Write A Short Essay Of 3-4 Paragraphs About Metamorphosis

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in literature:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt”

Or to put it another way:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

So begins The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella of angst par excellence, in which a travelling salesman struggles to adapt to his horrific new identity against the backdrop of his middle-class family’s repulsion – although depending upon which translation you happen to be reading, poor old Gregor could be waking up to find himself transformed into anything from a giant bug to a monstrous cockroach to a large verminous insect. (“Ungeheuren Ungeziefer”has no literal translation in English, but broadly speaking it means an enormous or monstrous kind of unclean vermin; thus the entomology of Gregor Samsa remains a much-contested mystery.)

With the centenary of The Metamorphosis’s publication looming, I’ve spent the past month or so reading as many of the different translations I’ve been able to get hold of. The purpose of my reading was not to uncover that even more mythical of beasts, the Definitive Translation; nor was it to discover the True Meaning of The Metamorphosis (and the fable-like simplicity of Kafka’s prose means there are even more interpretations of the story than there are translations – from Ritchie Robertson’s Freudian description of “a constellation of sex, power and violence at the heart of the family” to Nabokov’s possibly tongue-in-cheek, certainly self-aware assertion that “the Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing less than mediocrity surrounding genius”). Rather, my intention was simply to compile a list of those translations I considered particularly noteworthy.

This piece, then, is intended as a starting point for discussion on the merits or otherwise of the different translations available. Please feel free to point out any that I have missed (or you feel I have misrepresented) or to champion your own particular favourite. And please don’t feel you have to limit yourself to The Metamorphosis. By happy coincidence BBC Radios 3 and 4 are in the midst of a Kafka season, so if you have a particular favourite translation of The Castle, The Trial or Investigations of a Dog, or any other Kafka, now is an ideal time to flag them up.

Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in 1933. Currently published by Vintage Classics and Schocken Books.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

For decades the “standard text”, and if the prose can seem a trifle stilted (“He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back …”) and the dialogue antiquated (“the devil take it all!”), then this seems entirely in keeping with the middle-class milieu of early 20th-century Europe. Of the two editions, the Schocken is the better-looking and comes with an afterword by Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod.

Stanley Corngold, first published 1972, currently published in the US by the Modern Library.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

Running to more than 300 pages, this is basically your one-stop Metamorphosis shop. As well as critical essays by WH Auden, Philip Roth and Walter Benjamin, this heavily annotated edition also includes letters and diary entries of Kafka’s pertaining to The Metamorphosis. And Corngold’s introduction is as thorough as it is provocative (he claims to have traced the origin of ungeheueren Ungezieferback to a protestant pamphlet written in 1581: “O monstruous vermine”). However, Corngold’s was not my favourite translation. In his introduction he states his intention as trying “to follow Kafka’s actual idiom”, which does not always equate with an easy read:

did the manager himself have to come, and did the whole innocent family have to be shown in this way that the investigation of this suspicious affair could be entrusted only to the intellect of the manager?”

One for the serious Kafka scholar, not the casual reader.

Joachim Neugroschel, first published 1993. Scribner Paperback Fiction.

One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.”

Not only one of the most readable translations, but also a lovely-looking edition. And while reading Neugroschel, not once did I find my mind drifting to compare it to other translations – a trivial aside, perhaps, but after spending a whole month of reading nothing but The Metamorphosis, one not to be sniffed at.

Michael Hofmann (2007). Penguin Modern Classics.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.”

By dint of being a Penguin Modern Classic this is probably the most readily available translation. However, despite being perfectly readable and coming with an excellent introduction, this is not a favourite of mine. While Kafka purists may recoil in horror at the insect-specific Gregor, more troubling for me are slangy colloquialisms. Thus Gregor’s boss is no longer “partial to the ladies” (Muir) but a “notorious skirt-chaser”. A decent translation, then, but not for everyone.

Joyce Crick (2009). Oxford World Classics.

As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin.”

This edition contains a fascinating introduction by Ritchie Robertson, offering Buddhist, Freudian and expressionist readings of the text. And while Crick deserves praise for jettisoning that awkwardly intrusive “in bed” from the opening sentence, her stated intention of following Kafka’s syntax as closely as possible – “often going further than English syntax can naturally accommodate” – can occasionally make for some rather confusing sentences:

[The picture] showed a lady posed sitting erect, attired in a fur hat and fur boa, and raising a heavy fur muff, which swallowed her arm right up to the elbow, towards the viewer.”

Christopher Moncrieff (2014). Alma Classics.

One morning, as Gregor Samsa woke from a fitful, dream-filled sleep, he found that he had changed into an enormous bedbug.”

No introduction – which is a pity as this is by far the most idiosyncratic translation and it would have been interesting to know the reasoning behind some of Moncrieff’s more florid decisions. (“Grete got up first and unfurled her flourishing young body.”)Not a Metamorphosis I’d recommend to first-timers, but jaded Kafka-readers may enjoy being nudged out of their comfort zones (if jaded Kafka-readers have comfort zones).

Susan Bernofsky (2014), Norton.

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.”

A slim, gorgeous-looking volume, comprising solely of The Metamorphosis and a thought-provoking introduction by David Cronenberg. Bernofsky’s handling of the opening sentence is masterful – both improving the rhythm around that troublesome “in bed” and staying true to Kafka’s intended ambiguity. And while the rest of Bernofsky’s translation is occasionally a tad verbose for my tastes it remains eminently readable and would make an ideal gift for the aforementioned jaded Kafkaphile.

John R Williams (2014) Wordsworth Classics.

And just when I thought no one could possibly improve on Bernofsky’s opening sentence, along comes Williams, who – behind an ugly cover, and beneath an unnecessary subtitle (“The Transformation of Gregor Samsa”) – quite simply, and quite beautifully, reshapes:

One morning Gregor Samsa woke in his bed from uneasy dreams and found he had turned into a large verminous insect”

The ecomomy here is characteristic of Williams’s translation throughout. If Bernofsky is a putter-inner, Williams is a taker-outer, unafraid to break up some of Kafka’s long, unwieldy sentences into shorter, more manageable units where necessary. This may get purists tutting, but I found this translation a joy to read. Highly recommended.

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