The Unbearable Torment of Translation: Milan Kundera, Impersonation, and The Joke

Miriam Margala


Milan Kundera, a Czech émigré writer, living in Paris and now writing in French, is (in)famous for his tight and obsessive authorial control. He has said many times that he did not trust translators to translate his works accurately and faithfully. The various translations of his novel Žert (The Joke) exemplify this point. The novel has been translated into English, French, and many other languages more than once, depending on Kundera’s dissatisfaction with a particular translation (which, at first, he would support). Thus, there followed a cascade of translations (namely in French and English) as Kundera would eventually become dissatisfied even with the latest “definitive” translated version. As he famously says in an interview regarding the 1968 French translation of Žert, “rage seized me”. From then on, Kundera showed displeasure at any translator who, however briefly, would impersonate the author and take some license in translating Kundera’s work. Further, Kundera decided that only his full authorial involvement in the process would ascertain “the same authenticity” of his translations as the original Czech works. Kundera thus becomes the omnipresent, omnipotent author, himself impersonating God controlling his own creation. Finally, Kundera takes extreme measures and translates Žert into French himself. The resulting translation surprised many – editing changes are plentiful but apparent only to those who can compare the original Czech text with Kundera’s own translation. Kundera’s stance is conflicting, as he denies creativity to other translators but as the auto-translator, Kundera freely rewrites, rather than just retranslates, his own works. By exploring the convoluted and complex history of translations of Kundera’s works, I will try to illuminate the reasons behind Kundera’s posture. I will support my discussion by analyzing not only well known Kundera’s statements, but also those less quoted which, as I have discovered, are rather crucial to understanding Kundera’s position.

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ISSN 1920-0323