One of the most famous of the Kafka fragments used by György Kurtág in his song cycle Kafka Fragments (which I wrote on after seeing it staged recently at the Royal Opera House) is this:
In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.
Now, I recognised this from The Zürau Aphorisms, a collection of fragments written by Kafka at his sister’s house, where he stayed for eight months over the winter and spring of 1917/8, recuperating from his first bout of tuberculosis. However, in my Harvill Secker edition, translated by Michael Hofmann, it reads thus:
In the struggle between yourself and the world, hold the world’s coat.
In the original:
Im Kampf zwischen Dir und der Welt, sekondiere der Welt.
It’s a classic example of the translator’s dilemma: to follow the literal sense of the original phrase, or to honour the soul of the phrase, the echoes and traces it holds. The primary meaning of ‘to second’ is certainly to back, or support, but in the context of a struggle – or equally, a battle, or fight, if we go back to Kampf – the image of a duel is hard to ignore.
To second someone in a duel is to do far more than simply be on their side: it is essentially, to be at their side, carrying their coat, yes, and offering psychological back-up, but above all supporting them with your physical presence. Hofmann might be overstepping his bounds in introducing a clear and vivid image that was not there in the original, but he is certainly honouring some part of the soul of what Kafka wrote.
Above all, he is bringing out the absurdity at the heart of the aphorism, that “side with the world” neglects. The image of the individual, when facing the world with a sword, or pistol, in his hand, some misty dawn, surreptitiously leaving his body and sidling round to hold the coat of his opponent, is wonderful, and brings to mind the kind of tricks Bugs Bunny works on Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam.