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The Metamorphosis
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Gregor Samsa: Insect, Cockroach, Bug, Vermin, Beetle (?)

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message 1: by Nathanimal (last edited Mar 28, 2012 07:45AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nathanimal | 29 comments Okay, so this seems to be the most famous and questioned translation issue in Kafka's work. "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an ungeheueren Ungeziefer."

This has been translated many different ways. In the Muir translation above it's rendered "gigantic insect." Norton Critical translated by Stanley Corngold renders it "monstrous vermin." I've also heard cockroach. Have you heard other renderings?

How do you feel the connotations of the differing renderings color the story? Do they change your reading at all?

I don't speak German but it's my understanding that "Ungeziefer" was a common way to refer to a bug. But it also transliterates to something like "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice," and that's certainly a connotation that's missing from any of the English translations. That gives a religious shading to the story, I think. It's interesting that early German readers like Thomas Mann and Max Brod thought of Kafka as a religious writer, something I've not heard from modern English readers. I'd love to hear a "religious" take on this story from someone.

Nabokov was adamant (when was he not?) that Samsa was, in fact, a beetle and even went so far as to make sketches. He felt that it added to the meaning of the story that Gregor had wings but never used them. Nabokov was a bug collector, so I guess he'd know.


Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 8 comments I really don't like 'cockroach'. It seems too specific. Same with Nabokov's beetle interpretation.

I like not being able to picture EXACTLY what he is, but knowing that he is something kinda insect-like. I think more than anything it's the 'sense' of a forbidding presence that is most important (for me), not the exact species.


Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 8 comments Also, I think being able to say EXACTLY what he is takes away (a little) from that forbidding presence. Because, afterall, part of the danger of what he is is that he (to a certain degree) represents the unknown.


message 4: by Nathanimal (last edited Mar 28, 2012 07:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nathanimal | 29 comments Because, afterall, part of the danger of what he is is that he (to a certain degree) represents the unknown. "

That's a really good point, Jimmy.

I agree, for the reasons you state here, that cockroach is too specific. I do like it though, because it elicits that cringe quality that the others don't quite. A cockroach is the quintessential house intruder i.e. a cockroach has a special relationship to a house that other insects don't. It also brings to mind something to be fumigated, exterminated, which adds cred to Kafka as a Jewish prophet of modernity.

Vermin comes close, but to my mind it's too unspecific. I can't picture it because a vermin can also be a rat, or really any kind of virulent pest. It works for that "unknown" quality you talked about, Jimmy, but for nuts-and-bolts storytelling reasons I object.

A bug actually conjures something cute to my mind, so no. Insect is okay. It's pretty transparent, connotation-wise, but that allows the modifier (gigantic, monstrous) to do the heavy lifting.

Sorry, Nabokov, but beetle just fails all around, except maybe on the level of entomological pedantry.


message 5: by Nathanimal (last edited Mar 27, 2012 02:27PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nathanimal | 29 comments Oh, and I was just thinking. Kafka didn't want the Ungeziefer to be depicted on the cover of The Metamorphosis. That probably suggests that it was well within his intention to keep Gregor's transformation ambiguous.


Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 8 comments I remember when I first read it (was it in high school?), being haunted by the formlessness of this vague unknowability.

You're right about the cockroach though, re: cringe quality and house intruder.


Hypnotoad | 12 comments I assume Kafka was unfamiliar with the "stinkbug"--the new species currently overtaking the northeast. They have quite a bit of difficulty in turning over as well; however, they can fly (badly) which Gregor certainly can't.

I'm interested in the idea of Gregor as a villain. I always read the story as a denunciation of the commercial lifestyle Gregor leads and the way it turns everything into, as Marx notes, a "cash nexus." He's not a villain but he's a drag--obsessed with his meaningless responsibilities to the firm, so much so that his primary worry after his transformation is getting to the office on time. His family depends on him, so they learn to hate him; they are liberated at his death.

Note: Don't some cockroaches have wings?


Phillip | 20 comments When Gregor's sister comes into his room and at first can't find him she says: "It's not as if he could fly away" - - ! >> Every sentence in Kafka is important and to really appreciate K's subtleties it's best to reread and reread - as well as compare to his other stories which you have read and reread. To fly one needs feathers. Kafka read Plato (in Greek! too) and Plato defines Man as a "featherless biped" -- See how things can come together! Note the cleaning lady really gets on Herr Samsa's nerves - she represents the old-fashioned down to earth spirituality that has an ostrich feather in her cap! The air dogs in Investigations of a dog float up high on feather pillows and Burgel in The CASTLE is lying under a feather (down) quilt - Offering K. "anything he desires" >> thus, all stories are autobiographical and point to the same thing > release from this inane world! - - That's my opinion. & glad to finally see some action on this Kafka site!


message 9: by J. (last edited Jan 09, 2014 01:14AM) (new)

J. Adler | 2 comments "That gives a religious shading to the story, I think."

I am German. And in my opinion this word does not have this religious background. Religion might have been helpful do describe it several centuries ago - just as almost everything in daily life was somehow referring to religion since religion was a huge part of daily life.

Today I would describe it without any religious background and I'm sure Kafka didn't use it more in a religious way than anybody else.

"Ungeziefer" is singular & plural at the same time. It is one or more small animal(s), mostly insects and / or worms, but could also be mice and rats.

A rat or a mouse would be too big, though, because a rat can already be seen as one creature and named.
Yet if someone said "My basement is full of Ungeziefer" it could also be a unspecific number of unspecific rats or mice (in addition to cockcroaches, spiders, worms, ..)

It's one word for those little creatures that don't 'deserve' taxonomy. You don't find a biological name for it. Is it a bug? Is it a cockcroach? Is it a louse? Doesn't matter, you don't want to think about it when you see it, it's just "them". Or "it". You don't want "it" in your bathroom. In your bed. On your walls. Under your closet.
That's what this word is used for.

In flora we have a similar word: "Unkraut". I think an appropriate translation would be "bad weed". Maybe that's also helpful for understanding "Ungeziefer"?

I guess in India for real Hindus there would be no understanding for that kind of view on living creatures. So yes, here is the religious / ethical meaning of our / Kafka's days.


Nathanimal | 29 comments Thank you, J. That was really enlightening.


message 11: by J. (new)

J. Adler | 2 comments Maybe the English / American natives among you can give a feedback on how close my description above fits to the english word "vermin"?


Nathanimal | 29 comments After your description of the contemporary usage of Ungeziefer I went away thinking that vermin is pretty much the perfect correlate. To me, vermin connotes just the same amount of ambiguity, disgust, and even smallness that you described with the German word.


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