Translating Kafka

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This year marks the 125th anniversary of Franz Kafka’s birth. Which is, of course, totally meaningless — unless you’re looking for a good marketing hook.

Apparently, Penguin Classics was. Last month, they commemorated this anniversary by publishing a new edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated by Michael Hofmann.

I commemorated this event by writing about the new translation is my Jerusalem Post column this month.

The two editions of The Metamorphosis that I previously owned describe Gregor Samsa’s new body as respectively “a gigantic insect” and “a monstrous vermin.” Hofmann opts for the more specific “monstrous cockroach.” What’s the difference? Hofmann would likely argue that by naming a particular type of insect, by helping the reader form a more particular image, he is facilitating the power of Kafka’s words. Others would argue that Kafka’s chosen word, ungeziefer, literally means “vermin” and was intentionally ambiguous. Focusing on entomological questions misses the point. Metamorphosis is hardly a science book. It’s purposely metaphorical and fantastical.

So should we care about this new translation?

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Posted on March 28, 2008

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