The Most Impossible Word to Translate in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 7 2014 2:36 PM

The Ghosts of Kafka Present

Two new books attempt to capture the gaunt specter of modernism—and make him talk.

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Illustration by Matthew Roberts

Franz Kafka has been dead for nearly 90 years, which I suppose has given him ample time to get very good at haunting people. Such as, for example, Susan Bernofsky, author of a fastidious new translation of The Metamorphosis, and Jay Cantor, whose provocative story collection Forgiving the Angel dedicates itself to the gaunt specter of modernism. The books express their authors’ continuing fascination with Kafka from nominally opposite sides of the literary spectrum. Bernofsky aims to bring Kafka’s most beloved work into English once more, this time in a manner both fiercely loyal to his German and unapologetically of our place and time; Cantor splices together memoir and correspondence from those in Kafka’s orbit to create a new take on fan fiction, one both nuanced and literarily sophisticated.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

And yet both of these books want desperately to bring a dead man back to life, so that he can explain himself, so that he can (metaphorically) finish novels that break off midsentence, so that he can solve the mystery of his own existence. That they cannot succeed is not only no mark against these two fascinating books but works to underscore exactly what drove both authors to chase his ghost in the first place.

Bernofsky is one of the finest translators of German working today, and her new English version of Kafka’s most famous tale—of Gregor Samsa, the horrifying and helpless human-sized insect—distinguishes itself from previous translations in its first sentence. Bernofsky comes tantalizingly close to doing what no translator has ever been able to do: correctly approximate the 19th word of the story, Ungeziefer.

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The Metamorphosis is, in fact, full of untranslatable terms (beginning with its title, Die Verwandlung, which as Bernofsky points out in her translator’s note “does not suggest a natural change of state” in the way the English “metamorphosis” does). But the biggest challenge is indeed Ungeziefer  (OON-gee-tsee-fir), a descendant of the Middle High German for “creature unfit for sacrifice.” It is used in modern German to describe household pests, particularly of the multilegged variety. And yet it does not merely mean “insect” or “bug,” “beetle” or “cockroach,” because there are German words for those (Insekt, Wanze, Käfer, Kakerlak). Ungeziefer is a necessarily vague word for something repulsive and unwelcome in the house, whose repulsiveness is defined through the eyes of its human beholder. There is no single English word for this, and as a result, translations of The Metamorphosis are stuck with vague imitations, the most accurate being “vermin” (which also evokes both Nazi anti-Semitism and Yosemite Sam).

Bernofsky has addressed this problem by committing what Kafka purists may decry as an unforgivable sin: adding three words to the first sentence that aren’t there in the German. “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams,” Bernofsky writes, “he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.” (Emphasis mine.) And yet, I believe these three words are there; they live inside the Ungeziefer, not unlike Gregor himself. In her afterword, Bernofsky rightly explains that not only was the word “carefully chosen to avoid specificity,” but all subsequent descriptions of Gregor are as well. The reason Kafka didn’t make Gregor—until the story’s opening an overworked, miserable, but human traveling salesman—a specific insect is because Gregor himself doesn’t understand what he is, and the story is narrated from his point of view. He has “many little legs”; his “curved brown belly” is covered with “a cluster of tiny white dots”; his exo-shell feels like armor (but is easily pierced by an apple his father throws in rage)—in short, Gregor, despite being narrated in visceral detail, is impossible to picture (pp. 21-23). (Indeed, Kafka famously forbid his publisher from depicting Gregor on the book’s cover.) Bernofsky’s translation, of both Kafka’s original phrase and Gregor’s continued self-conception, does this impossibility justice.

Also given its due is Kafka’s wickedly dark and dry sense of humor. Humor is the Ungeziefer of language modes, parasitic and almost impossible to translate, and its lack in most English versions gives Kafka his rather oversimplified reputation as a master of horror. (Bernofsky’s publisher, bowing to that reputation, includes a reflective introduction by director David Cronenberg, which will please fans of The Fly.) But Bernofsky writes in her afterword that Kafka’s humor was one of his most important qualities, one she wanted to emphasize; for example, she brings to life a wonderful line about Gregor’s company doctor, “in whose opinion there existed only healthy individuals unwilling to work.”

Susan Bernofsky.
Susan Bernofsky

Courtesy of Caroline White

As faithful as Bernofsky’s translation is, it is also influenced by our particular place and time. Her translation highlights the worsening divide between Gregor’s cerebral self, recognizably human until the end, and his corporeal self, grotesque and debased: He is simultaneously a nonhuman and a disembodied human consciousness. To emphasize this, Bernofsky often give Kafka’s multivalent words their most esoteric or intellectual translation: the schmerzliches Piepsen (often “painful screeching”) of Gregor’s new voice is now a “tortured peeping”; this peeping that has mischte (usually “mixed”) with Gregor’s voice has here “infiltrated” it. As Gregor’s consciousness becomes more esoteric, the shocking reality of his insect body becomes more concrete. 

And, finally, how could a Kafka translator working today not highlight Gregor’s struggle as an “indentured servant to pay off his parents’ ancient debts,” as Bernofsky describes him? The true beauty of The Metamorphosis lies in its ultimate irony: that Gregor’s debt-driven, work-consumed life had long made him a repulsive creature unable to communicate with his family; his physical transformation simply makes his outsides match his insides.

For Bernofsky, although Gregor Samsa dies in the story (can you spoil a book that’s 100 years old?), his multivalent and, yes, hilarious struggles are still very much alive. For Jay Cantor, so is Gregor’s author. In Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel, subtitled “Four Stories for Franz Kafka,” four evocative, ambitious, and highly varied tales aim to bring Kafka back to us by showing that he never left.

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Instead, he haunts everyone and everything he touches. In these stories, Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and literary executor, disobeys the author’s dying wish and publishes manuscripts slated for incineration—and is tortured by his decision for the rest of his life. Ludwig “Lusk” Lask, the overshadowed spouse of Dora Diamant (who had been Kafka’s enchanting last love), ends up quoting Kafka when he’s being tortured in a Soviet gulag. Milena Jesenská, Kafka’s great epistolary flame, recalls Kafka as she finds unlikely love against the horrifying backdrop of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. And the author even manages to haunt an attic in Prague, where Cantor has Kafka composing a self-referential story-within-two-stories from beyond the grave.

Cantor creates gripping stories around innumerable epistolary and biographical artifacts: Max Brod’s intimate (some say inaccurate) biography, as well as more recent books by Ernst Pawel, Louis Begley, and Reiner Stach; Kathi Diamant’s masterpiece Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant; Kafka’s letters and those of his friends and lovers; and tales of the brilliant and tragic Jesenská.

In the book’s title story, as Kafka lies on his deathbed in an Austrian sanitarium, a rabbi again refuses to allow him to marry Dora Diamant. Unable to speak because the tuberculosis has reached his throat (he will, indeed, technically die of starvation, not unlike his Hunger Artist), Kafka scribbles a note to Brod that ends with “And who could be a better prosecutor in this matter than one’s self?” “If,” Brod answers, “one is Franz Kafka.” The dying author then smiles “in that ironic and malicious way that now terrified Max, since it seemed to call both God and Kafka’s right to live into question.”

Yes, there are liberties taken here, some having to do with the fact that Cantor is writing in English about people who are ostensibly not speaking it: “He isn’t appointing me his literary executor,” Brod tells Dora, “but his literary executioner” (a funny line, but the two words are not similar in German). But these liberties allow Cantor to take his palpable longing for Kafka and turn it into Kafka speaking on the page, which for those of us who love him is achingly satisfying in spite of its falsehood. Achingly satisfying because of its falsehood—because, in a way, of Kafka’s unknowability.

Jay Cantor.
Jay Cantor

Courtesy of Richard Howard

In Cantor’s heartbreaking “Lusk and Marianne,” Dora Diamant’s second life partner Lusk Lask, a dedicated communist who nevertheless suffers immensely under Stalin’s regime, struggles to purge his home of the author’s imposing specter; meanwhile, Dora insists (as she did in reality) that one simply had to know Kafka to understand his writing. That may be true, given the 100-plus years of interpretive endeavors that, in the end, ultimately fail to bring order and understanding to a canon of prose whose entire purpose is to resist order and defy understanding —if it was even meant to be read at all.

And as noble as both Bernofsky’s and Cantor’s efforts to harness Kafka’s life force are, ultimately Kafka’s untranslatabilty and inimitability win out—you had to know Kafka to understand him, and you had to be Kafka to bring him to life. And yet both books are superb, because despite their inability to do the impossible—to enter through a doorway that exists to keep them out—both books show, with remarkable skill and palpable desire, why so many of us feel so compelled to chase down a ghost, and get him to talk to us.

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The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, translated by Susan Bernofsky. W.W. Norton.

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