There’s vermin in my library!

And by vermin I mean Ungeziefer of course.

And if that Ungeziefer were a snake, the little bugger probably would have bitten me.

Yeah, so… after yesterday’s mostly tongue-in-cheek diatribe re: my frustration with translators who blasphemously translate Ungeziefer, the German word for the mysterious critter into which Franz Kafka has Gregor Samsa of “The Metamorphosis” metamorphose, as anything other than vermin, the actual word Ungeziefer translates as into English, I happily discovered in my Kindle library a 2002 translation of the complexing story by a one David Wyllie that I downloaded from the Gutenberg Library god only knows when that has the famous first sentence translated as…

“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin” (emphasis emphatically mine!).

Now, was that so hard?

Actually, I have no idea if that was hard or not because I, alas, am a mere one-language knucklehead.

But, don’t you feel even a bit more relieved to know that you are reading a translation of a word, a word that has caused much confusion and consternation and the expenditure of reams and reams of paper, both of the tactile sort and of the e-sort, for nigh a century now, that comes closest to the author’s original?

Look, obviously all this so-called diatribe of mine is, like I said, mostly tongue-in-cheek.

Key word there being: mostly.

There is, to me, however, a little slice of sincere seriousness about all this as well.

Think about it…

Think about the differences between Ungeziefer/vermin and insect, which the Muirs use in their translation, and cockroach, which Hoffman uses in his translation, and even a “big beetle with wings under his shell, capable of flight” for which Vladamir Nabokov lobbied *.

Because I’d bet my bottom bitcoin (if only I had one, right?) that Mr. Kafka certainly did.

And for some reason, he felt compelled to use, not such a specific identifier as cockroach, nor a more general identifier as insect, but an identifier that could easily include both in its meaning as encompassing and horrible, as Wyllie refers to it as in his translation, or as gigantic, as the Muirs refer to it as in theirs, or as monstrous, as Hoffman refers to it as in his, as it is.

So, we all probably have some general understanding what the word vermin means, but let’s get the read deal definition from a renowned authority:

Vermin (colloquially varmint(s) or varmit(s)) are pests or nuisance animals that spread diseases or destroy crops or livestock. Since the term is defined in relation to human activities, which species are included vary by region and enterprise.

The term derives from the Latin vermis (worm), and was originally used for the worm-like larvae of certain insects, many of which infest foodstuffs. The term varmint (and vermint) has been found in sources from c. 1530–1540s.


So then, with that understanding in mind, what would compel a man like Kafka to use just that word and not the others?

To me, the crux of it all has to do with the alienation he felt in life.

Some say this alienation has mostly to do with his daddy issues.

Yeah, okay, maybe to some extent; but to this knucklehead it seems that this alienation is mostly driven by Kafka’s identity and the marginalization he felt because of it.

For, not only was he marginalized as Jew in a city country continent world** rife with antisemitism, but he was even further marginalized because, for some reason I’ve yet to discover/research, Prague Jews didn’t speak Czech, they spoke German, which is why we’re discussing the German word Ungeziefer for vermin and not the Czech word Havěť .

So, what better way to express this deep-seated feeling of alienation in Kafka as embodied by Gregor Samsa than to turn him into, not some creepy but elusive cockroach, or some ambiguous, generic insect, most of which are mostly harmless and go mostly unnoticed, but into some vile, oversized and infectious vermin that everyone, without prejudice, could fear and despise?

Nothing comes to mind. Yeah, I think Kafka pretty much nailed it.

Yeah, so a lot of this is just for fun and I really have nothing but respect and envy for all the translators out there opening up the world for us…

But, a little bit is wholly and very serious to me because I think it matters with much immensity and immediacy that the world regards the fateful Gregor Samsa explicitly as Kafka intended.

*A reenactment of Nabokov instructing his Cornell students on the subject of “The Metamorphosis,” with Christopher Plummer staring as Nabokov, can be viewed here.

**The Metamorphosis” was published in 1915, only a few short years before the rise of Nazism begins… and which, by the time of its end, Kafka’s three sisters had been murdered in Nazi concentration camps. To illustrate how anti-Semitic times were within Kafka’s life, three years after he was born, Friedrich Nietzsche’s domineering, mentally imbalanced, and extremely anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth Alexandra Förster-Nietzsche moved with her husband to Paraguay to create the pure-Aryan paradise of Nueva Germania. Yeah… pretty awful and surely highly impressionable times for Franz, I’d venture to say.

NOTE: Regarding the featured image, Kafka instructed his publisher to not represent on the book cover what he, the publisher, conceived the vermin to be; instead, he, Kafka, wanted only a man lying in bed to be represented. Hence, my choice of the featured image that I found in the Pexel free database. To me, the identity of person lying in bed is unidentifiable, although I assume (I know, I know… risky business there) this is a person of color, which would, sadly, make this person wholly marginalized in my neck of the woods… and probably, sadly, in yours too.

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