Folk who know nothing else about the Czech novelist Franz Kafka know that he wrote a short story in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is turned into a cockroach. The irony is that this is more a function of illustrations of the novella than it is derived from the text. In the below talk on translating Kafka from the London Review of Books, (featuring Will Self, translators Anthea Bell, Joyce Crick, Karen Seago and Amanda Hopkinson) one topic of conversation is the fact that this boils down to a mistranslation of the first sentence of The Metamorphosisfrom the original German.
The word ungeziefer is more accurately traduced as ‘vermin,’ ‘pest’ or ‘insect,’ than ‘cockroach.’ Although trying to get a firm grasp on what kind of insect Gregor Samsa has become, not to denigrate Vladimir Nabokov’s efforts, is irrelevant. Kafka specifically directed his publisher to not provide any illustrations of Gregor post-metamorphosis: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” Retaining indeterminacy = the order of the day.
Some anatomical features that are reported – lots of adhesive legs, a sensitive head, a hard back, suggestive of a thorax or carapace, indicates that has become insectoid, but exactly what kind is never said directly. The chambermaid addressing Samsa, almost fondly, as a ‘dung-beetle’ shouldn’t be trusted; it is more suggestive of her idiosyncrasies than suggestive of Samsa’s new form.
‘Vermin’ would seem to be a far more resonant translation in this case, as I would argue that it conveys another layer of meaning, beyond the surface monstrosity of Samsa’s condition. ‘Vermin’ amounts also to a subtle condemnation of his environment. In the same way that the word ‘weed’ refers to a plant growing where it is unwelcome, a ‘vermin’ is an animal in an environment where one judges it to be intruding. ‘Vermin,’ could just as easily refer to rats, foxes or even dogs.
The word ‘vermin’ in the first sentence therefore anticipates the Samsa family’s attitude to Gregor, as they becoming increasingly unwilling to share their household with him, no matter how certain they are that the insect is their son, though how they come to believe this is never outlined. The Samsas take action to euthanize him, ironically, after Gregor is tempted out of his room by the sounds of his sister playing the violin, appealing to his inner, very human, self. In some ways this is surprising; as the story continues, our sense of Samsa’s interiority recedes. Although on the other hand, he has been kept in a room for a few months and has been reduced to overhearing his family’s conversations in the other room. One shouldn’t necessarily blame him for withdrawing into himself, away from the reader’s vantage point.
In another sense, Gregor’s loss of personality traits or human characteristics has also begun long before the narrative proper begins. On awaking to this new state of affairs, he seems utterly unperturbed, regarding it as a mere inconvenience, and is far more troubled by the time that the train he intends to catch to work leaves the station, how much time he must allow himself if he is to catch it etc, rather than finding himself no longer in his own body. The tone of commonsense pragmatism with which he attempts to placate his freaking out family members, (he has lost the ability to speak) is one of the most horrifying aspects of the text, and points to how alienated Gregor is from himself:
“Do you want to let me set out, do you? You see Chief Clerk, you see, I’m not stubborn, I like my work; the travel is arduous but I couldn’t live without it.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is the menial nature of Gregor’s occupation as a travelling salesman; based on how quickly his supervisor turns up at his home to reprimand him, one might conceive this text as a fabulist critique of the dehumanising nature of modern work.
One should also remember also that the word ‘vermin,’ and words like it, were used in the Nuremberg rallies, and the belief that the Jewish people were unwelcome within the lebensraum in the same way that Samsa is in his own home, was to have disastrous consequences in the decades following Kafka’s death.