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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  Research and Analysis in the Translation of Correspondence

Research and Analysis in the Translation of Correspondence

By Marina Varouta | Published  10/25/2006 | Literature and Poetry | Recommendation:
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When translating letters, it is most important to have a knowledge of the author's biography, a good understanding of his personality and at least a global idea of the rest of his work and writings and of the social, historical, and political background of his epoch. A translation question posted in the "Kudoz" Terms Help Network will be used to illustrate this.

The question concerned the meaning of the German verb "vorphantasieren":

This is Franz Werfel writing to Kafka to express his admiration for Metamorphosis: "Ich habe nun endlich die Verwandlung gelesen, die ich andern Leuten leider schon oft vorphantasiert habe". I can't quite put my finger on what he means here!

The sentence was given without further context.

In order to "put your finger on what the writer means", the following steps are to be followed:

1. Understanding the syntax

The verb has two objects: "die" as a direct object and "andern Leuten" as an indirect object. The relative pronoun "die" refers to the book title (Die Verwandlung). It is a "something to someone" syntax. Werfel says: "Ich habe die Verwandlung ander(e)n Leuten vorphantasiert".

2. Understanding the meaning of the words

The meaning of the verb phantasieren is "dream, daydream, fantasize", but also "be delirious, rave (about sth)", or in music "improvise".
Vorphantasieren contains the prefix "vor-", generally meaning "pre-", indicating a temporal or a spatial relation:

  • Example of "vor" in temporal relation, using the "jemandem etwas" syntax:
    "Schreiben" means to write. "Jemandem etwas vorschreiben" means to prescribe, to dictate, literally to write/define guidelines or rules before someone's actions are conducted.
  • Example of "vor" in spatial relation, using the "jemandem etwas" syntax:
    "Lesen" means to read, "singen" means to sing. "Jemandem etwas vorlesen / vorsingen" means to read out / sing something to someone, which could literally mean reading / singing something in front of someone.

Deciphering whether this "vor-" provides temporal or spatial information about the two objects ("something": die Verwandlung – "to someone": andern Leuten) could lead to a better understanding of the word's meaning.
The adverb "leider" (unfortunately, "alas!", "I am afraid that"...) refers to the verb "vorphantasieren": Werfel is sorry for having conducted the action of "vorphantasieren" on Kafka's Metamorphosis in front of (other people) or before (an event).

3. Understanding the global context and background

One should start by learning a bit more about the writer. There are hundreds of biographies on Werfel on the World Wide Web: which one to choose? One should define the aspect of Werfel's biography that one is interested in and try to find a source liable to be mentioning this aspect. In this case, we are interested in the relation between Werfel and Kafka. Did they admire or hate each other? Why is Werfel sorry?

The "Franz Kafka Museum in Prague" homepage provides biographies of Kafka's friends, among them a biography of Werfel, assisting our comprehension of the relationship between the two:

"Poet, prose writer, dramatist and essayist, the head of a group of literary figures born around 1890, a few years younger than Kafka and Brod's contemporaries. He entered Kafka's life some time in 1908 as a youthful but enviously admired poet, whose star rose abruptly and outshone all around it. He grew up in a wealthy family from the milieu of the 'City Park' that lived in the area bounded by Wenceslas Square, Příkopy and Na Poříčí. After a particularly disastrous secondary school career, he suddenly achieved fame as a poet and as head of a circle that used to meet from 1911 for discussions, readings and entertainment at the Café Arco on the corner of Hybernská and Dlážděná streest. Other members included the journalist Willy Haas, the poets and Franz Janowitz, the translator and writer Otto Pick, the 'non-writing writer' Ernst Pollak, who was widely regarded as an 'expert' and later became the first husband of Milena Jesenská and who took over the leadership of the circle when Werfel left for Germany, the actor Ernst Deutsch, and the translator Rudolf Fuchs. Max Brod and Franz Kafka attended sporadically. Czech members of the circle included the writer František Langer and the translator Alfred Fuchs. In the years 1912-1913 Kafka used to attend Werfel's recitations with a mixture of deference and envy (Werfel recited from memory) and dubbed him admiringly 'the monster'. He himself actually gave a reading from the manuscript of his novel The Man Who Disappeared in Werfel's apartment. He later defended Werfel against Jesenská's criticisms. Werfel, who originally expressed the sceptical view that Kafka's writing would not be understood by anyone outside Bohemia, later made efforts to have his works published by Kurt Wolff and spoke highly of them. He visited the Kierling sanatorium where Kafka lay dying and made him a gift of his novel about Verdi, then being published. It was the last book that Kafka held in his hands." [sic] (Source: Franz Kafka Museum Homepage)

The information provided by the Kafka Museum Homepage gives us two very important hints: Werfel was originally sceptical about Kafka's books, but later he made efforts to have them published. The word "leider" could be referring to this change of attitude.

4. Checking history and dates

Translating historical facts (the existence of a published book called The Metamorphosis and that of two authors named Kafka and Werfel are historical facts!) means knowing and understanding those facts. On the other hand, historical facts can not be referred to without a date.

The Metamorphosis appeared in three parts: it came before the public for the first time in November / December 1912. Then it was published as a novel in October 1915 in the periodical Weissen Blättern (2nd year, no 10), and in December 1915 it was published as an individual book by Kurt Wolff Publishing House.

The specific letter excerpt did not refer to a date or place. A brief research study revealed that the letter is part of the "Kafka-Sammlung von Hélène Zylberberg", kept in a manuscript form by the Marbach German Litterature Archive (Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach am Neckar). After communication with the Archive, we found out that Werfel's letter to Kafka was written on November 10, 1915 in Trebnitz. This means that Werfel read the book after its first publication in the "Weissen Blättern" and very shortly before its publication by Kurt Wolff Publishing. The letter's content reveals that Werfel admires greatly the originality of Kafka's writings. Werfel mentions he is "deeply moved", his self-assurance has taken a "salutary hit" (through the reading of the Metamorphosis).

5. Reconstructing the context: Reading the rest of the author’s writings or related letters written by others

We researched Kafka's letters mentionning Werfel and found extracts giving an exact account of the situation. The publisher Kurt Wolff writes in a letter to Kafka on March 20, 1913:

"Dear Dr. Kafka: Mr. Franz Werfel has told me so much about your new novella – is it called 'The Bug'? – that I would love to see it. Are you willing to send it to me? Yours truly, Kurt Wolff" (1).

Four days later, Kafka replies by postcard:

"Dear Mr. Wolff: Do not believe what Werfel tells you! He does not know a word of the story. As soon as I have had a clean copy made, I will of course be very glad to send it to you. Sincerely, F. Kafka" (2).

On April 2nd, Wolff asks Kafka for the manuscript or transcription of the "bug story" (3). On April 4th, 1913, Kafka replies to Wolff that he has not yet finished the transcription of the Metamorphosis and that he will send it as soon as possible (4).

On April 16, 1913, Wolff makes Kafka a concrete proposition to publish his Metamorphosis as a book (5).

On November 10, 1915, Werfel writes Kafka that he has now at last read his Metamorphosis and that he feels very deeply touched. At the time Werfel talked to Wolff about the Metamorphosis trying to have it published, the novel existed only in manuscript form and Werfel had not yet read it.

Thus "Vorphantasieren" here could have the meaning of "rave", "speak with admiration" and express both a temporal and spatial relation: Werfel spoke with admiration about Kafka's Metamorphosis to other people (spatial) and before he actually read the story (temporal). Could "leider" mean he was sorry for having raved about the book? A free interpretation could imply that he is rather sorry that, before having read the story, he had not imagined how original it was, so he did not rave about it with the appropriate level of respect and admiration in his words.

When translating private correspondence, do not forget that letters are highly subjective material, where words and facts may be distorted by emotions.

  • Franz Kafka Museum Homepage:
  • Briefe und Tagebücher 1913 (Franz Kafka), ELibraryAustria, der freie Wissensdatenbank (
  • Schiller-Nationalmuseum/Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach am Neckar, "Die Kafka-Sammlung Hélene Zylberberg, Marbach am Neckar 1996, S. 12/13.
  • Franz Werfel, Brief an Franz Kafka, Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach am Neckar, Handschriften-Abteilung, Bestandsbildner: Kafka, Franz, Zylberberg, Hélène, Umfang: 3 Kästen, Inhaltsangabe: Franz-Kafka-Sammlung von Hélène Zylberberg, Mediennummer: BF000131263, Benutzungshinweis: Am Standort. beschränkt benutzbar. Nur Mikroform benutzbar, Original gesperrt, Bemerkungen: Die Sammlung ist mikroverficht, Fiche-Nummern: 8618-8645, Bestandsverzeichnis Franz-Kafka-Sammlung Hélène Zylberberg.


1. Kurt Wolff to Franz Kafka: 20. III. [19]13. Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Kafka! Herr Franz Werfel hat mir so viel von Ihrer neuen Novelle - heißt sie "Die Wanze" -? erzählt, daß ich sie gern kennen lernen möchte. Wollen Sie sie mir schicken? Ihnen sehr ergeben. (Source: ElibraryAustria)

2. Franz Kafka to Kurt Wolff (Postkard): [Post stamp 24. III. 1913]. Sehr geehrter Herr Wolff! Glauben Sie Werfel nicht! Er kennt ja kein Wort von der Geschichte. Bis ich sie ins Reine werde haben schreiben lassen, schicke ich sie natürlich sehr gerne. Ihr ergebener F. Kafka. (Source: ElibraryAustria)

3. Kurt Wolff to Franz Kafka: 2.April[191]3. Ich bitte Sie sehr herzlich und sehr dringend, schicken Sie mir doch freundlichst zur Lektüre möglichst sofort das erste Kapitel Ihres Romans, das, wie Sie und ja auch Herr Dr. Brod meinen, gut einzeln veröffentlicht werden könnte, und schicken Sie mir doch auch freundlichst gleichzeitig die Abschrift oder die Handschrift der Wanzengeschichte. Ich reise Sonntag für einige Wochen ins Ausland und möchte gern vorher beides gelesen haben. (Source: ElibraryAustria)

4. Franz Kafka to Kurt Wolff: 4 IV [19]13. [...] Die andere Geschichte, die ich habe, "die Verwandlung" ist allerdings noch gar nicht abgeschrieben, denn in der letzten Zeit hielt mich alles von der Litteratur und von der Lust an ihr ab. Aber auch diese Geschichte werde ich abschreiben lassen und frühestens schicken. [...](Source: ElibraryAustria)

5. Kurt Wolff to Franz Kafka: Paris, 16. April[191]3. [...] Und ebenso wird Ihnen diese meine bindende Erklärung genügen, daß ich gern zu einem noch näher zu vereinbarenden Zeitpunkte das Buch, enthaltend "Die Verwandlung", "Der Heizer" und "Das Urteil", als Buch publizieren will [...](Source: ElibraryAustria)

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