Kafka Transformed

Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa has undergone numerous metamorphoses in English: into “a gigantic insect,” “a monstrous vermin,” “a monstrous cockroach,” “some sort of monstrous insect,” and “a monstrous bug” ...

Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa has undergone numerous metamorphoses in English: into “a gigantic insect” (Willa and Edwin Muir), “a monstrous vermin” (Stanley Corngold), “a monstrous cockroach” (Michael Hofmann), “some sort of monstrous insect” (Susan Bernofsky), and “a monstrous bug” (Peter Wortsman), among many other variations upon large, insectile vermin.1

As this list reveals, the alliterative “ungeheueres Ungeziefer” is famously difficult to translate from German. Versions in other languages offer other possibilities, suggesting connotations that are harder to express in English: for instance, an Italian translation describes Gregor as an insect who is “immondo,” dirty or too unclean for sacrifice.2 These small differences in what is the most translated line of Kafka often indicate the aspects of the author a translator finds appealing or significant. Whereas, for instance, Corngold makes clear the ambiguous nature of “Ungeziefer” with “vermin,” Wortsman more bluntly and playfully calls him a “bug.”

As the last word might imply, Wortsman’s Konundrum frequently conveys Kafka’s comical aspect. Wortsman’s selection “I Can Also Laugh,” from one of Kafka’s letters to his sometime fiancée, Felice Bauer, describes the author having an uncontrollable laughing fit at work. Though the humor of the great 20th-century author was noted by his contemporaries, for a long period critics tended to ignore it. In the past few decades, however, it has become a commonplace to insist that Kafka’s witty side has been overlooked. Recent translations such as Hofmann’s and Wortsman’s make special efforts to remedy this omission.

Wortsman’s Konundrum stands out among Kafka collections for its editorial practices, even more than for its translation choices. Whereas other collections variously aim to be comprehensive, to represent only the most vital works, to respect the writer’s express wishes or early publication history,3 Wortsman’s collection is driven by more personal choices. Drawing from all of Kafka’s writings, Konundrum includes selections not only from his short fiction, but also from his letters, notes, diaries, and aphorisms. The collection ends with the brief notes Kafka wrote at the end of his life when he was too ill to speak.

While some of these writings may be more relevant for those interested in Kafka’s biography—such as the final notes “If the noodles hadn’t been so soft, I couldn’t have swallowed a thing, even the beer burns my throat” and “Might I try a little ice cream today?”—several of Wortsman’s choices reveal the often-flimsy or imaginary boundary between genres. Wortsman, following Kafka’s first editor, Max Brod, and Kafka himself, pulls elements from the author’s diaries, notes, and letters, gives them a title, and presents them as essays or stories, leaving it up to the reader to decide what they are exactly. The writing Wortsman entitles “Paris Outing” could be considered in light of Kafka’s biography, since it comes from his journals that describe his 1911 trip to Paris. But the description of Parisian traffic can also be put in conversation with the many fin-de-siècle and early 20th-century literary depictions of accidents: “Will the tricycle consent and allow the car the right of way? No, it’s too late, now the left hand puts a stop to warning and the two conjoin to mime a collision, the knees give way to indicate observance of the incident.” Kafka’s writing, as Wortsman’s collection emphasizes, often raises the question of how possible or productive it is to distinguish clearly between literary and nonliterary works.

Wortsman’s Konundrum stands out among Kafka collections for its editorial practices, even more than for its translation choices.

Wortsman states in his “Acknowledgements” that his “sole criterion was amazement,” and his choices can at times feel mysterious. Many of the selections, such as “On the Inability to Write” and “The Need to Be Alone,” both titled by the translator, reflect upon the act of writing itself and, more specifically, the difficulties of writing. Kafka’s “A Writer’s Quandary,” again with a title chosen by Wortsman, asks about the status of being a writer: “But what does it really mean to be a writer? Writing is a sweet and wondrous reward, but for what? Last night it became apparent to me with the clarity of a childish realization that writing is the reward for service to the devil.” Kafka’s grappling with what it means to be a writer is presented alongside his less and more famous pieces, with no material or editorial distinction made between them. For example, an unknowing reader would have to check to see if “The Trees” is considered a story, or is taken from Kafka’s diary by Brod or Wortsman, or is from a letter: “For we are like tree trunks in the snow. They seemingly lie flat, and it looks like with a little prod you ought to be able to displace them. No, you can’t, for they are firmly rooted in the ground. But see, it’s only seemingly so.” The reader can also choose to reflect upon these words without any considerations of context, potentially making the reading experience more personal. How firmly rooted are we?

Before Kafka died, “The Metamorphosis” was the longest of his works to make it into print. In fact, many of his published pieces were only about a paragraph long, or even shorter, like “The Trees.” For decades Kafka’s shortest writings were examined primarily for the light they might shed on the longer ones in his oeuvre. More recently, these very short compositions have become objects of study in their own right. The growing tendency to concentrate on just Kafka’s short works represents not only a shift in criticism of this one writer, but in literary studies more generally.

Wortsman, author of A Modern Way to Die: Small Tales and Microtales and translator of Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg, is well suited to contend with what might be called “short Kafka.” Several of Wortsman’s choices can be interpreted as part of the recent move to incorporate Kafka in compendia of microfiction and flash fiction.4 His attention to the shorter short works reveals a turn that appreciation seems currently to be taking: if Kafka’s novels dominated the 20th century, space and desire may exist now for a different, shorter Kafka, the one of Konundrum.


God Walks Into a Bar

By Christina Iglesias

While editions of Kafka generally provide some context before presenting the works themselves, Wortsman’s is notable in putting his paratextual information after the texts. If the reader follows the collection’s order, she or he grapples alone with Kafka before receiving any critical aid. Whereas Bernofsky’s The Metamorphosis begins with David Cronenberg’s introduction (“The Beetle and the Fly”), Wortsman’s Konundrum starts with the surprising choice of what has been considered Kafka’s first recorded text, entitled by Wortsman “Words Are Miserable Miners of Meaning.” Both books are valuable in bringing us somewhat different Kafkas, and their framing reveals different aspects of the author’s place in the literary landscape and public opinion today. Cronenberg’s introduction situates Kafka within his popular context, while Bernofsky’s masterful translation of Kafka’s first line both keeps the familiar (“insect”) and modifies it to make clear the doubts surrounding Kafka’s form (“some sort of”). Wortsman provides no introduction and follows his own path. His collection’s strength lies partially in how unknown the Kafka in it can feel. Archipelago Books often presents authors in translation that few Anglophones have encountered; with Konundrum they present a famous author in a new way.

Early Kafka criticism tended to frame the author as a universalist or a sort of prophet (the Muirs, for instance, compared The Castle to John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress). In his chapter on Kafka in What Is World Literature?, David Damrosch describes the shift that took him from being considered a universal author throughout most of the 20th century to being a representative of a “marginal” culture in the present one.5 Damrosch’s narrative represents the general Anglo-American, German, and French reception of Kafka, but other countries have different stories to tell about the writer. The Italian case (to name the one I know best), for instance, has its own distinct character. The significance of Kafka’s cultural background and Jewish heritage is underscored earlier and more often in Italy. In other words, he was considered representative of “marginal” cultural in Italy well before he was in the United States.6 Do the differences between the Italian situation and “world literature Kafka” mean that the Italian variant is not part of world literature Kafka?

Konundrum ’s strength lies partially in how unknown the Kafka in it can feel.

The view (from universal Kafka to marginal Kafka) shifts over time, but is recognizable to the American, British, German, or French scholar, even though Kafka is a widely accepted world author in part because of his strong reception in places—such as Japan, Argentina, Russia, and Israel—that are frequently considered more peripheral to the dominant critical discourses. Like considerations of these ostensibly peripheral Kafkas, each new translation has the potential to lead the reader toward new understandings of the author, understandings that are potentially masked by the popular concept of the “Kafkaesque,” critical trends, or scholarly traditions. Wortsman’s title for Kafka’s most famous work, “Transformed,” is unlikely to stop English speakers from calling it “The Metamorphosis.” Still, the title highlights the numerous, ongoing transformations within the work of Gregor and of his family.7 At times idiosyncratic, Wortsman’s collection has much to offer the Kafka scholar as well as a first-time Kafka reader, in part because the reasons behind his selections could seem out of step with the more common ones that follow a clear formal or material logic.

This all may sound relevant only to “Kafkaologists,” as Milan Kundera called them.8 Not so. Kafka has not only been central to major critical trends of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Freudianism to deconstruction to post-humanism; he has also been essential to comprehending important historical and political events. Many authors have described him as a prophet of the Holocaust.9 Sartre is said to have called him a “cartload of dynamite standing between East and West.”10 Judith Butler has discussed what the recent arguments over Kafka’s manuscripts mean in terms of Israel, as well as in terms of understanding the author’s literary works.11 “Kafkaesque,” in multiple languages, shows up regularly in newspapers to describe the experience of immigrants awaiting entry, the accused awaiting trial, the innocent imprisoned, and anyone dealing with bureaucracy. As the political landscape shifts again, we can feel grateful to Bernofsky, Wortsman, and other translators for bringing us new versions of Kafka. Who knows how his literature will provoke us and relate to the coming years. icon

  1. Examples drawn from In the Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (Schocken, 1948); The Metamorphosis, translated and edited by Stanley Corngold (Bantam, 1972); Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann (Penguin, 2007); The Metamorphosis, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Norton, 2014).
  2. See Rodolfo Paoli’s translation La metamorfosi (Vallecchi, 1934).
  3. For the comprehensive approach, see The Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (Schocken, 1971); for a focus on the most vital works, see, for instance, in Norton’s Critical Editions series, Kafka’s Selected Stories, translated and edited by Stanley Corngold (1996, 2007). Both Hofmann’s collection and Malcolm Pasley’s The Transformation (‘Metamorphosis’) and Other Stories (Penguin, 1992) comprise the works published in the lifetime of the German-language author. In handsome little illustrated editions, Twisted Spoon Press recreates the collections of Kafka’s work that the author himself originally oversaw: e.g., Contemplation, translated by Kevin Blahut and illustrated by Fedele Spadafora (1996). Roberto Calasso turns to original manuscript pages to put together The Zürau Aphorisms, translated by Michael Hofmann (Schocken, 2006). Drawing attention to the relationships among three of Kafka’s important short stories, another Schocken compilation follows Kafka’s own comment that “The Stoker,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “The Judgment” are interconnected, and that he would like them to appear together under the title The Sons; see Mark Anderson’s full explanation of this decision in his introduction to the collection The Sons (Schocken, 1989), pp. vii–xx.
  4. See Franz Kafka, “An Imperial Message,” in Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from around the World, edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill (Norton, 2015), pp. 58–59; Franz Kafka, “Poseidon” in Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler (Persea Books, 2014), pp. 71–72.
  5. David Damrosch, What Is World Literature? (Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 187–205.
  6. Two Italian monographs, Renato Barilli’s Comicità di Kafka: un’interpretazione sulle tracce del pensiero freudiano (Bompiani, 1982) and Guido Crespi, Kafka umorista (Shakespeare & Co., 1983), were dedicated to Kafka’s humor years before David Foster Wallace produced his well-known piece “Laughing with Kafka” (Harpers, July 1998).
  7. Authors such as Michelle Wood (Kafka Translated, 2014) and Patrick O’Neill (Transforming Kafka, 2014) have called attention to the influence that translations have exercised upon interpretations of Kafka. In addition to several essential Kafka handbooks and encyclopedia, the in-progress Kafka-Atlas organizes Kafka translations and criticism by country, to help a Kafka scholar or addict navigate the sea of criticism. See also Richard T. Gray, Ruth V. Gross, Rolf J. Goebel, and Clayton Koelb, A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia (Greenwood, 2005).
  8. Milan Kundera, “Rescuing Kafka from the Kafkaologists,” Times Literary Supplement, vol. 24, no. 5 (1991).
  9. See, for instance, the special issue “Kafka and the Holocaust,” Journal of the Kafka Society of America, vol. 35/36 (2012).
  10. See François Bondy’s citation and discussion of this quote in European Notebooks: New Societies and Old Politics, 1954–1985 (Transaction, 2005), pp. 55–67.
  11. Judith Butler, “Who Owns Kafka?London Review of Books, March 3, 2011.
Featured Image: Franz Kafka Sculpture in Prague. Photograph by HOerwin56 / Pixabay