Shaw has popularized the ironic word “superman,” which has since become associated with Nietzsche and the comics without ever losing its sarcastic tinge. In the present translation the older term, “overman,” has been reinstated: it may help to bring out the close relation between Nietzsche’s conceptions of the overman and self-overcoming, and to recapture something of its rhapsodical play on the words “over” and “under,” particularly marked throughout the Prologue. Of the many “under” words, the German untergehen poses the greatest problem for translation: it is the ordinary word for the setting of the sun, and it also means “to perish”; but Nietzsche almost always uses it with the accent on “under”—either by way of echoing another “under” in the same sentence or, more often, by way of contrast with an “over” word, usually overman….
“Over” words, some of them coinages, are common in this work, and Übermensch has to be understood in its context. Mensch means human being as opposed to animal, and what is called for is not a super-brute but a human being who has created for himself that unique position in the cosmos which the Bible considered his divine birthright. The meaning of life is thus found on earth, in this life, not as the inevitable outcome of evolution, which might well give us the “last man” instead, but in the few human beings who raise themselves above the all-too-human mass.
– Walter Kaufman, Editor’s Note to Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, The Portable Nietzsche
As Kaufman explains above, the popularization of the term Übermensch has probably been more of a curse for Nietzsche than a blessing; the oversimplified cartoon image of the mistranslated “superman” perpetuates the notion that Nietzsche was some kind of eugenicist (or worse). The overman is singular: it’s an individual’s rational triumph over superfluous group-think, a self-improvement through a rejection of afterworlds and an assigning/embracing of human meaning.
While I’m not particularly pleased with the idea of a “human being as opposed to animal,” since, after all, we are animals—like our kindred species and ancestors—it’s nevertheless still probably safe to say that more self-reflection and criticism of conventions couldn’t hurt, especially as we hurle ourselves towards the carrying capacity of our only planet. Actually, in that regard, humans should probably strive to be more like other animals, in that they don’t completely destroy ecosystems in exchange for little pieces of paper that they then exchange for pieces of plastic made by other humans on the other side of the globe. It all seems pretty silly, except that most species will probably go extinct as a result.