Of Kafka, “Metamorphosis,” and “Giant Insects”

If there’s anything objectively immoral in this world, it’s translating Kafka’s “ungeheures Ungeziefer” in his Die Verwandlung as “giant insect.”  The first time I picked up the English version and found that abomination, I grieved at the weakness of my native tongue.  Now, at long last, I discover that I haven’t been alone.  Others have noticed.  Writing in the New Yorker, translator Susan Bernofsky discusses the problem:

The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations— virtual nonentities—prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High German ungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.

Alas, “monstrous insect” is only marginally better than the “giant insect” that I saw in my first English version, but not much, and “some sort of” really doesn’t help.  In the first place, Ungeziefer probably isn’t the biggest problem here.  Ungeheuer is at least as poorly translated as “monstrous” or “huge”.  The noun Ungeheuer means a monster, but the adjective ungeheur does not mean monstrous.  Its root, geheur, is associated with “home,” and has connotations of “familiar,” or “comfortable.”  Thus, ungeheur does not necessarily mean “monstrous” in the sense of “big,”  but something both terrible and outside the normal range of experience.

As Bernofsky says, Ungeziefer are usually insects or “bugs,” but they are also disgusting and usually parasitic.  “Insect” just doesn’t get it.  I think “vermin” would actually be better, but is also anything but a perfect solution, as Bernofsky points out.  I find all this kind of scary, because my favorite author is Stendhal, and I don’t speak French.  I know I must be missing something.  Probably not as much as readers of Kafka who don’t speak German, though.  He writes in a sort of “chancellery German” that seems to make the world that much more indifferent to the amplified nightmares his heroes live in, and the nightmares that much more terrifying as a result.  As Reiner Stach wrote in a piece on Kafka that turned up in The New Statesman,

In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme.

I recognize the nightmares in all of Kafkas novels.  That’s what makes them so compelling.  I think most people have lived through more or less watered down versions.  Kafka just amplifies them, creating worlds of complete hopelessness and despair.  I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, though.