Despite infinite ways to approach the famous first words in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”– we should, as newbie translators, avoid getting too carried away. Let’s narrow down our choices to the four stickiest words in his opener.
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from ___________dreams, he found himself__________ into a(n) __________ _________.”
1. Isn’t it terrific that the German word for dreams is Traumen? Choices to describe dreams: A) unsettling B) unpleasant C) troubled D) uneasy.
2. Choices to describe Gregor’s– er– metamorphosis: A) changed B) transformed C) turned D) transmogrified
3. Choices to describe the size of the creepy-crawly: A) giant B) gigantic C) enormous D) monstrous
4. Choices to describe the bug itself: A) cockroach B) beetle C) insect D) vermin.
Let’s just get it out of the way right now and say that the Willa and Edwin Muir* translation rocks.
“As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
1. “Uneasy” makes me uneasy. Whereas “unsettling” doesn’t really unsettle my stomach the same way. “Troubled” is 2nd best. Troubled– I feel you, as the kids say. “Uneasy” is better though and is true to the negation of Kafka’s unruhigen. Plus it sounds good with dreams.
2. While I like the simplicity of “changed” or “turned”– “transformed” has a bit more clarity.
3. “Gigantic” is perfection– particularly when paired with “insect”. The onomatopoeic combo of ICK ECK is comparable to the click-click of huge bug feet. “Giant” is 2nd best and works well with “cockroach”. I object to “monstrous”. It’s showy and judgmental. The event Kafka describes in “The Metamorphosis” is so peculiar, Gregor’s whole situation is so extra-ordinary (if I might steal from the musical “Pippin”) that it’s best for translators to eschew their Jerry Lewis wogga wogga instincts and go with some straight man adjectives.
ASIDE # 1: Some people mix up their Ovids with their Kafkas.
“When Daphne Mimosa awoke one morning from weird sexy dreams she found herself metamorphosed on her futon into a big laurel tree.”
Does that help?
ASIDE #2: “Behemoth beetle,” which– guaranteed– somebody’s tried, constitutes a ridiculous alliterative stretch. Translators must be fresh and innovative without also being asinine. This is impossible.
4. “Vermin” brings to mind guinea pigs and hamsters. According to Wikipedia, Nabokov pictured Gregor as a winged beetle. Yet by no means am I 100% married to “insect”. Personally, I prefer “cockroach”. Why? Mine is a squishy visceral reasoning rather than a hard-shelled intellectual reasoning. Intellectually, yes, Kafka never specified his breed of bug. “Insect” is best. But I still stick up for “cockroach.” Because the spirit of the story counts too and what everybody remembers after all these 100 plus years (1912) is that Gregor Samsa turns into a cockroach so screw literally screw all the erudite literal translations and their apologists and screw all the literal literary adaptations of E. M. Forster novels too with their white frocks and green lawns and good complexions.
Time to give Franz my own shot.
“When Gus Samovar peeled open his peepers right after his recurring dream in which a band of female terrorists chase him with machine guns but when they catch up Gus starts joking around and soon they’re all of them laughing and just as Gus is thinking hey, nothing bad is going to happen to me the one named Barbara says ‘Let’s get this show on the road’ and that’s when Gus woke up and found himself trying to grab his spectacles off his nightstand but– scritch scritch– he couldn’t since somehow or other he’d transmogrified on his bed from a nervous office clerk that nobody liked very much into a rather handsome and terrifying giant cockroach.”
*the Stanley Corngold translation: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” The paperback edition does have a stunning Max Beckmann painting “Family Picture” on the cover.
Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to comment with your own Kafka translations if you so desire.
Related Addendum: “Kafka-esque”? Really? Let’s give “Kafka-similar” a go for a couple weeks.