Kafka’s Metamorphoses

  • Patrick O'Neill
    Transforming Kafka: Translation Effects. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andre Furlani

The French-speaking protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s dystopian 1945 novel Bend Sinister calls his boot-remover Gregoire, because the utensil takes the Samsa-shape of a giant scarab. Nabokov’s character has entered and extended what, in Transforming Kafka, Patrick O’Neill calls “the worldwide Kafka system,” a “macrotext” assembled out of the variously-redacted editions of his work, the cumulative translations these editions enable, and the consequent international renown of the Habsburg writer. He explains that “the boundaries of Kafka’s text are extended by its multilingual translations” rather than merely approximated by it, and the object of this absorbing and revelatory study is that extension.

Those who have furthered the macrotext include Jorge Luis Borges, the first Spanish promoter of Kafka’s work; his Italian translator, the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi; and his Polish translator Bruno Schulz, shot by an SS officer. Kafka’s earliest translator, his Czech companion Milena Jesenská, died at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Seemingly phantasmagorical, fabular fictions foresaw the Nazi horrors that would consume the writer’s family as well as several of his translators.

“Kafka’s texts,” writes O’Neill, professor emeritus in the Department of Languages at Queen’s University, “whether encountered in the original or in translation, are invariably characterized by their unrelenting challenge to the reader to make them make sense: it is clear that that challenge begins no later than their title.” The posthumously published novels were entitled not by the author but by his close friend and first editor, Max Brod. Amerika or Der Verschollene or neither? How render Der Prozeß: Trial or Process? Metamorphosis or Transformation?

Nabokov, a lepidopterist who believed he had once glimpsed Kafka in a Berlin tram, told his Cornell University students, including Thomas Pynchon, that the monstrously transformed Gregor was nonetheless an entomologically exact dung beetle. He objected to Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation of Die Verwandlung as The Metamorphosis, a title that subsumed the biological denotation beneath a mythological connotation, even as Kafka had pointedly not entitled the 1915 novella Die Metamorphose. When in 1938 Borges translated the story literally as La transformación, the publisher overruled him in favour of La metamorfosis. Yet, in contrast to his coeval James Joyce, who began Ulysses in the Habsburg harbour town of Trieste (and on whom O’Neill has written two extraordinary macrotextual studies), for land-locked Kafka mythology is largely an exhausted resource that his fiction (if not his essay on the sirens) dispenses with. As O’Neill painstakingly shows, while the title is always The Metamorphosis, rarely is the verb-form of Kafka’s actual title (verwandelt) as it appears in the novella’s opening sentence translated as versions of “metamorphosed,” reverting instead to versions of “transformed.”

O’Neill traces the fascinating permutations of the lexical as well as situational ambiguities for which Kafka is notorious in translations into Norwegian, Russian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French as well as English. O’Neill’s comparison, for instance, of the opening of The Trial, presents a characteristically indeterminate narrative focalization. The German “mußte” rendered in the English phrase, “Someone must have traduced Joseph K.,” implies, according to O’Neill, focalization through the character by means of free indirect discourse. (My impression is that, like many of Kafka’s narrators, this one simply exercises a scrupulously limited omniscience. Who in Kafka could be all-knowing?) The main clause follows: “denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet”: “for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.” O’Neill notes that it is not only translators into English, a language deficient in subjunctives, but also translators into those that are not, such as the Romance languages, who elide the ambiguity of that cautiously inflected hätte. Yet two of his very examples, Nesme’s into French and Raja’s into Italian, in fact do reproduce without elision the vaguening subjunctive mood of the German: “car sans qu’il eût rien fait de mal” and “perché senza che avesse fatto niente di male . . .”

In a Mitteleuropa where Positivist procedures emanating from Vienna and Berlin had begun to resonate, ambiguity and ambivalence (a then-recent German scientific coinage confected out of Latin ingredients) could be a mode of dissent, which is one source of Kafka’s peculiar preeminence as a political novelist. (Western Marxists long denied this, but not the East German border guards who seized my copy of Das Schloß in 1985, for the works of Kafka were proscribed in the German Democratic Republic as well as in his native Czechoslovakia.) Still, perhaps some of Kafka’s ambiguity may be better understood as vagueness. No less than his Habsburg contemporary Ludwig Wittgenstein did Kafka realize that vagueness is an inexpungable function of language and the condition of any valid characterization of experience.

“What is most difficult here is to bring this vagueness to expression correctly and unfalsified,” noted Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, and no writer more courageously affronted this difficulty than Kafka. “As soon as one wishes to employ exact concepts of measurement for immediate experience,” Wittgenstein observes, “one bumps against the peculiar vagueness in this experience. And it appears to me now that this vagueness is not something preliminary, which more precise knowledge will later eliminate, but is rather a characteristic logical peculiarity.” In Kafka vagueness takes form, indeed takes life, in the absence of ontological guarantees. Vagueness is a constituent aspect of finite embodiment for his quixotic characters, who rely not on a calculus corresponding to changeless abstract entities or rational justification but on imperfectly grasped conventions of rule-following.

Analysis of textual instability across languages may seem an abstruse method to expound Kafka, yet, far from being a forbidding technical treatment of a specialized subject, Transforming Kafka is a peculiarly original and rewarding introduction to the author’s corpus as well as to its transmutations beyond German. By deftly comparing opening paragraphs, titles, and proper names of five canonical texts in a range of translations, O’Neill elucidates prevailing themes and isolates pervasive ambiguities in Kafka, all the while illuminating the subtleties and aporias of his deceptively classical expository language, which has posed such an irresistible challenge to his translators and provocation to his expositors.



This review “Kafka’s Metamorphoses” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 150-52.

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