Wednesday, July 6, 2011

From Franz Kafka

A Message from the Emperor

The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death—all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways—before all these he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. –You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.

(1919) trans. Mark Harman


  1. The composer Martin Bresnick wrote a piece of music in 2010 which employed Mr Harman's Kafka's translation. From the program notes:

    In his short parable A Message From the Emperor Franz Kafka describes a glorious being, never seen by his countless lowly subjects, who, from his death bed, dispatches an indefatigable messenger (a prophet perhaps) with a most important message - just for you. For various practical reasons however the message cannot possibly be delivered. And even if it finally arrived the one who sent it will have died long ago.

    We live on a small planet, circling a medium sized sun, in an ordinary galaxy, among an unimaginable number of other galaxies. We have lived here for millions of years, awaiting an explanation for this state of affairs. We dream of a great being, who at the last possible moment has sent someone with the message for which we, in the twilight of our days, have been so hopefully waiting. We are still waiting.

    Martin Bresnick

  2. We've just posted a new translation of this story on our site,, and we're encouraging people to leave their interpretations of how they perceive the stories meaning. Would be great to hear your thoughts :)