Adapting Kafka: Strathausen seeks to compile database of Franz Kafka adaptations

When you picture university research, you might envision a lone scientist in a lab coat spending long hours peering at microscope slides to detect changes, or maybe a humanities professor poring over large, dusty volumes in an academic library. We rarely think of research as a collaborative effort, but investigators often rely on resources and collaborators across campus to help them accomplish their work.  

Carsten Strathausen, professor of German and English, is accustomed to writing his scholarly work on his own, but his latest project, Adapting Kafka, was made possible with help from MU library staff at the Interlibrary Loan service.

Adapting Kafka aims to catalogue as many adaptations as possible of Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial,” into a searchable database and website with visual tools for viewing the adaptations. The project is in collaboration with Verena Kick, assistant professor of German at Georgetown University.

“The Trial,” written in Germany at the start of World War I, has been translated more than 100 times into 45 languages. But even beyond the text translations, there are countless theater adaptations, feature-length films, art installations, audiobooks, operas, graphic novels and stand-alone works of art that seek to represent the novel in some way.

Why is it important to catalogue these adaptations? What do you hope users glean from this website?

The idea behind Adapting Kafka was to acknowledge the multiplicity of voices that speak in the name of Kafka through these adaptations. Because Kafka’s work appears in a broad variety of different contexts, across languages, cultures, media and genres, there is no one Kafka in the world; there are many Kafkas, and they speak in different voices. We want to record their existence and allow users to learn about them. We provide samples of selected adaptations and critical commentary throughout.

By analyzing the adaptations rather than the work itself, there’s more to be gleaned about who “we” are — from a religious perspective, a cultural perspective, a geopolitical perspective. What does how we’ve adapted this text say about us? This project will allow scholars, teachers and students to more easily take stabs at answering that question.

How did you become interested in Kafka?

As a German, it would be difficult NOT to be introduced to Kafka early on, most likely in school. That is true for me as well. I started reading Kafka when I was a teenager and continued to read him later in my literary studies at Tübingen University in Germany.

I never published much on Kafka because there was so much written about him already. The sole reason I became interested in Kafka was through the adaptations, in particular film, graphic novels and illustrations. There was a rich world of fascinating perspectives and interpretations of Kafka, and few people really knew about this material or had spent time analyzing it. So that was the opening I saw and needed to approach Kafka’s work through the adaptations and translations and to work from the periphery toward the center, so to speak, and not just focus on the rather small corpus of Kafka’s own texts.

There are thousands of adaptations of Franz Kafka's popular novel, "The Trial." The yellow wraparounds on some of the texts indicate books that the Interlibrary Loan service helped procure for this project. 

Why was “The Trial” chosen for this project?

“The Trial” is Kafka’s most famous novel by far and his best-known text together with “The Metamorphosis.” It’s what Kafka is known for, which is why there are so many popular translations and adaptations of this novel all over the world.  

The story has been interpreted in so many different ways—in Existentialist terms, as a depiction of the absurdity of human existence and our need/desire for redemption; in religious terms, as an allegory of our relation to God; in political terms, as a critique of modern state bureaucracy and the oppression of the individual. There is no literary theory about the 20th century that has not been applied to Kafka. And there is a saying among literary scholars that any new literary theory needs to prove itself by interpretating Kafka!

What’s challenging about a project like this?

Surprisingly, maybe, funding is not the most pressing problem with this project. We have received very good support from our two universities (Georgetown and MU) and I am very grateful.

The real challenge is how to negotiate the methodological gap between the humanist tradition—that is, the shared emphasis in the humanities on the singularity of the artwork that favors close readings and socio-historical contextualization— versus the empirical study of larger datasets that appears to contradict or undermine this humanist tradition.

I think both close and distant forms of reading are necessary toolsets for doing humanities in the 21st century, and they are complementary, not competitive methods.

Adapting Kafka is an example of these two cultures coming together, which I am proud of, but many misgivings and misunderstandings between the two camps remain, and reasonably so, because there is no easy way “to get meaning out of molecules,” as Richard Lewontin quibbed.

How did the Interlibrary Loan service help you with this project?

Let me just say that the MU libraries have been super supportive across the board! The fantastic staff at the Interlibrary Loan service helped procure a lot of these adaptations of “The Trial” from all over the world. This includes works of art, films, graphic novels, etc. The library team wrote the initial python web-crawler that collected metadata about all these resources and helped organize our dataset.

Ivy Hui, Head of ILL Borrowing/Requesting Unit, and  and her team communicated with me regularly about their progress in hunting down these elusive adaptations of Kafka’s text. They even created an excel sheet with important information to keep track of our progress, and I have made use of this information again and again in my own research.  

What’s next?

We’re in great shape for the work to continue. We received a Cross-Generational-Research-Initiative (CGRI) grant from MU Center for the Humanities ($15,000) to work with graduate and undergraduate students on Adapting Kafka over the next 12 months.

With the help of the Digital Research Initiative (DRI) library team at Georgetown University, we are building the website, which will house the database, including the visualization tools, so that users can easily search and view the adaptations, even if they are works of art film clips, etc.

In addition, we are organizing an international symposium on “Digital Kafka” at Georgetown University on Oct. 24-25, 2024. The symposium will focus on our project and bring together librarians and scholars from the US, Great Britain, Germany, and Israel.  

And in June of next year, we will apply for an “NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant.”