This translation, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released October 2003.
“In the Penal Colony” (German: “In der Strafkolonie”) is a short story in German by Franz Kafka. It is set in an unnamed penal colony. Internal clues and the setting on an Asian island suggest Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden as an influence. As in some of Kafka’s other writings, the narrator in this story seems detached from, or perhaps numbed by, events that one would normally expect to be registered with horror.
“In the Penal Colony” is a story about the last use of an elaborate torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the man on his skin in a script before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. As the plot unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the machine, including its origin, and original justification.
There are only four characters, named only according to their role in the story. The Officer is the machine’s operator, the Condemned is a man scheduled for execution, the Soldier is responsible for guarding the Condemned, and the Traveler (in the original, he is called “der Forschungsreisender,” or “the traveler/researcher,” and often simply “der Reisende”) is a European dignitary and visitor.
The story is told from the point of view of the Traveler, who—like the reader—is encountering this brutal machine for the first time. Everything about the machine and its purpose is told to him by the Officer, while the Soldier and the Condemned (who is unaware that he has been sentenced to die) placidly watch nearby. The Officer tells of the religious epiphany the executed experience in their last six hours in the machine.
Summary by wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Penal_Colony