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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

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Kafka’s Old Strangeness Renewed

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Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis. A New Traslation
Susan Bernofsky.  

Franz Kafka wrote his novella The Metamorphosis in 1912, before his 30th birthday.  It was among other early stories that highlighted fathers triumphing over sons, and which presented, along with this outcome, extravagant punishment.  His friend Max Brod saw in this creative output something unusual. In his diary Brod  wrote, “Kafka in incredible ecstasy.  Writes all night long . . . .” 

The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 as Die Verwandlung, but Kafka did not consider it a literary triumph.  In his diary, not long after its completion, he wrote: “Great antipathy to Metamorphosis. Unreadable ending.  Imperfect almost to its very marrow.  It would have turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by a business trip.”

Like many of Kafka’s self-characterized failures, The Metamorphosis went on to become one of the major texts of 20th  century literature, in part because of its seeming impenetrability, but also for its hyper-real fantasy: a salesman wakes “one morning from troubled dreams” to find “himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.”

What exactly Samsa has been transformed into – an Ungeziefer in the German original – is one of the Kafkaesque puzzles associated with the story, and the English language version quoted above is from a new translation by the young, New York-based translator Susan Bernofsky. Its cover is graced by a lovely, though mildly grotesque illustration, made of elaborately decorated letters, some sporting buglike legs, arranged in such a way as to form the Ungeziefer itself. This image skirts the famous Kafkan injunction to his publisher that his book should include no realistic illustrations of bugs, beetles, or whatever actual insect one might imagine Samsa to have become.

The Metamorphosis is harder to pin down than some of Kafka’s other strange masterpieces. The  Castle and The Trial are suggestive of bureaucratic nightmares, of the barriers set up by officialdom, and the abuse of law, which functions in them only to assert its own existence and power. (English translations of these novels appeared in the 1930s, when readers were increasingly interested in totalitarian abuses of power and language).

The Metamorphosis is a purely domestic tale: once transformed and unable to go out on the road, Gregor is a challenge and a misery to his family.  Things end, as one might expect, badly.  The charwoman responsible for maid duties at the Samsa home finds him one morning and announces, “Come have a look, it’s gone and croaked – just lying there, dead as a doornail!”

Here Bernofsky’s stamp on Kafka’s voice and tone is clear; my 1992 Penguin version reads, “Just come and look, the creature’s done for; it’s lying there dead and done for!”

Translating Kafka presents special challenges. The work’s patent strangeness, but, too, its relationship with the time and place of its creation, raise conflicting challenges and possibilities.  The Penguin translation of the charwoman’s utterance is drab, even characterless, as if the translator sought out an idiom that would be marked neither by place or time. Bernofsky’s choice suggests an actual voice, one that is crude and prone to colloquial cliché.

Bernofsky’s version readily employs unusual, even risky words – “carapace” to convey Samsa’s shell-like back; a “thunderstorm of invective” to describe the talking-to Samsa expects from his boss for having missed work.  But in other ways Bernofsky presents a casual, less formal style of delivery than previous translations, and this gives Kafka’s prose an immediate and more contemporary tone. 

Darkly comic set pieces, like Kafka’s description of Gregor’s sister’s care for him, are dramatic and sharply drawn: “The moment she came in, without even pausing to shut the door – although she always took such pains to shield the others from the sight of Gregor’s room – she would race straightaway to the window and fling it open with hasty hands as though she were on the point of suffocating, then remain standing there, however cold it might be, gulping in the air.  All this racing and racket was inflicted on Gregor twice a day; he would be trembling beneath the settee . . . .”

An encounter with a familiar text like The Metamorphosis, newly translated, provides a reminder of how translations can smooth or impede our access to Kafka’s special form of narrative estrangement. Testing a translation in this context is a luxury; someone else has done all the heavy lifting; an older, more familiar version can be set alongside the fresh one; the reader does his or her best to decide if things ring true. At more than one hundred years remove from its writing, The Metamorphosis continues to offer possibilities for new kinds of strangeness.


Norman Ravvin writes and teaches in Montreal. This spring he will give talks on Canadian Jewish writing in Lodz and Konin, Poland.

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