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.