and say, yep that's the mire we're stuck in? Or do we read it and realize that he is arming us with the power of insight, assertion, and choice in facing our lives.
Don't miss the last 30 pages or so including the chapter titled, "In the Cathedral". The story the priest tells K. and their ensuing discussion is fascinating and still has my mind whirling. If you know what it all means, tell me. Is there a support group for this book?
I must say that the "Fragments" included after the story lent little to my understanding of the whole. If you want more, it's there; if you don't, you wouldn't be missing anything by skipping it.
But don't skip the rest of it, particularly if, on one level, you just want to see a great writer's insights into the labyrinthine constructs of his own legal profession.
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on June 21, 2016
No novel will ever approach THE TRIAL in giving one a special, and by all means necessary, appreciation for the criminal justice system and rights in the free world.

Imagine being charged with a crime tomorrow, but no one will tell you what that crime is, when you committed it, who accused you, who or what was harmed, or when your trial will take place. Then, when you talk to court workers and even your own lawyer, it's a foregone conclusion that you will be found guilty and your best hope is to drag out the process as long as you can just to STAY ALIVE as this crazy train hurtles toward your inevitable end.

A historic, nightmarish novel that plants in its reader bad-dream seeds that may not germinate for years, but they will. Oh yes, they will.
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