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Kafka's Metamorphosis: 100 years of perplexity

The Local · 26 Feb 2015, 15:29

Published: 26 Feb 2015 11:01 GMT+01:00
Updated: 26 Feb 2015 15:29 GMT+01:00

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In 1915 Prague-born writer Franz Kafka published a short story in German literary magazine Die Weißen Blätter (The White Pages).

Known casually among Kafka's friends as the 'bug piece', but officially entitled 'The Metamorphosis', the darkly surreal short story would become one of the most famous pieces of German literature of the century.

The tale centres on Gregor Samsa, a work-obsessed, miserable travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself mysteriously transformed into a giant insect-like creature. The rest of the story documents Gregor's attempts to deal with his absurd predicament.

The short story explores alienation as Gregor becomes more and more distanced from the rest of his family.

But Gregor's newly grotesque appearance is also often interpreted as a physical representation of how he is so obsessed by his job that he has ended up neglecting more human aspects of his life.

Modernist Fairy Tales

Kafka's other works have also been interpreted and reinterpreted by various different literary schools of thought, from psychoanalysis to existentialism.

He is considered to be one of the most important writers of the early 20th Century because of his preoccupations with contemporary themes like alienation, guilt, the justice system, dehumanization and bureaucracy, as well as his modernist style.

The great poet W.H Auden famously coined Kafka "the Dante of the 20th century", and he is cited as an influence by the likes of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Satre and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Translation Troubles

The Metamorphosis has always been at the centre of debates on how best to translate the story into English.

The first sentence alone has been scrutinised time and time again, with particular focus on what Gregor turns into – "einem ungeheuerem Ungeziefer".

The use of 'un' in both the adjective and the noun creates a double negative which cannot be recreated in English.

The adjective "ungeheuer" means "monstrous" or "huge", and doesn’t pose too much of a problem, but "Ungeziefer" certainly does.

The word originates from Old High German and means an animal unfit for sacrifice.

The vagueness of Kafka's choice of words means that, despite the fact that descriptions of Gregor's body later on conjure the image of a human sized beetle, the English words "bug", "beetle", or "insect" are all too specific.

Reinterpretations 100 years on

Just last year, Susan Bernofsky, Director of literary translation at Columbia University in New York, published her own latest version of Kafka's text.

Bernofsky told The Local that in her opinion, "The Metamorphosis is virtually a perfect story. The grotesque central premise grabs the reader's interest, and the story's solid psychological underpinnings keep it."

"It's one of Kafka's cruellest and funniest pieces, with straight-faced humour hidden behind the lines in the form of both the strange contrast between the story's grotesquery and the bureaucratically correct language used in it throughout, and the inappropriateness of Gregor's response to his predicament."

Bernofsky has translated a wide range of other German authors, including Herman Hesse and Walter Benjamin, which was no easy feat.

"All translation is difficult, and the particular trickiness of a given text is not always apparent until you start work on them." she said.

"For example, the word "also" in German is often a killer - an almost invisible logical connector that gets used a lot because it establishes relations while taking up so little real estate in a sentence.

"In English, "so" works only sometimes, and often the translator is forced to go the route of "for this reason," "therefore," etc, which instantly changes the register.

"It's not just German that has pitfalls like this - pretty much any pair of languages offers challenges."

When asked whether it was a daunting task to translate the text, she replied "Yes, because it's a story everyone already knows, with a first sentence whose translation everyone already has an opinion about.

Story continues below…

"But revisiting an already-translated classic gave me the freedom to look for a voice for the story that I think had previously been uncaptured."

As well as differences in translation, Bernofsky also tried to stamp her own identity on the story.

"My English-language Metamorphosis is a bit more skittish and hysterical than others, with more dramatic rhetorical sweeps.

"I've done what I could to show my readers what it is that I believe makes Kafka so funny, disturbing, and brilliant."

Bernofsky's new translation shows the longevity of Kakfa's The Metamorphosis, which even after 100 years is still being debated, discussed, and reinterpreted.

And how does she address the problem of the first sentence?

A widely accepted translation of "Ungeziefer" is "vermin", but in Bernofsky's new translation she pushes the boundaries a little by adding a few words.

She opts for "some sort of monstrous insect", in order to convey the required ambiguity.

by Matty Edwards


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