Monday, January 09, 2012

Akin Gump: Jews and Bugs

For thousands of years, the Jewish People have endured negative stereotypes such as the "insects of humanity." As Sander Gilman pointed out, the Nazi Party labeled Jews as "insects like lice and cockroaches, that generate general disgust among all humanity." These derogative stereotypes, although championed by the Nazis, have their origins many centuries earlier and have appeared throughout Western culture for thousands of years. This fierce anti-Semitism specifically surfaced in Europe’s large cities in the early twentieth century, partially in conjunction with the growing tide of nationalism, patriotism, and xenophobia that sparked the First World War in 1914.

In Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, a German-language novella first published in 1915, a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect-like creature. 

Translators have used different English words to describe Gregor's transformed state -- insect, bug, and vermin. The original German word -- Ungeziefer -- is literally translated as vermin. However, this word isn't commonly used in English, so some translators prefer to use words like bug or insect which will be more easily understood by their readers. Also, since the word vermin can describe any loathsome creature, not just an insect, using this word doesn't describe exactly what Gregor has become. The disadvantage of words like bug or insect, however, is that they don't convey the sense of disgust that's implicit in the word vermin. A bug or insect can be harmless, perhaps even beautiful like a butterfly. Certainly this meaning doesn't apply to Gregor Samsa, but the reader has no way of knowing this at the beginning of the story. And this kind of misunderstanding is even more likely to occur since the word metamorphosis in the story's title is often associated with a butterfly.

An added complication familiar to most translators is that the word vermin has particular historical significance lacking in the words bug and insect. In the region where Kafka lived, Jewish people were often referred to, in times of persecution by anti-Semites, as Ungeziefer, or vermin. Since Kafka was himself Jewish, he was undoubtedly aware of this derogatory meaning of the word Ungeziefer -- but there's no way of knowing if he intended this meaning to apply to Gregor Samsa. Translators who feel he did intend to suggest it are more likely to use the word vermin in their translations; those who feel it's not an intended meaning may choose more easily-understood words like bug or insect. There's no way of deciding conclusively which is the better choice. Translators have to weigh the pros and cons of the words they choose, recognizing that it's impossible to convey all levels of possible meanings in the words originally used by the story's author.

The anti-Semitic character of statements by Iran's leaders to the State of Israel can be seen in their use of references to vermin and microbes to describe Jews.  The statements made by President Ahmadinejad and other senior Iranian figures are clearly anti-Semitic, as witnessed by both the content (the call for the physical destruction of the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland) and the use of the Nazi-oriented term “dirty black microbe.” The expression is close to the age-old expression “dirty Jew,” which originated in Europe and was exported to the entire world. The comparison between Jews and microbes or repellent animals such as snakes, octopuses and cockroaches is often made in remarks, articles, illustrations and cartoons by both classical European and Arab-Muslim anti-Semitism. 


Gary Freedman said...

Sander Gilman:

Gary Freedman said...

Sander Gilman has examined Sigmund Freud, addressing the question of what role, if any, was played by Freud’s Jewish origins in his composition of the psychoanalytic corpus. Gilman’s thesis concerning this subject is that the prejudices of biology in the nineteenth century classified the Jew as being somehow feminine, a stigma that Freud sought to escape by carving out a scientific niche of his own. Licensed by his own brand of science, Freud could simultaneously lay claim to the manhood that the Viennese scientific establishment of the nineteenth century threatened to deny him, and also to the neutrality that was the warrant of its authority.

To make the case that contemporaneous anti-Semitism shaped Freud’s thought, Gilman provides a catalogue of the most egregious anti-Semitic stereotypes of the time and place, including straightforward documentation of certain anti-Semitic prejudices, such as the belief in Jewish male menstruation, as well as period depictions of anti-Semitic stereotypes in graphic media.

Gary Freedman said...

In his notorious anti-Semitic tract, Judaism in Music Richard Wagner states:

So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it […] there was nowhere to be found a Jewish composer.... Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it—yet merely to destroy it. Then, indeed, that body’s flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect life: but who in looking on that body’s self, would hold it still for living?

Gary Freedman said...

And from Cosima Wagner's Diaries:

— When we are talking about the attachment of certain Jews to him, he [Wagner] says, "Yes, they are like flies — the more one drives them away, the more they come." (Sunday, September 12, 1880).