Break out your reading glasses, we’re co-hosting a group read of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis with Young Germany in honor of Frankfurt Book Fair Week. Why did we pick the one Kafka story everybody and their dog has already heard of/read? For one because we wanted to choose a story readily available in both German and English, and for two because it is a little spec fic-y, so it made sense for both Young Germany and Book Punks. For three, because so many people have heard of it, the discussion should be slightly more accessible. So let’s rock this shit. You can find the general read along page right here. It has questions for discussion and a linky in case you’d like to post your thoughts to your own blog and then link up. (But don’t be shy, comments of all lengths and forms are welcome.) First thing, you might want to go read the story in English or in German. Or in both. Which brings me to…
Translation as superpower and why translations make me want to cry.
I love translations, and I love translators. If it weren’t for the brave, bold people out there slogging through this impossibile task, I never would have read any of the South American magical realist geniuses who number among my favorite authors today (Borges, Cortazar, Marquez). I never would have read The Master and Margarita. I never would have laid eyes on Dostoyevski. I couldn’t have read Goethe or Kafka or Bachmann until much later in my life. This would be incredibly tragic. My reading life would be significantly less wonderful without non-native-English-speaking authors and their words.
But I still sometimes feel uncomfortable with translation. Because I’ve done some translation myself, I know that sometimes there are words whose “correct” translation doesn’t capture the right tone or the right mood or the right cultural reference. I know that sometimes you have to decide between things like alliteration and word choice, rhythm and sentence structure, poetry and precision. I know that there are untranslatable words, and concepts. Jokes get lost. New jokes spring up in unexpected places. Translation is nothing short of a work of art; maybe even more so than the initial act of writing because translation carries an element of archaeology in it, of curation, of restoration, of interpretation, or creation and re-creation. It is a world of jobs packed into one title, and it is un-fucking-fathomable that translators receive so little recognition.
Translators are not walls; they are bridges.
Yet my discomfort remains. I want to get at the author’s words, and if there is a translator between us, I will never really know the book, not the way the writer did, not the way readers of the original do, and certainly not the way the translator does as the person who probably knows the book better than anyone.
This is a stupid way to think about translation, and I need to get over it. Translators are not walls; they are bridges.
The Metamorphosis: We won’t ever know what the fuck really happened to Gregor and translation is certainly not helping.
To illustrate the potential pitfalls of translation, let’s take a walk through Kafka’s Metamorphosis’s together, something that I have read both in English and in German too many times to even count (thanks, English degree, for making me read the same shit over and over again while completely leaving out huge parts of the reading world). The Metamorphosis’ first sentence is famous. The original German, in case you dabble, reads: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” In English (as translated by David Wyllie): “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
You might think that was pretty straightforward. It isn’t a complicated sentence. Dreams, bed, waking up, those are all words that are easily translated, right? Maybe so. Until we come to ungeheuren Ungeziefer/horrible vermin. That bit has been translated into nothing short of a fuckton of versions over the years, and how these translation choices affect our reading is something that English majors and book geeks like to get into a frenzy about (like me, right now). Stanley Corngold and Joachim Neugroschel, translating a decade away from each other, both went for “monstrous vermin.” Susan Bernofsky chose “monstrous insect.” Ian Johnston took “verminous bug.” Willa and Edwin Miur did “gigantic insect.” “Monstrous insect” are Malcolm Pasley’s words of choice. While Michael Hoffman deviated from the fold with “monstrous cockroach.”
Positioned at the beginning of the story as they are and carrying the image of Gregor that the reader will carry through the rest of the story in their mind, these words are really important, maybe even the most important two words in the entire story. Yet the translation of these words is up for debate, changes from translation to translation. How the fuck will we ever figure out what the hell is going on in this story if we can’t even get the right word for what Gregor has become?
But maybe we’re getting mired in irrelevant details. Because you know what? I’ve read this story in German and I still don’t know whether or not Gregor is really a bug or what kind of monstrosity his form has taken exactly. We are able to have this conversation about translation because the word Ungeziefer is unclear in the original (which is why I think cockroach is a poor choice of translation–it is far too exact). No one is ever going to know if Kafka meant it literally or figuratively, if Gregor has become more of a cockroach or a vermin or an insect. The translation issue gives us something more concrete to argue about, and in work as nebulous as Kafka’s tends to be, maybe that is kind of a relief.