Betraying K: The Unbearable Translation of Milan Kundera

Deborah Garfinkle, University of Texas, Austin

In "Words Misunderstood," Milan Kundera shows that Sabina and Franz cannot connect because they consistently fail to translate the meaning each other's words (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). The recurrent theme of intralingual misinterpretation in Kundera's work illustrates Roman Jakobson's point that translation is far more complex than the mere substitution of a target-language equivalent for a particular source ("On Aspects of Translation"). "Words Misunderstood" also suggests that Kundera's connection to translation extends beyond the borders of his fictional universe.

As an emigré writer whose work was banned, Kundera was dependent on translators to render his words faithfully to non-Czech audiences. Kundera's response to his dependence on translation was, as Stanislaw Baranczak points out, to develop a literary style "as translatable as possible." (Tongue-Tied Eloquence: Notes on Language, Exile and Writing). Thus, Kundera vehemently denounces translators who replace his simple language with synonyms (The Art of the Novel) and scrupulously controls the foreign-language versions of work since each subsequent translation signifies a potential betrayal of his original (Jakobson's "traddutore, traditore").

It is betrayal through translation that figures prominently in Kundera's work and his transformation from Czech writer to international novelist. Sabina betrays Franz by leaving him at the moment he is most convinced of her love for him; Kundera betrays his "vlast" by de-authorizing his Czech originals, abandoning Czech in favor of French (with the publication of the novel, La lenteur) and by stubbornly remaining in Paris. Ironically, these betrayals belie his preeminence as the most influential Czech novelist of the post-war generation.

However, it is essential to remember that in his lexicon, Kundera does not define betrayal as an evil. Rather, Kundera sets up a dialectic between betrayal and oppression that liberates the term from its assumed negative connotations (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and "Sixty-Three Words"). As a result, Sabina's disloyalty signifies her freedom to change with the paradoxical goal of "the unbearable lightness of being."

Through Kundera's experience of exile, betrayal becomes a form translation not touched upon by Jakobson, the translation of one's identity to remain true to self. Ultimately, it symbolizes semantic polyphony, the power to transcend the borders of history, nation, politics and culture that constantly threaten to impose monolithic definitions on individual meaning.

Betrayal, in this sense, is the greatest good.