Kafka’s “Ungeziefer” in “The Metamorphosis”

franz kafka

franz kafka

I first came across Kafka’s Metamorphosis when I saw Mel Brooks’ Producers on TV. Plotting to produce a sure-fire Broadway flop, the characters look for the worst musical plot in the world – a premise so dire it’ll get booed off stage and close on the first night, so the producers can run off with their investors’ money.

Max, played by Zero Mostel, is reading through a list of plot ideas. When he reads this one: “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach -“  he tosses it aside, saying:  ‘ Nah, it’s too good.’

Despite that, as any pedant will tell you, the zoological specificity of Mel Brook’s line is far from precise as a translation of Kafka’s humour.

Describing Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka uses a vague term, “ungeheures Ungeziefer.” Although vague, that term carries some heavy symbolic baggage. And translators have struggled with it these hundred years (Die Verwandlung was first published in 1915). Aside from the Producers’ giant cockroach, the “ungeheures Ungeziefer” has been translated as “a monstrous vermin” and “a verminous bug”.

Etymology gives no clear guide on how to translate “Ungeziefer”, even when adding to the heavy symbolic load.
The etymological roots of “Ungeziefer” are in Middle High German (whose literature Kafka studied in Prague) –  “ungezibere”,  which means “non-sacrificial animal” (especially insects – and similar to the idea, in
other cultures, of the “unclean animal”.).

The difficulty is not so much in the specific words as the fact that Gregor’s point of view concerning his own state mutates as the story proceeds. The metamorphosis, in other words, is not a fait accompli at the beginning, but a process yet to be completed. Hence the imprecision in that first sentence.
In later passages the Ungeziefer is more precisely, but always contradictorily, described. The charlady, for example, calls Gregor a “dung beetle” (“Mistkäfer”). She seems to say it quite affectionately, but that term, too, is symbolically loaded. According to the ancients, the dung beetle was a protector of the written word, as well as a symbol of fertility – to the Egyptians, scarabs were talismans and amulets, used on seals,
rings and grave goods.

egyptian scarab beetle

egyptian scarab beetle

At the physical level Gregor, at different points in the story, starts to talk with a squeaking, animal-like voice, loses control of his legs, hangs from the ceiling, starts to lose his eyesight, and wants to bite his sister – not really helpful in determining his taxonomy.
Although Kafka famously wrote that he hated metaphors, these varied aspects of Gregor’s metamorphosis – both physical and symbolic – add to the resonance of the story, a resonance made more baffling, more moving by the very fluid nature of its inspecificity. That inspecificity contrasts with the earnestly specific way Gregor describes his physical condition, and intends to commute to his work as a salesman.
None of this  helps the translator looking for the perfect rendition of “ungeheures Ungeziefer”. I think I’ll put my money on Mel Brooks’ giant cockroach after all.


  1. Yuval Noah Harari says:

    I am perplexed by your strange assertion, Mr Fox, that word’s etymology cannot guide its translation – and every translator I have ever known would agree with me. What prompts your singular and decidedly eccentric delusion that the two are disconnected, Mr Fox?

  2. Tom S. Fox says:

    “Although vague, that term carries some heavy symbolic baggage.”

    You keep harping on about the word’s supposed symbolic baggage, but you never explain what it is.

    “Etymology gives no clear guide on how to translate ‘Ungeziefer’…”

    That’s true, it doesn’t, but only because etymology never gives us a guide on how to translate anything, because a word’s etymology has no bearing on its current meaning. The word “nice,” for example, originally meant “foolish.” Thinking that you can deduce a word’s “true” meaning from its etymology is called the etymological fallacy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymological_fallacy

    “According to the ancients, the dung beetle was a protector of the written word, as well as a symbol of fertility – to the Egyptians, scarabs were talismans and amulets, used on seals,
    rings and grave goods.”

    How is any of that relevant at all?

    • freddie oomkens says:

      Thanks you for your comments. I do think that of course a word’s etymology can guide its translation. In addition to the etymological fallacy, you will be aware of the intentionalist fallacy – both are useful concepts, but neither fallacy obviates the interest or the usefulness of their respective topics in dealing with texts.
      The relevance of the arcane Egyptian and other items is in filling out and specifying some of the symbolic baggage you ask to be specified in the opening of your remarks.

      • Tom S. Fox says:

        “I do think that of course a word’s etymology can guide its translation.”

        You are simply wrong there. What matters is what a word meant when it was used, not what it meant at some arbitrary point before that.

        “In addition to the etymological fallacy, you will be aware of the intentionalist fallacy…”

        The “intentionalist fallacy” is not a fallacy at all. It is just a term pretentious people like to use to justify their own bullshit interpretations.

        “…both are useful concepts…”

        I’m beginning to wonder if you understand what a fallacy is. The etymological fallacy is not a concept, it is just that: the false belief that what a word used to mean is what a word should mean.

        And again, the “intentionalist fallacy” isn’t a useful anything, because it isn’t a thing at all.

        “…neither fallacy obviates the interest or the usefulness of their respective topics in dealing with texts.
        The relevance of the arcane Egyptian and other items is in filling out and specifying some of the symbolic baggage you ask to be specified in the opening of your remarks.”

        That is literally just meaningless word salad.

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  5. Scott Powell says:

    Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing . Writing’s lack of independence of the world, its dependence on the maid who tends the fire, on the cat warming itself by the stove; it is even dependent on the poor old human being warming himself by the stove. All these are independent activities ruled by their own laws; only writing is helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and a despair.
    Kafka, Franz (2009-01-16). Diaries, 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics Series) (Kindle Locations 6607-6610). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
    Diary entry, December 6, 1921

  6. Henry Hitz says:

    Why translate the words at all??? Unqeheures ungeziefer says it all!

  7. My guess is the vagueness was deliberate. Partly for reasons you’ve mentioned: to reflect an ongoing process (though to my mind it’s more about the morphing of reactions of Samsa and others to his changed condition, than that he continued to *physically* change per se, though he did continue to learn what the body could and couldn’t do etc). *He* didn’t know what he was, nobody else knew what he was, so “monstrous vermin” etc are probably apt initial reactions – and later revisions of how he is referred to reflects, maybe, the way we do try to box and label things… perhaps especially that which is scary and alien.

    Also I suspect deliberate vagueness because he *didn’t* transform into a defined, named creature – he’d have had to shrink (and lose his ability for rational thought etc.). He transformed into something new – a nameless creature which may have had properties of other known creatures, but which wasn’t them.

    (I find it hard to believe Kafka saying he hated metaphors though. In fact I’m tempted to seek out the quote to see exactly what he said. Perhaps he just didn’t intend the story to be a metaphor – that it was driven by something else and the metaphorical aspect was a by-product of that..?)

    An interesting blog post! And further proof of the arduous task before the translator in rendering the intent of the original author, even where that intent is vague and disputed. But I’m sure it would strip something vital out of the story were one to alter all differing names for the creature and settle on one definitive term… the confusion is, I’m sure, a hugely important part of the story.

  8. Interesting points, Freddie.

    It may be that Mel Brooks’ take on Kafka and Hitler, and their hidden connection, was profounder, truer, and funnier than the interpretations of weightier critics.

    For my own part, I consider Kafka one of the most overrated writers of the twentieth century.

    If I may quote myself on the topic:

    In his Kafka biography, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head, Louis Begley, one of the best interpreters of Kafka’s life, especially of his relationships with women, claims that Kafka “wrote about the human condition.” Erich Heller held that Kafka’s writing transcended “most realities of the age.” Neither man, though, tells quite how Kafka did these things.

    Benjamin, Begley, Heller, Friedländer, and other critics who take Kafka’s greatness as self-evident agree that Kafka cannot be either explained or judged in the same way as other literary artists.

    Kafka, in other words, is given a pass on criticism. The argument is that he cannot finally be explained, but merely read, appreciated, and reread until his meaning, somehow, washes over you. But what if this meaning seems oddly skewed and in our day even outmoded, in the way great literature never is?

    Kafka is credited with prophetic powers, because he predicted, through his novels The Trial and The Castle, the totalitarian regimes that arose after his death, especially that of the Soviet Union, with its arbitrary, insane, crushing—yes, Kafkaesque—bureaucratic apparatus for killing. But today the stories of fatherly tyranny carry too strong an odor of the moribund doctrine of Sigmund Freud—the Oedipus complex and all that. Kafka claimed to have been thinking about Freud’s doctrines when he wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgment,” about a father who sentences his son to death by drowning, causing the young man to jump off a bridge. The centrality of dreams in his stories also reflects Freud’s certainty about the significance of the dream life. The spread of Freudianism and the rise of Kafka’s reputation ran, not without good reason, in parallel. Kafka reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on. Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority.

    All of which brings up the question of whether Franz Kafka is truly a major writer. His greatest proponents, insisting that he is, cannot say why, and ask for a permanent moratorium on conventional criticism of his writing. His detractors, a distinct minority, feel that what he left us is the sad story of a lost soul destroyed by modern life. In the end, Henry James wrote in an essay on Turgenev, what we want to know about a writer is, “How does he feel about life?” Kafka found it unbearably complicated, altogether daunting, and for the most part joyless, and so described it in his fiction. This is not, let us agree, the best outlook for a great writer. Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.

    Joseph Epstein

  9. Marcel Reich-Ranicki says:

    Kafka wollte nur über sich selbst erzählen. Aber indem er es tat, machte er die Angst des Zeitalters bewusst. Und seine Angst vor den Frauen war letztlich Ausdruck einer persönlichen Krise, jener ständigen Identitätskrise, der wir seine Romane und Erzählungen verdanken.

    In seinen Romanen (vor allem im „Prozeß“) und Erzählungen war Kafka seiner Epoche vorausgeeilt – wie kein anderer seiner Zeitgenossen. Erst Jahrzehnte nach seinem Tod (er starb im Jahre 1924), als sich die Rolle der Intellektuellen in der Gesellschaft weitgehend geändert hatte, vermochte man zu erkennen, daß die zunächst bloß auf eine spezifische Prager Konstellation zu beziehenden Geschichten vom Schicksal der Ausgestoßenen und Angeklagten klassische Parabeln der Heimatlosigkeit und der Entfremdung sind. Die von Kafka immer wieder dargestellte Tragödie der Juden – das Wort „Jude“ kommt übrigens in seinen Romanen nicht vor – wurde von späteren Lesern als Extrembeispiel der menschlichen Existenz verstanden.

    Marcel Reich-Ranicki

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