Why Kafka Should be Read in German

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I generally dislike reading translations, but I decided after some deliberation that learning German just to read Kafka was more work than I was willing to put in. This short story seemed like a good entry into this famous writer’s world. From the first sentence, I was surprised, not by the fact that Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up to find himself transformed into a bug—something I already knew about—but rather by Michael Hofmann’s (the translator of this Penguin edition) choice of words: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.” As I understand it from the research I’ve done, Kafka used a German word that was much more vague and certainly did not specify what kind of bug Gregor had become. As it happens, cockroaches happen to be the most despicable type of bug while beetles are much more benign to me, this description therefore coloured my entire reading of the story.

Before reading the story I thought that the storyline was that Samsa discovers himself transformed into a bug and is completely horrified but then his family, coworkers and strangers aren’t the least bit perturbed by his monstrous appearance and he carries on his life “as usual” except he’s a giant bug. I suppose this too would have made a good story—if it hasn’t already—but one quite different from Kafka’s original tale. My erroneous expectations took nothing away from the experience for me and in fact, I found this story could be read on many different levels. For instance, one could easily conclude that this book was a commentary on antisemitism, which was rife in 1915, the year this book was first published, and/or that Kafka was perhaps working out issues of self-hatred or that it was an omen of things to come with the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s when the depiction of Jews as monstrous vermin became ubiquitous in Nazi propaganda. Then again, maybe Kafka didn’t mean to convey anything else than the story itself at face value, which still leaves us with plenty to ponder.

I gave this book ★★★★ an entertaining story with profound impact.


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