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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Now Less Kafkaesque

Posted by on Sat, Feb 1, 2014 at 1:11 PM

The most Kafkaesque photograph youll see all day.
  • The most Kafkaesque photograph you'll see all day.

Now that his name has become a watered-down adjective that pretty much means "a bad experience," it's sometimes hard to approach Kafka's writing as a living work. The kind of superheroic ubiquity that Kafka enjoys forces itself in between author and reader, putting a halt to the conversation of literature. Sometimes to truly get to Kafka, you need an intelligent guide. Fortunately, translator Susan Bernofsky has, in 118 pages, made him feel as approachable as he's ever felt. Her new translation of The Metamorphosis (W.W. Norton, $10.95) takes what is probably Kafka's most familiar work and subtly encourages the text into a transformation of its own.

I've read The Metamorphosis multiple times in different translations, and at some point, the story of Gregor Samsa's sudden awakening as "some sort of monstrous insect" has for me taken on the codified air of a Bible story, something huge and solid and in some respects unknowable. But in Bernofsky's translation, there is a moment, early in the book, when Samsa is struggling to explain his condition to his employer—he hasn't yet realized that he is not capable of speaking like a human anymore—and he admits, "I did in fact feel a mild foreboding yesterday evening already." The choice of "foreboding" gives Samsa a relatable humanity that other translators did not bestow upon him. In Ian Johnston's translation, that "foreboding" is described instead as a "premonition." In David Wyllie's translation, it's "a small symptom" of "unwell"-ness and "dizziness." I'm not equipped to say which is the more accurate translation from German, but I know which word resonates more to a reader.

Samsa's admission of foreboding comes a moment after he tries to assure his audience, and himself, that he was absolutely fine yesterday. Then, a moment later, he acknowledges the size of the foreboding he was trying to deny: "Surely it was noticeable to anyone looking at me," Samsa admits. He's desperate, realizing the depth of his desperation as he monologues to himself about why he can't seem to leave his bed and start the ordinary process of beginning yet another day in a life that seems to have had all meaning and importance leached from it.

Bernofsky's translation—her selection of words, her sense of rhythm—points the reader toward an interpretation of The Metamorphosis as the story of depression...

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