Franz Kafka

If it’s Ungeziefer why not just call it Ungeziefer?!

Okay, admittedly, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer so please take my perplexity for what it’s worth…

About a plug nickel, that’s what.

But anyway, I know it’s easy for a one-language knuklehead like me to complain, but if in “The Metamorphosis” Kafka writes that when Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find himself changed into an Ungeziefer, which translates into English as vermin, then why don’t translators just use the word “vermin” (or, as it also can be translated, parasite or, if in a religious context, an animal unsuitable for sacrifice, or so the web tells me, whatever) when translating the work from German to English?

I don’t know, I guess I’ll never understand smart people.

But anyway, for any of you non-Formalists out there who have no problem looking outside the text for interpretation, you can find a bit more clarity — not complete, but a bit — on what Kafka meant by the Ungeziefer that Samsa metamorphosed into from the instructions he gave to his publisher about how he did not want any representation of the creature on the book cover:

Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead was trying to convey Gregor’s disgust at his transformation. In his letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915, in which he discusses his concern about the cover illustration for the first edition, Kafka does use the term Insekt, though, saying: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.”

Wikipedia, and about a million other places on the web

And even within the text we find an affirmation of that bit of clarity when the charwoman refers to the Samsa vermin as an old dung beetle1.

So, what this all means to me is that any further classifying by a translator of Samsa the vermin beyond a generic insect is simply just the translator taking poetic license with the text, to put it nicely.

To put it un-nicely, maybe it is more likely that the translator is punching beyond their paygrade (huh?)

Or… maybe it’s just that they are trying desperately to stick out from the very large global pack of other admiring Kafka translators.

Looking at the tried and true translation of Willa and Edwin Muir, we find the sentence reading in respectfully as, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”2

Nicely done, well within the limits of Kafka’s intent and desires I would say.

But when reading one of the newer translation of Kafka’s text by Michael Hofmann — which is what started this whole literary todo — his first sentence of “Metamorphosis” (not The Metamorphosis like it’s been referred to in English for close to a century now, but just Madison Avenue cool (or whatever the British equivalent is) Metamorphosis) reads presumptively as, “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach (emphasis emphatically mine) in his bed.”3

A cockroach?!

No, not cool, Mr. Hofmann.

Not only do I the one-language knucklehead take umbrage with Hofmann overstepping his literary bounds, I’m sure none other than the great Mr. Nabokov would as well if he were, you know, still able to stand vertical and chase those little butterflies around.

But anyway, as I embark on a close reading of the relatively new Penguin collection of Kafka’s work as translated by Mr. Hofmann, let it be known that I have already been prejudiced against it, for whatever it’s worth…

Not much more than a plug nickel, that’s whatever.

But you already knew that.

1. FRANZ KAFKA, The Complete Stories, Schoken Books, 1971, p1274

2. Ibid, or something like that, p89

3. METAMORPHOSIS AND OTHER STORIES, Penguin Random House UK, 2007, p75

4. Yeah, it’s been several decades since I tried to correctly cite a source so cut me some slack, huh…

3 thoughts on “If it’s Ungeziefer why not just call it Ungeziefer?!


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