Discovering another English translation of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

1 0 1,282

Browsing in the stacks of my local town library this summer, I was surprised to discover an edition of Kafka’s story that I hadn’t found in 2002 when I began to translate the German text of Die Verwandlung into English as “The Metamorphosis” for inclusion in an early edition of The Story and Its Writer. The copyright page of the book I found on the library shelf informed me that this English translation of the story had originally been published as a single volume in an edition limited to three hundred copies by Aeonian Press in Matituck, New York and reprinted in 1946 by the Vanguard Press, Inc. Its ISBN number was 0-88411-450-3. The name of the translator and the date of the Aeonian Press edition were not included.

I was disappointed I couldn’t find the name of the translator, but further omissions awaited me after I checked out the slim volume and took it home to read cover to cover. “A Note on the Text” before the title page promised “footnotes to this translation,” but after I’d settled into a comfortable armchair to read the book, I realized, much to my dismay, that it was seriously flawed. At the end several pages were missing in their stiff blue library binding. The text of Kafka’s classic story stopped abruptly on page 87 with Greta Sampsa’s words after she ceased playing her violin for the three lodgers, when she told her parents, “Things cannot go on like this. Even if you do not realize it, I can see it quite clearly. I will not mention my brother’s name when I speak of this . . . .”  I flipped over this page to find only one more sheet left in the tightly bound volume. It offered the final paragraphs of a brief biography of Kafka, evidently the end of the afterword.

No name of the translator of Die Verwandlung into English, no conclusion to the story, and no footnotes explaining the changes in the text between the appearance of the original German publication of the story in its first book edition in November 1915, which Kafka evidently read, and its next edition in 1917. No one knows if Kafka read and corrected this second book edition. In the 1946 English version of the story I’d just checked out of the library, someone (perhaps the translator) wrote in “A Note on the Text” at the beginning of the book, that “I count fifty-seven changes between this [1917] edition and the edition of 1915, of which I judge eleven to be degradations, ten to be improvements, and the rest of minimal consequences.” Most of the minimal changes were concerned with orthography and punctuation, but the ten “improvements,” according to this note, were incorporated into “footnotes to this translation.” Alas, these footnotes were nonexistent in the truncated volume my local library had put on its shelves.

So what had I learned from my discovery of this incomplete English translation of perhaps my favorite short story in the entire wide, wide world of short fiction? Despite its flaws, the little book gave me the most important new information that I was looking for — how the opening sentence was translated into English. How had the unknown translator met that challenge? Here is what I read: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.”

“Some monstrous kind of vermin” — those were the words I was seeking. No previous version of the story in English that I’d read had ever started that way. As I wrote in my commentary “Translating Kafka,” the first sentence of “The Metamorphosis” is the one that gives the most trouble to translators. I was a college undergraduate when I first read the story’s opening sentence in an early translation by Willa and Edwin Muir. I still remember how horrible it was to imagine their stark image of Gregor Sampsa transformed into an “enormous bug.” Their words were unforgettable, but years later when I did my own translation, I preferred “monstrous vermin” as being closer to Kafka’s multisyllabic word choice in German. 

I liked the phrase in English of “some monstrous kind of vermin” because its indeterminacy suggested Gregor’s hazy dream-state when he first woke up at the moment of becoming aware of his metamorphosis. In my reading of the story, Kafka created the worst possible nightmare for his protagonist. Gregor’s waking life is already difficult; his job as a traveling salesman gives him little personal satisfaction, and at home he must live with the callous selfishness of his family and the murderous intentions of his father. He can seek peace of mind only in sleep.  But in “The Metamorphosis” the dreamer can never escape his nightmare. Good-hearted Gregor awakens to find himself inexplicably transformed into a state of being worse than his troublesome life itself.


Ann Charters is the author of  The Story and Its Writer.

About the Author
Ann Charters received her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley and her Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her first book, Nobody: A Story of Bert Williams, was a biography of the West Indian comedian Bert Williams, an early eminent Black entertainer on the American stage. In 1973, she published the first biography of Jack Kerouac after working with him on his bibliography. She went on to edit the Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac, The Portable Jack Kerouac Reader, and The Portable Beat Reader, among other anthologies of Beat literature. Her photographs have appeared in Beats & Company and Blues Faces. Since 1985 she has been the editor of The Story and Its Writer. She is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Connecticut.