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There are two primary aims of this book: fi rst, I show that translation is not a one-dimensional issue, correlating only to comparative analyses of source and target texts. While these analyses are extremely valuable in examining translatorial decisions, issues of domestication or translator style, I want to parse out the wider cultural scope of the translation issue, through using primary sources, and concentrating on third parties - the publishers, other writers, newspapers, and critics – in order to understand more about the translator–author relationship. My intent is to apply concepts of cultural translation theories (Bassne & Lefevere, 1998; May, 1994; Niranjana, 1992; Venuti, 1998) to a particular case where such primary sources existed. The second aim of the book was to investigate Kundera’s claim that, for him, ‘translation is everything’ (Kundera, 1998a: 121). Translation has been a priority of other bi-lingual exiled writers, such as Nabokov, Becke and Brodsky – all of whom, like Kundera, have changed their own work when translating it or revising translations. I investigate whether the di erence with Kundera is that not only has he wri en as much about translation as maybe Nabokov, but that translation has literally permeated his work, even before it was translated. Kundera’s very fi rst story – revised several times and omi ed from his oeuvre – revolved around translation and misinterpretation, and, as Kundera lost the majority of his native-language readership, translation is paramount to any exegesis of his work. Kundera, in other words, seemed an exemplary case through which to examine translation not only as a substantive act, shot through with a variety of cultural and ideological interventions, but also as a mode of reading.
As with other émigré writers who adopted a second language in which to write, such as Vladimir Nabokov (to whom, in terms of a preoccupation with translation, Kundera compares himself) and Samuel Becke , Kundera has not only undertaken the translations in the second language but has blurred the boundaries of what can be constituted as an ‘original’ and a ‘translation’ because of his interventions (Kundera, 1991c: 325). The process of revising the French translations not only addressed problems with the transference from one language (Czech) to another (French), but also allowed an opportunity for Kundera to rewrite the novels. In some cases, where the material was too culturally specifi c, Kundera deliberately altered the translation to make it more accessible to a French readership. In other cases, he dealt with elements of the novel – and not the translation – with which he felt dissatisfi ed by omitting, altering and adding material.
Kundera has been criticised for his policy of fi delity on two counts: fi rstly, because he rewrites the translations and deliberately alters them so they do not necessarily correspond to the Czech ‘originals’; and, secondly, because ‘fi delity’ – in the traditional translation sense – is now widely regarded to be an impossibility. The translation theorist Lawrence Venuti characterised Kundera as ‘naïve’ because he apparently refuses to accept
4 Translating Milan Kundera
that a translation automatically incurs changes because of the cultural differences between languages – each language containing culturally untranslatable di erences that need to be transformed in order to make the
translation understandable (Venuti, 1998: 5–6). Kundera has, indeed, claimed that a translation is only beautiful if it is faithful and, strangely for a writer living and writing in two languages, apparently asserted that such fi delity is possible (Kundera, 1986a: 85–87), which seems curiously odd and even hypocritical given that Kundera deliberately alters the translations once he has control of them, an act which paradoxically implies that Kundera is both unaware of cultural di erence between languages, demanding exact fi delity from his translators, while simultaneously cynically exploiting cultural di erences in his own translation process.
Some critics believe that Kundera had a very specifi c agenda in at once complaining that translators were being unfaithful while he himself altered the novels in translation (Stanger, 1997), i.e. that Kundera tailored his translations for a specifi c audience. Allison Stanger argued that Kundera deliberately removed certain material from the English and French translations of The Joke (1967) in order to ingratiate himself with those readerships by simplifying Czech history to comply with Western assumptions, for instance by removing a passage that suggested Czech collaboration with the Red Army (an image that ran contrary to Western perceptions of Soviet domination and Czech victimhood), or by removing passages that, though acceptable to a Czech readership, would potentially be seen as sexist in the West. These allegations would be mitigated, Stanger argued, only if Kundera genuinely felt that his changes made for an aesthetically superior vision of the novel. But because Kundera made no such changes in the Czech original, Stanger intimated that this was not the case. In an article indicting Kundera’s ‘betrayal’ of his translators and readers, Caleb Crain pointed to Stanger’s assertions as proof that Kundera’s alterations to the translations were cynical acts of contingency (Crain, 1999: 45).
These views echo a certain strand of Czech literary criticism which suggests that Kundera not only altered his translations for a Western audience, but also altered his own writing. In his widely circulated 1988 samizdat essay Kunderovské paradoxy / Kunderian Paradoxes, Milan Jungmann made similar arguments, stating that The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) was wri en with the intention of becoming a Western bestseller novel, because of the erotic content and because of the simplifi cation of Czech history in the novel. Jungmann also accused Kundera of rewriting his image, presenting himself to the West as an unknown writer and a critic of the regime. However, because of his poetry and plays, Kundera
had been an important literary fi gure in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. He later removed this work, some of which was strongly communist, from his bibliography by not translating it (Bauer, 1998a: 12–13). The suspicion that Kundera betrayed his Czech readers and his own talent has been reinforced by his decision to write in French, regarded by some Czech critics (including Jungmann) as a conscious decision to move from the periphery of European culture to its centre, and, in doing so, seeking fame and recognition.
The second issue, in the light of the above-suggested complexities, is
fi delity, which is a vexing one for critics in view of Kundera’s claim that a translation must be faithful while he simultaneously is rewriting the translations and his Czech originals. The general view has been that Kundera demands fi delity for the simple reason that he is di cult and that he intends to antagonise his translators almost for the sport of it, feeding the constructed image of Kundera. Another possibility has been suggested by his long-time American translator, Peter Kussi, who wrote that Kundera was searching for a fi delity to his ideal of the novel, which is also an una ainable fi delity, especially for the translator, for whom it is impossible to know the author’s intent (Kussi, 1991: 70). Perhaps there is yet another type of fi delity, one which Kundera proposed in the 1990s (though he had made it clear to his translators from the fi rst translations) but which critics have so far ignored, which is a fi delity to the ‘author’s style’. Such a fi delity is markedly di erent from demanding a fi delity to meaning or content, both of which have li le relevance within the context of Kundera’s revision praxis. A fi delity to the author’s style refers to transferring the way in which the author uses language into the target language. For Kundera, this is the most di cult aspect of the translation because it is the most threatening aspect of the work of the art – Kundera argues that each work of art qua art is a transgression of the given cultural norms of style. When the work is translated into another language, its style is o en assimilated automatically into the target culture’s stylistic norms in order to render the work less foreign and more accessible, but, in doing so, the translation removes or dilutes what makes it art in the fi rst place (Kundera, 1996b: 99–120).
Czech vowel sounds and the uniform endings of Czech verb conjugations are impossible to reproduce in English – but as a whole the stylistic repetition is a translatable element of the text. Kundera does not believe the words’ meanings to be absolutely translatable, but the repetition of the same word is. The manner in which the word is used – as a motif, as a refrain – is a large part of the textual meaning.
Kundera’s novels, once translated, o en underwent a form of second translation in which the editor or copy-editor reworked the translator’s manuscript to make it sound less literal and more ‘English’. The fi rst casualty was punctuation, altered without the slightest understanding of its aesthetic role in the text. That the linguistic style of Kundera’s body of work – central to its meaning – has never been examined a ests to this assimilation.
Fidelity became a marker in the West rather, Lefevere suggested, of how well the translated text fi ed into the domestic culture’s prevailing poetological and ideological norms, becoming faithful to the target readership’s expectations rather than to any original text.
Despite Venuti’s claim that Kundera is ‘naïve’ and unaware of the impossibility of fi delity, because Kundera lived and wrote in a second language a er going into exile he cannot but have been aware of the cultural di erences between languages.
The rewriting or acculturation of the text is not just a ma er of style, but a ma er of interpretation informed by domestic agendas, and a recognition of this has been perhaps one of the most important contributions by translation theorists to the study of translation – the emphasis on how a text is manipulated and by whom. Susan Bassne underlines this central importance ‘that a study of the processes of translation combined with the praxis of translation could o er a way of understanding how complex manipulative textual processes take place: how a text is selected for translation, for example, what role the translator plays in that selection, what role an editor, publisher or patron plays, what criteria determine the strategies that will be employed by the translator, how a text might be received in the target system. For a translation always takes place in a continuum, never in a void, and there are all kinds of textual and extratextual constraints upon the translator’ (Bassne & Lefevere, 1998: 123). Such rewritings for domestic agendas are, Lefevere argued, endemic in modern culture – rewritings of an author, a work or a body of work by translators, publishers and patrons, media, the academy: ‘rewriters adapt, manipulate the originals they work with to some extent, usually to make them fi t in with the dominant ideological and poetological currents of their time. Again, this may be most obvious in totalitarian societies, but di erent “interpretative communities” that exist in more open societies will infl uence the production of rewritings in similar ways’ (Lefevere, 1992: 8). Lefevere gives a series of examples across time and cultures, for instance, in how the English-language translations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata omi ed or toned down the sexual element – the central element – of the play because of the domestic proscription of such references or in how the fi gure of Anne Frank has been re-presented in German-language translations.
Lefevere emphasised the implicit conservatism in such rewritings, a weeding out of the subversive i.e. any element that may seem to threaten
the domestic aesthetic or ideological norms. For Venuti, this awareness suggests another strategy for translators – to focus on minoritising translations, that is either in translating texts from ‘minor’ literatures or in selecting minor texts from within well-translated literatures. In such a way, he argues, translators can challenge the rather top-down approach to translation, in which only approved texts are translated, i.e. texts that are bestsellers in their original language (and thus a ractive to publishers) or texts that will consolidate a given image of a culture. This, he argues, would challenge the accepted cultural and aesthetic norms within the target culture, and introduce or reveal foreignness in it.