1914 | Penal Colony

Translating a Text

Kafka behind bars.

“It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus,” said the officer to the explorer, and surveyed with a certain air of admiration the apparatus which was after all quite familiar to him. The explorer seemed to have accepted merely out of politeness the Commandant’s invitation to witness the execution of a soldier condemned to death for disobedience and insulting behavior to a superior.

Nor did the colony itself betray much interest in this execution. At least in the small sandy valley—a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags—there was no one present save the officer, the explorer, the condemned man, who was a stupid-looking, wide-mouthed creature with bewildered hair and face, and the soldier who held the heavy chain controlling the small chains locked on the prisoner’s ankles, wrists, and neck—chains that were themselves attached to each other by communicating links. In any case, the condemned man looked so like a submissive dog that one might have thought he could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.

The explorer did not much care about the apparatus and walked up and down behind the prisoner with almost visible indifference, while the officer made the last adjustments—now creeping beneath the structure, which was bedded deep in the earth, now climbing a ladder to inspect its upper parts. These were tasks that might well have been left to a mechanic, but the officer performed them with great zeal—whether because he was a devoted admirer of the apparatus or because of other reasons, the work could be entrusted to no one else. “Ready now!” he called at last and climbed down from the ladder. He looked uncommonly limp, breathed with his mouth wide open, and had tucked two fine ladies’ handkerchiefs under the collar of his uniform. “These uniforms are too heavy for the tropics, surely,” said the explorer, instead of making some inquiry about the apparatus, as the officer had expected. “Of course,” said the officer, washing his oily and greasy hands in a bucket of water that stood ready, “but they mean home to us; we don’t want to forget about home. Now just have a look at this machine,” he added at once, simultaneously drying his hands on a towel and indicating the apparatus. “Up till now a few things still had to be set by hand, but from this moment it works all by itself.” The explorer nodded and followed him. The officer, anxious to secure himself against all contingencies, said, “Things sometimes go wrong, of course; I hope that nothing goes wrong today, but we have to allow for the possibility. The machinery should go on working continuously for twelve hours. But if anything does go wrong, it will only be some small matter that can be set right at once.”

. The Death of Pentheus, fresco in Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii, Italy, c. 79.

The Death of Pentheus, fresco in Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii, Italy, c. 79. 

“Won’t you take a seat?” he asked finally, drawing a cane chair out from among a heap of them and offering it to the explorer, who could not refuse it. He was now sitting at the edge of a pit into which he glanced for a fleeting moment. It was not very deep. On one side of the pit the excavated soil had been piled up in a rampart, on the other side of it stood the apparatus. “I don’t know,” said the officer, “if the Commandant has already explained this apparatus to you.” The explorer waved one hand vaguely; the officer asked for nothing better, since now he could explain the apparatus himself. “This apparatus,” he said, taking hold of a crank handle and leaning against it, “was invented by our former Commandant. I assisted at the very earliest experiments and had a share in all the work until its completion. But the credit of inventing it belongs to him alone. Have you ever heard of our former Commandant? No? Well, it isn’t saying too much if I tell you that the organization of the whole penal colony is his work. We who were his friends knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come. And our prophecy has come true; the new Commandant has had to acknowledge its truth. A pity you never met the old Commandant! But,” the officer interrupted himself, “I am rambling on, and here stands his apparatus before us. It consists, as you see, of three parts. In the course of time each of these parts has acquired a kind of popular nickname. The lower one is called the ‘Bed,’ the upper one the ‘Designer,’ and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the ‘Harrow.’” “The Harrow?” asked the explorer. He had not been listening very attentively, the glare of the sun in the shadeless valley was altogether too strong—it was difficult to collect one’s thoughts. All the more did he admire the officer, who in spite of his tight-fitting full-dress uniform coat, amply befrogged and weighed down by epaulettes, was pursuing his subject with such enthusiasm and, besides talking, was still tightening a screw here and there with a spanner. As for the soldier, he seemed to be in much the same condition as the explorer. He had wound the prisoner’s chain around both his wrists, propped himself on his rifle, let his head hang, and was paying no attention to anything. That did not surprise the explorer, for the officer was speaking French, and certainly neither the soldier nor the prisoner understood a word of French. It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that the prisoner was nonetheless making all effort to follow the officer’s explanations. With a kind of drowsy persistence he directed his gaze wherever the officer pointed a finger, and at the interruption of the explorer’s question he too, as well as the officer, looked around.

There is no crime without precedent. 

—Seneca the Younger, 60

“Yes, the Harrow,” said the officer, “a good name for it. The needles are set in like the teeth of a harrow, and the whole thing works something like a harrow, although its action is limited to one place and contrived with much more artistic skill. Anyhow, you’ll soon understand it. On the Bed here the condemned man is laid—I’m going to describe the apparatus first before I set it in motion. Then you’ll be able to follow the proceedings better. Besides, one of the cogwheels in the Designer is badly worn; it creaks a lot when it’s working—you can hardly hear yourself speak. Spare parts, unfortunately, are difficult to get here. Well, here is the Bed, as I told you. It is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool; you’ll find out why later. On this cotton wool the condemned man is laid, face-down, quite naked, of course; here are straps for the hands, here for the feet, and here for the neck, to bind him fast. Here at the head of the Bed, where the man, as I said, first lays down his face, is this little gag of felt, which can be easily regulated to go straight into his mouth. It is meant to keep him from screaming and biting his tongue. Of course, the man is forced to take the felt into his mouth, for otherwise his neck would be broken by the strap.” “Is that cotton wool?” asked the explorer, bending forward. “Yes, certainly,” said the officer, with a smile, “feel it for yourself.” He took the explorer’s hand and guided it over the Bed. “It’s specially prepared cotton wool, that’s why it looks so different; I’ll tell you presently what it’s for.” The explorer already felt a dawning interest in the apparatus; he sheltered his eyes from the sun with one hand and gazed up at the structure. It was a huge affair. The Bed and the Designer were of the same size and looked like two dark wooden chests. The Designer hung about two meters above the Bed; each of them was bound at the corners with four rods of brass that almost flashed out rays in the sunlight. Between the chests shuttled the Harrow on a ribbon of steel.

The officer had scarcely noticed the explorer’s previous indifference, but he was now well aware of his dawning interest; so he stopped explaining in order to leave a space of time for quiet observation. The condemned man imitated the explorer; since he could not use a hand to shelter his eyes, he gazed upward without shade.

“Well, the man lies down,” said the explorer, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs.

“Yes,” said the officer, pushing his cap back a little and passing one hand over his heated face, “now listen! Both the Bed and the Designer have an electric battery each; the Bed needs one for itself, the Designer for the Harrow. As soon as the man is strapped down, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers in minute, very rapid vibrations, both from side to side and up and down. You will have seen similar apparatuses in hospitals; but in our Bed the movements are all precisely calculated; you see, they have to correspond very exactly to the movements of the Harrow. And the Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence.”

Prison Courtyard, by Vincent van Gogh, 1890. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia.

Prison Courtyard, by Vincent van Gogh, 1890. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia. 

“And how does the sentence run?” asked the explorer.

“You don’t know that either?” said the officer in amazement, and bit his lips. “Forgive me if my explanations seem rather incoherent. I do beg your pardon. You see, the Commandant always used to do the explaining, but the new Commandant shirks this duty; yet that such an important visitor,” the explorer tried to deprecate the honor with both hands, the officer, however, insisted, “that such an important visitor should not even be told about the kind of sentence we pass is a new development, which—” He was just on the point of using strong language but checked himself and said only, “I was not informed, it is not my fault. In any case, I am certainly the best person to explain our procedure, since I have here,” he patted his breast pocket, “the relevant drawings made by our former Commandant.”

“The Commandant’s own drawings?” asked the explorer. “Did he combine everything in himself, then? Was he soldier, judge, mechanic, chemist, and draughtsman?”

“Indeed, he was,” said the officer, nodding assent, with a remote, glassy look. Then he inspected his hands critically; they did not seem clean enough to him for touching the drawings, so he went over to the bucket and washed them again. Then he drew out a small leather wallet and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. Whatever commandment the prisoner has disobeyed is written upon his body by the Harrow. This prisoner, for instance,” the officer indicated the man, “will have written on his body: honor thy superiors!”

Our crime against criminals is that we treat them as villains.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1898

The explorer glanced at the man; he stood, as the officer pointed him out, with bent head, apparently listening with all his ears in an effort to catch what was being said. Yet the movement of his blubber lips, closely pressed together, showed clearly that he could not understand a word. Many questions were troubling the explorer, but at the sight of the prisoner he asked only, “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the officer, eager to go on with his exposition, but the explorer interrupted him, “He doesn’t know the sentence that has been passed on him?” “No,” said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his question, and then said, “There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.” The explorer intended to make no answer, but he felt the prisoner’s gaze turned on him; it seemed to ask if he approved such goings-on. So he bent forward again, having already leaned back in his chair, and put another question, “But surely he knows that he has been sentenced?” “Nor that either,” said the officer, smiling at the explorer as if expecting him to make further surprising remarks. “No,” said the explorer, wiping his forehead, “then he can’t know either whether his defense was effective?” “He has had no chance of putting up a defense,” said the officer, turning his eyes away as if speaking to himself and so sparing the explorer the shame of hearing self-evident matters explained.


Franz Kafka

From “In the Penal Colony.” Kafka published only a handful of short pieces during his lifetime. Before his death in 1924 at the age of forty, he left instructions that all of his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. His literary executor and friend Max Brod ignored the request, publishing the novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika in 1925, 1926, and 1927.