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Who am I to blame?

Nobel Medal, Prize for Physics (medal)

Is anyone as surprised as I am that the Nobel Prize in Literature went to an old pasty white dude?

I’m mean, it’s only been four years since the last one was selected with Peter Handke, and five years before that since Patrick Modiano was selected, and three years before that since Tomas Tranströmer was selected.

Of course, Bob Dylan doesn’t count in 2016, because, well, wtf was that all about anyway?

Nor does Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017, unless you are of the mindset of the former South African apartheid government and regard those of East Asian descendancy as honorary whites.

Of course in this day and age it is treading in dangerous territory to assume the particulars of anyone’s identity, even that of assumed pasty old white dudes such as mentioned above, sans Ishiguro of course.

But I’m pretty damn confident of my assumptions.

Come to think of it, that’s a whole lot of old white dudes selected for the NPL in just a little over the past decade.

What’s up with that?

I thought, with the state of the world as it is, with global sensibilities as they are, old pasty white dudes were persona non grata when it comes to just about any form of praise or recognition.

Oui, no?

It certainly is a oui for me and I’m as old and male and pasty white as they come.

I say, to hell with old pasty white dudes, regardless of their particular talents, or lack thereof.

Can I get an amen?

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There’s vermin in my library!

n884_w1150

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.

Wikipedia

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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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…

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Fake News is so Poe-thetic

I read an Edgar Allan Poe story today entitled The Angel of the Odd.

It’s a fun, fast, Kafka-meets-Twain, easy to forget kind of read.

But what is most memorable to me about the story is that it is entirely set up around the protagonists drunken dismay over what we would call the “fake news” of the day…

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