Nabokov Edits Kafka

From World of Found:

Well, not of interest to everyone, but this is the corrected text of master writer Fraz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ by the Russian master writer Vladimir Nabokov.

WOF loves both these writers and we think that maybe, just maybe, Nabokov is correct is saying that his work has improved on Kafka.

(via TYW, sigh, don’t make me have to write the whole thing out)


  1. Agree, that what Nabokov is doing is steering the translation back to the intent of the original German.

    Then again, Franz wrote in a stilted form of German that isn’t used any more, so if he had lived in the latter half of the 20th century his style would be a lot different. He was aiming for satire, using ironic dry prose for comedy, but we remember him as depressed due to how the language of that time looks now.

  2. It’s hard to make out a lot of what it written, but “steering the translation back to the intent of the original German” is a stretch.

    Intent is, of course, subjective, but compare “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte” to the original and Nabokov’s revision, as well as “bogenförmigen Versteifungen geteilten Bauch” which Vlad changes from “stiff, arched segments” to “corrugated”. And then there’s the last bit, originally “das Bild, das er vor kurzem aus einer illustrierten Zeitschrift ausgeschnitten und in einem hĂĽbschen, vergoldeten Rahmen untergebracht hatte”, which Vlad completely changes by saying the frame was itself built by Gregor, not something Kafka says at all.

    Vlad’s changes certainly sound better to MY subjective senses, but it’s certainly steered away from the German, and not “back to”.

  3. This hearkens back to better days when editors were there to improve writing, instead of just making sure all the commas were in the right places. Oh, if only Dan Brown were to acquire the services of such a person.

  4. The reason why it’s more probable that Nabokov is correcting the translation rather than editing Kafka, is that Nabokov considered Kafka (alongside Proust) to be one of the greatest writers of the XXc. Given how anal he was about declaring anyone any sort of genious, it’s difficult to understand why he would change the wording of one of the few he did consider great.

    Incidentally, this is from the book he used for his lectures at Cornell, some of the writing here is for his class notes. You can find this page in his book “Lectures on literature”.

  5. Ditto re what people have said about this being edits to a translation. I remember reading that to Nabokov it was better to have an technically (and tediously) accurate translation than one faithful to the spirit of the text. So he’s trying to eradicate the translation of inaccuracies as opposed to finding a smoother or even idiomatic way of conveying the text.

  6. VN also ‘edited’ Joyce’s Ulysses. Not only were his lectures written up by his students from his notes, and occasionally theirs, in Lectures on Literature (as with Kafka) but the entirety of VN’s own notes — handwritten, typed, drawn — were photographed/scanned and published in Lectures on Ulysses: A Facsimile of the Manuscript. They are amazing; he was a great reader as well as a great novelist.

  7. Josh: I have to disagree.

    If it is true that “to Nabokov it was better to have an [sic] technically (and tediously) accurate translation than one faithful to the spirit of the text,” please compare the original German text with the translation and Nabokov’s edits, and point out exactly where Nabokov steered the text back to a more faithful translation.

    Just a single example. I cited three examples from the above text where this was very clearly not the case.

    Nobody making this comparison could feel otherwise. Nabokov is editing a translation and not the original German, sure, but in no way is he reasserting a more accurate translation. The only argument that could be made along those lines is that Nabokov is guessing what Kafka perhaps intended and is phrasing it in what he feels to be more poetic English.

    Especially with the frame reference — Kafka does in fact later on in the text mention that the frames were made by him, but not at this point in the text. Nabokov alters the content by pointing this out earlier than Kafka did, and assuming he continued to edit the text, he would have had to strike that part later on. These are editorial alterations, and certainly NOT a more “tediously accurate” faithfulness to the original text.

  8. I agree with jtegnell. Nabokov improved the English when he changed phrases like ‘uneasy dreams’ and ‘gigantic insect’. Those were obviously numb. With his educated guesses, he struck the tone of Kafka’s writing better then the translator. But as soon as it comes to more complex alterations like the golden frame, his guess work fails, as we can learn by looking at the actual text, the original.

  9. The page shown is from Nabokov’s lecture notes on Kafka when he was teaching at Cornel. I have the book of lecture notes and it’s also available in most public libraries.

    He wasn’t editing the text. Just preparing for class.

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