“in the Penal Colony” and “the Judgment” Reflect Kafka’s Views on Language

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Franz Kafka once wrote that “All language is but a poor translation.” He meant that true meaning, true communication, cannot be conveyed through simple words alone. The idea of the inadequacy of plain text is most evident in Kafka’s short stories “The Judgment” and “In the Penal Colony”. Within those works, Kafka asserts that language is but a tool; in the hands of a simpleton, it will accomplish nothing. An expert however, can use language to share his thoughts in a manner as close to perfection as is possible with such a cumbersome instrument. The torture machine of the story “In the Penal Colony” is a symbol of the authority language has. Despite being lifeless and inanimate, the machine seems to devolve the people around it to mere additions who lack names and identities. Even the titles the characters are given only reflect their position to the machine; the Officer controls it, the Condemned is to be placed within it, and the Explorer (or Researcher in some translations) observes and judges. In observance with the presence of command and superiority it possesses, the machine is also constructed on a pedestal so high, that the man controlling it must to use a ladder to reach its upper parts. This shows that even the one who constructs the machine, becomes its servant. Furthermore, the dehumanization of the characters gives the story the sense of being a sort of parable or joke, a motif present is many of Kafka’s works. He even went so far as to emphasize the dark humor with a pun; before being explained the purpose of the machine and the punishment it inflicts, the explorer asks the Officer “And how does the sentence run?”, unknowingly answering his own question. The same pun is repeated, with the explorer asking whether the prisoner “knows his own sentence”; of course not, says the officer, he’ll learn it “on his body”. This is ironic in that the Condemned

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