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.

Lost in Translation – Transcreation – 1

transcreation may seem a bullshitty type of word, a neologism we didn’t need.

but is it?

here’s a stab at some answers:

no, it isn’t bullshit:

it fuses the words translation and creation. this is a new discipline, especially geared to international advertising campaigns which are developed in one country and then adapted for others.

yes, it is bullshit:

adapting ad campaigns has always involved more than word-for-word translation – creation has always been part of it, so the word didn’t need inventing.

in fact, translating anything creative, be it the works of du fu, nizami, snorri sturulson, dante, or a line of copy, always requires additonal creativity if it is to succeed. in this sense, distinctions between translating and transcreating could be seen as superfluous….

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… but in that case – if all translation is creative, where does that leave word-for-word translations?

are they worthless, then?

no – they are essential, even if somewhat limited in what they do. they”re an essential part of good translating. they”re like a first draft, and more than this:

they are the best means of arriving at a precise idea of the sense of the original.

in other words, word for word translations are of great use –

either for highly technical documents, about scientific or legal subjects,say,

or any text where a perfect replication of the sense of the original is paramount,

or as a basis for a more “creative” translation (more creative, for example, in adding poetic rhythm analogous to the original to an otherwise dry and unrhythmic translation purely of the meaning).

but word-for-word translations go no further than giving the sense, and that limits them – because they struggle to get across the ideas, concepts, sound and voice of the original.

in fact, the husband and wife translating team richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky (celebrated for their translations of tolstoy) split their duties, with volokhonsky doing a literal word for word version which her husband (whose russian is basic) uses as the basis for his far more literary, structured – sophisticated in its echoes, terms, and symbolism – more reader-friendly final version.

richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky

richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky

they are widely seen, today, as the best translators of classic russian novelists operating today, and their translations are masterclasses in translation.

of course literary and advertising translation are different animals.

but i do think we can take some lessons from their example. what it suggests to me is that to produce a worthwhile, effective translation, a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of the language must be combined with creative insight.

that creative insight covers a wide scope of abilities.

first, the ability to immerse oneself in the whole world created in the original text (or campaign).

and then, from this basis, to shape a translated version which may only be a version, but is the truest approximation possible of that world in another language.

second, the ability to mimic the sound of the original in a way that works in the target language.

the sound of language operates most obviously at the level of the word and the sentence, and the cadences they create, which carry paragraphs and make them soar with verbal music.

it also extends, in hypnotically cumulative ways, across chapters and beyond – whole books, epics and series of novels.

from homer and virgil through vondel, shakespeare, gibbon, tolstoy, dickens, balzac, proust, pound and waugh and powell, the essence of classic works is often found in that characteristic sound, which some would call the writer’s voice.

that voice can never be captured.

(and as time passes, so one generation’s attempts to do capture it come to sound dated, limited, inadequate to the next…)

but, in the more workaday world of advertising, campaigns and messages and language are more about today’s consumers than timeless literary quality. and the concept of an advertising voice is not established (except in the sense of a brand voice, or the tone of voice we want the advertising to express).

in advertising, the essence we try to adapt from one language to another comprises

  1. the overall campaign concept or idea
  2. the tone of voice (eg. humorous, ironic, hard-sell, corporate etc)
  3. the link to the target audience which 1 and 2 embody.

this third aspect is the strategic consumer insight.

this insight into the consumer connection may be the very hardest of all to transplant from one culture to another (leaving aside problems of language alone)…

and this may be the single most compelling argument in favour of transcreation (as a term) – the fact that (unlike most classic literature) the best campaigns may not be strictly translateable at all, because they speak so directly – uniquely – to their target in an inimitable voice which expresses their innermost culture…

campaigns like that cannot be translated: they can only work if they are re-created from scratch.

so what’s my bottom line on that term, transcreation?

bullshit or not?

not wanting to hedge my bets, i’d say

it sort of is but it describes something very important

Something crucial to making ideas understandable in different languages and across different cultures, and something which is partly but not wholly conveyed in the terms “translation” and “adaptation” because in some cases, the only way to get an idea across is to recreate it virtually from scratch.

what do you think?

Translator’s notes – “Waves” by Eduard von Keyserling

I have started my translation of Eduard von Keyserling’s Wellen (Waves), a pioneering work of pre-World War I literary Impressionism which has never before been properly translated into English.

It doesn’t take long to run into the first hurdle. In the very first sentence a simple little word is untranslateable, word for word (as words so often are): Generalin Palikow.

In the context it doesn’t mean a female General, but the widow of General Palikow.

To translate this as “Widow Palikow” would be faintly absurd – bizarre not just to the reader’s eye but also in evoking indecorous, pantomimic, cross-dressing echoes of the Widow Twankey.

Wholly inappropriate for the dignified Generalin Palikow.

So what about just leaving it as Generalin Palikow?

At first, I was tempted by this (and I see in the Wikipedia article about the book and film they too have left it so). But then I saw that most readers would wonder what on earth was meant. They’d probably go for the female General option. And so, in the very first sentence, I would have confused, given them a bum steer.

A brazen cop-out, I thought, which would never do.

What about Mrs Palikow? It’s what she might have been called in Britain (well, much more likely Lady Palikow, as most British generals were either knights or lords at the time) and the USA, if she had been transplanted there. But to call her Mrs would give the lie to where she is, who she is in her time and place.

So much for Mrs Palikow, then.

The Generalin – General Palikow’s widow is probably the best way – at least for that first mention. It gets the right sense across immediately, and explains the meaning upfront. Keyserling refers to her as die Generalin throughout the book, giving this agreeably wise old bird (far from military herself) an incongruously militaristic aura so typical of the period. Once the reader knows what’s meant, we can do likewise.

I wonder if it was this hurdle in the first sentence which put off my predecessors, interpid translators of yore, who gave up the Keyserling game before they’d started…

Or maybe there’s further unsuspected, far more treacherous conundrums ahead.