Kafkaesque Evolution of Antisemitism

June 12, 2024
Monument Franz Kafka. Artemy Sobov / 500px/Getty Images

Memory of persecution used to be a major factor that united

all Jews, but was replaced in many members of the nation

by the illusion that they were all cordially invited

to join the gentiles in the gentle process of assimilation.


Unfortunately its policy did not succeed. Though not politically correct,

their persecution would evolve pseudo-PC peacefully into discrimination,

just as “antisemitism” would, becoming anti-Zionism, an insect

like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa when transformed into a pest without an explanation.


Discrimination though illegal has persisted; Jews who

don’t disavow their alien Jewishness are liable

to be accused of Zionism, a Jewish point of view

which I’m afraid will make survival of too Jewish Jews less viable.


Translation can be very difficult as

demonstrated by the case of Dreyfus,

for whom translation from Alsatian Jew

to Frenchman evolved problematically,

like the translation of a kosher

word into one that, sounding trayf, is

as dissonant as antisemitism

translating Zionism traumatically.

This poem was inspired by two reviews in the May 31 issue of the TLS.

In “A Jewish life: The heroic survival of Alfred Dreyfus, victim of French antisemitism,” Natasha Lehrer, reviewing Alfred Dreyfus: The Man at the Center of the Affair by Maurice Samuels, writes:

Samuels argues that France at the time was such a hotbed of antisemitism that, “if you asked observers in 1899, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, to predict which country was mostly likely to unleash a genocide against Jews, they would very likely have guessed France”. While Dreyfus was neither a religious nor a spiritual man, he never sought to disavow his Jewishness, and it is possible that this refusal may have “attracted the negative attention of his superiors” that led to his arrest.

In “An unsettling vision: Franz Kafka reconsidered, 100 years after his death,” Karen Leeder, reviewing Der Process, by Franz Kafka, edited by Reiner Stach, Kafkas Werkstatt: Der Schriftsteller bei der Arbeit, by Andreas Kilcher and Selected Stores, by Franz Kafka, translated by Mark Harman, writes:

All translation is difficult, but rendering Kafka especially so. The difficulty resides in the fact that, as the Kafka translator Michael Hofmann observes, his language is “as approachable as it is strange”. If Kafka’s Prague German is austere, it also rests on ambiguity and self-consciously plays games. But multiple layers of meaning that are held in tandem in one language rarely offer themselves in the same way in another language. Faced with a term, a translator must choose.

A case in point is the famous first sentence of the story known as “The Metamorphosis”, which Harman retitles “The Transformation”: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt”.

Harman has: “One morning when Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed from restless dreams he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect”.

The word Ungeziefer is famously non-specific, indicating something like vermin or a pest. Equally ungeheuer – the opposite of geheuer, or familiar – ranges in meaning from egregious to monstrous. A translator must decide whether to maintain the impression of deliberate ambiguity, for example with “some kind of monstrous vermin” (Joyce Crick’s solution for Oxford World’s Classics); or focus the inner eye with the splendidly specific “cockroach” (Hofmann for Penguin Classics). Kafka had a horror of an actual insect being depicted on the cover of his work; although the writer and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov claimed to have identified the precise species of beetle, in fact the creature Gregor becomes is a deliberate shapeshifter in terms of form and scale.

Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored “Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel.” He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.

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