The Metamorphosis


Kafka's sentences often deliver an unexpected impact just before the period—that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved from the construction of sentences in the original German, where the verbs of subordinate clauses are put at the end. For example, in the opening sentence, it is the final word, verwandelt, that indicates transformation:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.

These constructions are not directly replicable in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the effect of the original text.[3]

English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect", but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle High German, Ungeziefer literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice"[4] and is sometimes used colloquially to mean "bug" – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding "insect". Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor's disgust at his transformation. The phrasing used by Joachim Neugroschel[5] is: "Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin", whereas David Wyllie says" "transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin".[6]

However, in Kafka's letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915, in which he discusses his concern about the cover illustration for the first edition, he uses the term Insekt, saying: "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance."[7]

Ungeziefer has sometimes been translated as "cockroach", "dung beetle", "beetle", and other highly specific terms. The term "dung beetle" or Mistkäfer is, in fact, used by the cleaning lady near the end of the story, but it is not used in the narration. Ungeziefer also denotes a sense of separation between himself and his environment: he is unclean and must therefore be secluded.

Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as writer and literary critic, insisted that Gregor was not a cockroach, but a beetle with wings under his shell, and capable of flight. Nabokov left a sketch annotated, "just over three feet long", on the opening page of his (heavily corrected) English teaching copy. In his accompanying lecture notes, Nabokov discusses the type of insect Gregor has been transformed into, concluding that Gregor "is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle".[8]

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