Translating Kafka’s Opening Sentence of “The Metamorphosis”: a bug story primer


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.


6 thoughts on “Translating Kafka’s Opening Sentence of “The Metamorphosis”: a bug story primer

  1. Vicki

    A beautiful breakdown of the opening sentence! It’s a story that has haunted me (in the best and creepiest way) since I first read it in high school. AND I was just talking about it two days ago, weirdly. Get out of my brain, Cargill! (But actually, don’t.)


    • Thanks so much. A very kind comment indeed. Kafka does get around. I’d just finished typing the post and was heading north on a bus– a young woman was discussing Kafka’s cockroach story with her boyfriend. Then last night at Tuesday Funk– a poet explained the Kafka reference in her poem. About a man who is miserable and doesn’t want to face his wife so to avoid going home he grabs a woman’s purse and, in a split second decision, becomes a criminal. Wasn’t familiar with that Kafka story. The poet did use “Kafka-esque” in regard to her own life. So I don’t think she reads this blog. Thanks again, Vicki!


  2. Moniz

    Love this. Could listen to you parse and join in the parsing of this all day long. (And after seeing your reference to vermin as an option for translation and having never before considered the possibility that Gregor turned into a hamster, now desperately want to contemplate that.)

    I think your translation is most excellent. I adore the fact that you describe him as a “rather handsome” cockroach. One of the things that I always admire about Gregor is that no matter what else is lost, the desire for dignity is never lost.

    You mention Nabokov and I am quite fond of Nabokov’s lecture on this story and love this thought of his on the first sentences: “In the original German there is a wonderful flowing rhythm here in this dreamy sequence of sentences. He his half-awake—he realizes his plight without surprise, with a childish acceptance of it, and at the same time he still clings to human memories, human experience. The metamorphosis is not quite complete as yet.”

    Please translate the whole story! I want to read Cargill’s Kafka from beginning to end!


    • Thanks so much, Jen Moniz! Glad you liked my translation– I worried I might be taking too many liberties. Apparently Kafka was adamant that no illustrated or insect photo should appear on the cover of his book (that wish seems to have been ignored.) I should read Nabokov’s lecture– that quote of yours is awesome. I guess as a lepidop– to avoid spelling this word, I will just call him a butterfly-lover. As a butterfly lover, Nabokov had clear ideas on the sort of insect Gregor was. And yes, I love that Gregor is half-awake and just accepts his situation. Like a good Chicago improviser, he never denies it– just “Yes and”s. Thank you to the nth for such a lovely, thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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