Nabokov Edits Kafka's Metamorphosis


Vladimir goes to work on Franz. Nice bug sketch!

Nabokov Edits Kafka's Metamorphosis


  1. Nabokov is not correcting Kafka, he is correcting Kafka’s translator. Nabokov spoke German and was a master stylist in both Russian and English. Changes on this opening page reflect an awareness of the German original. He was also an amateur entomologist of note, hence the care taken with the drawings.

  2. Thanks, #1, exactly what I was going to say. Nabokov isn’t editing Kafka (which even he would find presumptuous); he’s editing this particular translation.

  3. I dunno, guys. Some of these suggestions have the flavor of outright edits, not translation corrections. Note the one near the bottom of the page, about the ‘gilt frame.’

    Really, really cool, either way.

  4. I just pulled out my copy of Die Verwandlung, and while most of the stuff could be considered improving the translation (in a sense of making it more readable or idiomatic, if not always more true to the source), some of the changes clearly are different – for example, “from uneasy dreams” is a rather more fitting translation of “aus unruhigen Träumen” than what Nabokov proposes. And as #3 already mentioned, the source text does not mention the frame being selfmade at all.

    Seems to me that he might have started out trying to improve the translation and then got carried away.

  5. I think it’s a little editing, and a little translation. Still awesome either way. i love seeing works in progress. Makes me feel better about my stuff and seeing my heroes weren’t infallible.

  6. Nabokov was a professional lepidopterist: he studied and cataloged butterflies for most of his life, and actually earned his living doing this at Harvard University in the forties, when he came to America and before his teaching at Cornell. He was smart about bugs and plants, too, but he wasn’t an entomologist.

    The page is Nabokov’s teaching copy of Kafka. Nabokov’s notes for this and other works are printed in Lectures on Literature, which has been in print and part of Nabokoviana since 1980. He had to teach these books to dumb college students to live while writing the masterful American novels for which (somewhat to his dismay: he always thought his greatest successes in Russian prose) he’s most remembered.

    O, and Nabokov never actually learned to speak German: he proudly states several times that he found it a barbaric language when he was exiled there in the thirties. I think he had enough on him to read and check texts, but he hated the language with all his soul.

    This is all really old stuff, BTW: it’s a little weird, as a lit. prof., seeing this being discussed here as something new and noteworthy. But if it gets y’alls to read the man, then good, I suppose….

  7. Lol at the people saying “I think it’s editing”.

    Anyone who knows anything about Nabokov knows his attitudes to translation. Look at his Eugene Onegin, and the battles with Wilson et al that stemmed from that – or the satires on mistranslation that pepper a work like ‘Ada’.

    If Nabokov wrote it on this page, it’s an accurate translation of the original, or as close as Nabokov found possible. Yes, including the stuff about the gold frame.

    BTW Nabokov identified the genus and (I believe) species of insect from the original German description, and asked his students what it was as an exam question. If there was one thing he liked, it was details.

  8. Thanks TDAWWG for mentioning Lectures in Literature, which anyone reading this post should pick up and read. In his lecture on Metamorphosis, Nabokov suggests that “gigantic insect” or “cockroach” are poor translations, and that careful readers will note clues that actually suggest the insect is a beetle. Nabokov cites lines indicating that Gregor “has a tremendously convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back.” Nabokov adds, in one of my favorite comments from any work of literary criticism: “This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.”

  9. @ Odessa

    While you might be right in asserting that “aus unruhigen Träumen” better translates as “from uneasy dreams” than what Nabokov proposes, you must remember that Nabokov is a prose stylist (and a damn fine one at that) first and a translator second. In this particular case, “from uneasy dreams” doesn’t have quite the same narrative impact as “from a terrified dream” since the latter carries a much more visceral feeling absent in the former. Simply put, the word “uneasy” doesn’t mean the same thing for an English audience as it does for a German audience.

    Sometimes, when translating between two languages, using the literal translation of a phrase won’t carry the same connotation as it did in its native language. For translators worrying about that problem, they have two options: one, use the literal translation and add a footnote explaining such or two, rewrite the phrase in a fashion that would impact the reader in a manner similar to the original. If Nabokov were merely editing Kafka and not the translator’s work, he’d be scrutinizing the content of the work rather than the way in which it is phrased. This is clearly not the case here and I’d liken Nabokov’s work on this piece to the polishing of a rare gem rather than the cutting of it from the rough.

  10. Hrm, I didn’t realize that Nabokov didn’t speak German; my bad.

    My point still stands however, Nabokov is clearly editing the translation and not Kafka’s work.

  11. My favorite piece of Nabokov criticism comes in Lectures on Don Quixote, which is basically a book-length trashing of Cervantes’ bloated porridge of a novel: at one point, Vlad impales it with his rapier wit, dubbing it mere “Spanish fun.”

    Nabokov: God’s own jerk. Lovely man, lovelier writer, loveliest snarkmeister of us all.

    you must remember that Nabokov is a prose stylist (and a damn fine one at that) first and a translator second

    Wrong. Nabokov was nearly almost always a painstakingly literal translator: any page of the Onegin translation will bear this out–it’s quite wonderfully awkward and unreadable and pedantically literal. He always decried translatorial afflatus and prettifying of the original text, and I see no evidence of such “creative” translation on his part here.

    What Nabokov’s doing is correcting the translation for the benefit of his students. He made a habit of trashing translators and editors: ostensibly for the students’ benefit, it’s easy to note a quite private, quite nasty, totally joyous personal agenda at showing off how effortlessly smarter he was than these low-paid, overlooked drudges (which he was to some degree as a Harvard and Cornell prof. until Lolita‘s massive success).

  12. as odessa notes above, these changes take the translation further away from the literal german, and even include an all-new insertion about the picture frame.

    so either he is abandoning the approach to translation he fought about publicly with e. wilson, or he is revising kafka, not the translation.

  13. @TDawwg #12:

    How about the stuff with “he had made the frame himself, of wood…”? That’s clearly not in the original, which describes the frame merely as a “vergoldeten Rahmen”.

  14. am I the only one who can’t get this all important question out of his head?
    did Samsa turn into an African cockroach or a European cockroach?
    probably the reason Cervantes stays relevant is it’s historical context as novel, its themes can be batted about by any generation or philosophy. eh?
    Which is one of the reasons why I love to poke holes in Cooper or early American lit in general. Isolation, insularity and snobbery masquerading as belletrism. And in Coopers case just down right wastes of trees. That’s just me tho.

  15. Noah, the bit about Gregor having made the frame himself is later in the chapter. Here’s the original German:

    Da hat er zum Beispiel im Laufe von zwei, drei Abenden einen kleinen Rahmen geschnitzt; Sie werden staunen, wie hübsch er ist; er hängt drin im Zimmer; Sie werden ihn gleich sehen, wenn Gregor aufmacht.

    and here’s an English translation from Gutenberg:

    He’s made a little frame, for instance, it only took him two or three evenings, you’ll be amazed how nice it is; it’s hanging up in his room; you’ll see it as soon as Gregor opens the door.

    I’ve never made a close scholarly study of the Lectures, but it seems that the note at the bottom, on further perusal, is a marginal note that Nabokov thought worth making, perhaps as an aside during his lecture: notice there’s no crossed-out words, as with the corrections to the text. At any rate, the bit about Gregor having made the frame is later in the book, and is most definitely in the text: likely Nabokov thought this important to note early on, not as a re-translation or emendation, but as marginalia.

  16. @Ilovechocolatemilk #10, while your point still stands, there’s no way Nabokov would ever have written anything so doubtful as ‘from a terrified dream’. If you look at the page more carefully — and it’s striking that such a sublime writer should have such a crabbed, unlovely hand — I think you’ll agree that the amendment reads ‘from a troubled dream’.

  17. Nickp, sure, but he defined himself as a lepidopterist, worked as a lepidopterist, etc. While all lepidopterists are entomologists, all entomologists aren’t lepidopterists, hence my objection. Pettifoggery doesn’t hide #1’s errors, particularly the “amateur” bit: Nabokov freaking discovered a species of butterfly, the Karner Blue (Plebejus melissa samuelis), near Albany, NY. Calling him an “entomologist” is silly.

  18. My ex-girlfriend actually wrote a series of blog posts in which she, like Nabokov, tried to determine (as closely as possible) the species of insect Gregor Samsa was transformed into. She ended up disagreeing with Nabokov’s conclusions:

    Fun fact of the day: if you make an appointment, you can go see Nabokov’s collection of butterfly genitalia at the Harvard natural history museum.

  19. @Misterfricative: I agree, and your post has prompted me to do so publicly. ‘from a troubled dream’ is what I read it as, and ‘from a terrified dream’ would be far less subtle than the original translation.

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