Viele Schatten der Abgeschiedenen beschäftigen sich nur damit, die Fluten des Totenflusses zu belecken, weil er von uns herkommt und noch den salzigen Geschmack unserer Meere hat. Vor Ekel sträubt sich dann der Fluß, nimmt eine rückläufige Strömung und schwemmt die Toten ins Leben zurück. Sie aber sind glücklich, singen Danklieder und streicheln den Empörten.
Many shades of the departed are occupied solely in licking at the waves of the river of death because it flows from our direction and still has the salty taste of our seas. Then the river rears back in disgust, the current flows the opposite way and brings the dead drifting back into life. But they are happy, sing songs of thanksgiving, and stroke the indignant waters. [Kaiser/Wilkins]
Many of the shades of the departed busy themselves entirely with lapping at the waters of the Acheron, because it comes from us and still carries the salt tang of our seas. This causes the river to coil with revulsion, and even to reverse its course, and so to wash the dead back to life. they are perfectly happy, and sing choruses of gratitude, and caress the indignant river. [Hofmann]
This one I find both especially troubling and especially mystifying.
The river of death comes from us. It would not be inconsistent with what seems to me to be the tenor of Kafka's thinking to think of mourning and grief as a way of driving the dead off and emphasizing the barrier between life and death, for all that they appear to originate in a desire to avoid a separation. One the one hand, no one wants to be separated from the lost one, but retaining the corpse can only increasingly underscore the loss; the body has to be put away in order to set the memory free for safekeeping.
The topic of the aphorism seems specifically to be the nature of the difference between alive and dead. I'm reluctant to think of the river as death itself because it seems to be only a part or element of death. Hofmann translates "Totenfluss" as Acheron; the underworld has rivers, or one crosses rivers to reach it, but the underworld is not just a river. The barrier between life and death is not hard in all places; in some ways the barrier is hard, like the surface of the earth between the domain of mortals and the classical underworld. In other ways, however, the barrier is soft, more like water, in that someone believed dead for one or another reason, absence or catalepsy, may turn out to be alive after all. People frequently continue to see their lost ones, owing to a kind of psychological persistence of vision.
We have the avidity of the dead, the bathetic miracle of their restoration, a kind of stunt, and the indignation and disgust of the river. The river carries the dead away from life, no matter how people may cling to the dead; then it carries the dead back again, not in response to the petitions of the living, but in disgust and indignation.
The river seems to be giving the dead what they want, but their activity seems mindless. Only the reservation that many, but not all, engage in licking the river suggests otherwise, and the suggestion seems unimportant to me. If the river is giving the dead what they want, they receive it not because they deserve it, but because the river is exasperated with them and it rejects them in a spasm of impatience.
The yearning of the dead for life is unseemly. I don't think this is because Kafka thinks it is unseemly to love life, but only to cling to half-measures, the dead licking the river for the taste of life, and so it's better to restore them to life entire.