Now that his name has become a watered-down adjective that pretty much means "a bad experience," it's sometimes hard to approach Kafka's writing as a living work. The kind of superheroic ubiquity that Kafka enjoys forces itself in between author and reader, putting a halt to the conversation of literature. Sometimes to truly get to Kafka, you need an intelligent guide. Fortunately, translator Susan Bernofsky has, in 118 pages, made him feel as approachable as he's ever felt. Her new translation of The Metamorphosis (W.W. Norton, $10.95) takes what is probably Kafka's most familiar work and subtly encourages the text into a transformation of its own.
I've read The Metamorphosis multiple times in different translations, and at some point, the story of Gregor Samsa's sudden awakening as "some sort of monstrous insect" has for me taken on the codified air of a Bible story, something huge and solid and in some respects unknowable. But in Bernofsky's translation, there is a moment, early in the book, when Samsa is struggling to explain his condition to his employer—he hasn't yet realized that he is not capable of speaking like a human anymore—and he admits, "I did in fact feel a mild foreboding yesterday evening already." The choice of "foreboding" gives Samsa a relatable humanity that other translators did not bestow upon him. In Ian Johnston's translation, that "foreboding" is described instead as a "premonition." In David Wyllie's translation, it's "a small symptom" of "unwell"-ness and "dizziness." I'm not equipped to say which is the more accurate translation from German, but I know which word resonates more to a reader.
Samsa's admission of foreboding comes a moment after he tries to assure his audience, and himself, that he was absolutely fine yesterday. Then, a moment later, he acknowledges the size of the foreboding he was trying to deny: "Surely it was noticeable to anyone looking at me," Samsa admits. He's desperate, realizing the depth of his desperation as he monologues to himself about why he can't seem to leave his bed and start the ordinary process of beginning yet another day in a life that seems to have had all meaning and importance leached from it.
Bernofsky's translation—her selection of words, her sense of rhythm—points the reader toward an interpretation of The Metamorphosis as the story of depression. More, it's a personal story of depression, told by a gifted author who is heartbreakingly familiar with depression but is from a time that doesn't have the vocabulary to recognize depression as a genuine illness. This isn't a unique reading—it's generally accepted, now, that Kafka suffered from clinical depression—but Bernofsky brings the rawness and the depth of Samsa's suffering to the surface and makes The Metamorphosis feel as urgent as a handwritten plea for help freshly torn from a notebook and found on a bedside table.
This is a story that so many people can relate to: A man wakes up in bed. He looks out the window, and the "bleak weather" makes him "feel quite melancholy." Mentally, he prepares himself to leave his bed—"Perhaps a hundred times he attempted it, closing his eyes so as not to have to see those struggling legs"—but he just can't do it. He soon learns that food doesn't taste good to him anymore. Nothing works as it should—his body, his brain, his voice. His thoughts burrow deeper and deeper into a self-destructive loop. He must get ready to work for a job that doesn't challenge or interest him in order to support a family that doesn't appreciate him. He strains and struggles to muster enough energy to join the world, but his entire universe has suddenly shrunk to the size of a hostile and stormy cube, a "proper human room, if admittedly rather too small."
At the same time, Samsa's family can't understand what's wrong with him, why he can't just be normal. They cry and coax and ignore him until his condition becomes part of the household scenery, shunted away from the help and from visitors. They tend to his most basic needs, but they pay no attention to the glaring problem hiding under the bed in the next room, because they're simply not equipped to deal with it. Nobody is.
This is not a happy story. Modernizing the language can't make it any less brutal. But Bernofsky has performed an act of magic with her translation. She's found the human inside Kafka's words—imploring and beseeching and begging, in his own quiet way, for help—and delivered him to us, in flesh and blood. It's a letter that comes more than a century too late, but it's finally been delivered. That, in a quiet and bookish way, is some kind of small act of hope.
This article has been updated since its original publication.