Allison Stanger

In Search of The Joke: An Open Letter to Milan Kundera



Dear Mr. Kundera,

      Let me begin by making it clear that I have been deeply engaged by your work for quite a long time. Indeed, I was driven to learn Czech in the first place in large part by the desire to read your works in the language in which they were originally written, especially since you had, on numerous occasions, pronounced the existing English translations of much of your oeuvre to be wholly inadequate. In my twenties, armed only with my knowledge of Russian, I actually believed that I could teach myself Czech through reading Nesnesitelná Lehkost Bytí (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1988), with no prior exposure to the language and only the assistance of a Czech-Russian dictionary. I was mistaken. Later, I married a Czech emigre and learned Czech the old-fashioned way. This year in Prague, I finally achieved a longstanding goal: I read The Joke in Czech with your definitive English-language translation, the fifth and final edition, alongside to help me when I stumbled (this is identified on the title page as the “definitive version, fully revised by the author”: Aaron Asher Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992). As I anticipated, your first novel is all the more captivating in the original. But I am writing now to tell you that in reading it again I also discovered some things about the text that seem to me unsettling.
      That I chose the fifth English-language edition to assist me was of course no accident. I was very much aware that over the years you had expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction with previous attempts to translate The Joke, including those attempts that you had at one time endorsed as faithful renderings of your novel into French (Gallimard, 1980) and English (Harper and Row, 1982). In recent years, this lingering dissatisfaction evidently prompted you, with the aid of the versions prepared by those who had labored before you, to take on the monumental task of translating your own book—first into French (Gallimard, 1985), and then into English (Harper and Row, 1992). Since your 1992 revised English translation concludes with the notation “completed December 5, 1965,” the careful reader would assume that this was to be understood as the definitive translation of the unabridged original text. This assumption would seem to be reinforced by the author’s note that you provided for this latest edition, a preface which reviews the unauthorized editorial changes made in previous translations of your novel, and which emphasizes the amount of time you have invested in undoing these unwelcome revisions.
      Under these circumstances, you may understand how surprised I was to discover that your definitive English-language translation, ostensibly the most faithful of renderings possible, in reality introduces numerous changes into the original Czech-language text (Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel, 1967). Although there is no way for the reader of the 1992 English version to recognize this without comparing the translation, line by line, with the 1967 text, your definitive translation omits many passages from the Czech original—over fifty by my count, a number of them complete paragraphs. In the preface to this fifth English edition, however, you inform the reader only that you initiated the retranslation process by entering “word-for-word translations of my original, either in French or English,” on “enlarged photocopies of the fourth version,” presumably out of a concern for greater accuracy and fidelity.
      Since I had set out to read the authentic version of Zert, the text that I expected to underlie all the translations, I was initially very puzzled by the discrepancies I had unintentionally discovered. In an attempt to clarify this situation, I began consulting the earlier English-language editions, and it was then that I learned from your preface to the fourth edition (the once-authorized Michael Henry Heim translation) that you had actually introduced modifications into the original text while correcting the French translation in 1979. Off I went in search of a French edition in Prague (as you are probably aware, French, German, and English translations of your novel are now readily available in the capital of your land of birth). Comparing the 1985 French edition, your final definitive reworking of the French translation, with the 1992 English one, I found that these versions shared many of the same deletions from the Czech original; and this French edition, too, concludes with the note “Achevé le 5 décembre 1965.” From these comparisons I was able to deduce, I presume correctly, that a revised version of Zert came into being in the 1980s and has continued to evolve since that time—that in fact both of your “definitive” translations offer the reader something other than a faithful rendering of the work in its original incarnation. Yet when the Czech publishing house Atlantis approached you in December 1989 with a request to publish a complete edition of your works in Czech, after you had taken such pains to revise The Joke, you inexplicably seem to have authorized the publication of the earlier, unmodified 1967 Czech text. Strangely, in your postscript to the altered 1985 French edition, you make no mention of the changes you have made over the years, nor do you refer to these revisions when you summarize the international publication history of your book in your January 1990 endnote in the latest Czech edition. The curious situation that has resulted from all this is that your Czech audience now reads one version of the book while your French- and English-language audiences read quite another—yet the reader attempting to distinguish among these “definitive” versions is never made aware of these perplexing differences, or of the reasons for them.
      While it does not alter the basic plot of the novel, your editing does by definition modify the reader’s immediate sense of the work and its texture. As you yourself point out in the preface to your own English translation, and in the preface to the earlier translation by Heim, “When Goethe was working on Wilhelm Meister, he allowed his secretary Riemer to read proof for him and strike out a superfluous word or touch up a phrase here or there, though he would never have entrusted his poetry to him. In Goethe’s time prose could not make the aesthetic claims of poetry; perhaps not until the work of Flaubert did prose lose the stigma of aesthetic inferiority. Ever since Madame Bovary, the art of the novel has been considered equal to the art of poetry, and the novelist (any novelist worthy of the name) endows every word of his prose with the uniqueness of the word in a poem.” Taking you at your word here, what is the reader to make of the apparent textual looseness that is suggested by the discrepancies between the current Czech and French or English editions of your novel? As the artist, the changes in the text are indisputably yours to make (I am not confusing Goethe’s authority with liberties taken by Riemer), but can a translation rightfully be described as a faithful rendering of the original, when the original text itself and not just its translated form remains a moving target? To put the question another way, how can the language of prose be regarded as being as crucial and deliberate as that of poetry when without clear notice it varies its explicit content over time?
      Although only you are in a position to provide an explanation for the deletion of the material that did not find its way into your currently authorized English-language translation, to my mind the missing passages fall into one of three basic categories. First, there are those omitted parts of the novel which are, for various reasons, difficult to render into accessible English. An example here would be the missing lines on page 40 of the 1991 Atlantis Czech edition, where Ludvik, the novel’s Voltairean protagonist, speaks of the origins of his aversion to tykání, the use of the familiar form of the pronoun “you.” Since both French and Czech distinguish between the polite and familiar forms of the second person, it is perhaps not surprising to find a passage like this deleted from the English version but retained in the French. (Other references to tykání / tutoiement on pages 200 and 308 are also omitted for the Anglo-American reader.) Similarly, Cenek’s account of his sexual encounter with Alena at Easter time (page 88 of the Atlantis edition) requires some knowledge of Czech Easter traditions if it is to have its proper effect. To the uninformed non-Czech reader, Alena’s request for a beating in exchange for a painted egg would suggest something altogether different, something not supported by the implied cultural context; hence these sentences, which would appear to invite a more or less literal translation, have been deleted from both the French and English translations.
      Second, there are passages in the original that appear to have been omitted for aesthetic or stylistic reasons. In the case of those which permit us access to the memory of the novel’s principal character, their absence does alter to some extent our understanding of the people who inhabit the novel. I believe this is true, for example, of the deletion on page 82, where Ludvik recalls his unanswered love letters to Lucie, written when he was a young man serving time in hard labor for the crime of writing a prank political postcard to an earlier girlfriend:

I would like to read my letters today, and at the same time, I am glad that I am unable to read them; a person has a great advantage in that he cannot revisit himself in a younger edition; I fear that I would find myself irritating and that I would then tear up even this narrative, because I would recognize that the testimony, which I give about myself here, is much too steeped in my contemporary attitudes and opinions. But what remembrance is not at the same time (and involuntarily) a repainting of an old picture? What remembrance is not a simultaneous exposition of two faces, that of the present and that of the past? What kind of a person I really was no one will ever find out. [my translation]

      In a similar way, the paragraphs missing from Ludvik’s description of his “demolition” of Helena leave us with an account in which it is harder to perceive the ruthless calculation and skill with which her seduction is accomplished. Two such passages, restored below, confront us with a coarser, more cynical Ludvik than one finds in the currently authorized English translation:
The liquor had already affected Helena, and she announced that life was good in spite of all the inequalities that were still with us. In any case it was up to individuals what sort of life they made for themselves. I chewed at the stringy Spanish fowl and proclaimed, with my mouth full, that the place became really beautiful when I was sitting there with her. (...) Helena’s cheeks were flushed (clearly a result of the liquor), which emphasized their roundness and detracted from her elegance. But I magnanimously ignored this (clearly a result of the liquor), telling myself with malicious glee that it was a mercy of the fates that Helena was at least as presentable as she was, since even if she’d been hideous, hunchbacked or crippled I’d still have made an attempt on her and tried to get her into my power.” [page 186 of the Atlantis Czech edition; David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass translation]

“This isn’t a bar—it’s an ordinary apartment,” said Helena, when she’d gone in and looked down the hallway into Kostka’s room.
“It’s not an ordinary apartment. It would be if you or I lived in it. The special thing about this place is that it’s neither mine nor yours—there’s none of my washing lying around here, or yours, or my memories or your memories, it doesn’t have the air of my home or of your home. It’s a stranger’s apartment, and because of that it’s pure as far as both of us are concerned and so we can both feel free in it.”
I’d managed to extemporize a rather remarkable defense of the very principle of the borrowed apartment. But my eloquence was quite superfluous. [page 188 of the Atlantis edition; Hamblyn and Stallybrass translation]

      The reader without a knowledge of Czech is also deprived of a suggestive account of the nature of Ludvik’s professional life following his partial rehabilitation:

It had become an invariable custom in our institute that all journalists were routed to me and I was the one who was always sent to lecture on behalf of the institute when we were requested to do so by various educational bodies. This apparent honor was a matter of some sadness for me. I’d begun my own research almost ten years later than my colleagues—I had been only an undergraduate in my thirties. For a few years I’d tried desperately to bridge the gap but had then realized the futility of devoting the second half of my life to a pathetic pursuit of lost years, and so I resigned myself to it. Luckily, this had its compensations: the less I chased after success in my own narrow field, the more I could allow myself the luxury of looking out onto other areas of research, onto man’s being and the existence of the world, and could experience the joys—among the sweetest there are—of speculation and reflection. My colleagues, however, knew well that if such contemplation gives a man personal pleasure, it’s of little use for a modern scientific career, which demands that the scientist burrow zealously in his own field or sub-field like a blind mole and never lose a minute lamenting horizons. For this reason my colleagues half envied me my resignation and half despised me for it, they let me know with gentle irony, calling me the institute’s “philosopher” and sending me journalists and news editors from the broadcasting companies. [page 178 of Atlantis edition; Hamblyn and Stallybrass translation]

      Third, and perhaps most importantly, a number of the deleted passages serve to situate the novel squarely in the Czech Lands at a particular moment in history. Some of these are sections that a publisher might deem unlikely to be of very great interest to the non-Czech reader. The substantial pruning of Jaroslav’s reflections on Moravian folk music in Part 4—the very section with which the 1969 Hamblyn and Stallybrass translation took liberties unacceptable to you—would seem to be one clear instance of editing which is done with the general interests of a particular audience in mind, one which might be made uneasy by materials that tend to be regarded as provincial.
      Other deletions, more disturbingly, effectively obscure the complexities of post-World War II Czech history, rendering it more readily in keeping with the West’s prevailing preconceptions. The average American reader these days—especially with the image of the Velvet Revolution squarely in mind, and with the almost universal sense that Communism in practice proved itself to be a colossal error—is unlikely to be aware that the Czechoslovak Communists actually won a plurality of the vote in free elections in 1948. Such a reader is even less likely to know that many Czechs initially welcomed liberation by the Red Army, or that having been betrayed by the West at Munich and occupied by Nazi Germany for seven years, some Czechs at the close of the war saw a new era of Slavic solidarity in the making that would right old wrongs, at both the international and domestic levels. The original version of your novel contains characters whose views convey some of the tragic false hopes that initiated the country’s near spiritual ruin in the decades that followed, but the passages that served to illuminate this situation have now been removed from the versions you present to your French- and English-reading audiences. Here, for instance, is the voice of Jaroslav, who initially perceived communism as a means of resuscitating the patriarchal past preserved in folklore:

I remember the days when there were field horses tied to the trees in our streets. A few days earlier the Red Army had broken through to our township. We all put on ceremonial costume, took our instruments, and went out to play in the park. We drank and played non-stop for hours on end. The Russian soldiers responded with their own songs. At the time I had said to myself that a new era was on its way. A Slavic era. Just like the Roman Empire and the German Empire, we too were the heirs to antiquity. We had slumbered for many centuries. But we had slept well. We were refreshed. We were ready! [page 143 of Atlantis edition; Hamblyn and Stallybrass translation]

      Along the same lines, in the original we are given these observations by Helena, the instrument of Ludvik’s failed attempt at revenge, who remains sentimentally attached to the spirit of her youthful devotion to the communist movement, even after the revelations of Stalinism’s horrors:

“The young people of today are different from us,” she said. “They’ve had everything free, everything handed out to them, and they can’t understand why even to this day I’m moved when I hear a Russian chastushka.” [page 192 of Atlantis edition; Hamblyn and Stallybrass translation]

And again, here is Jaroslav, reflecting on the significance of folk music for a small nation under German occupation:

There are certainly merits in having one’s back to the wall. A war was on, and the life of a nation was at stake. We heard the folk songs and we suddenly saw that they were the most essential of essentials. I dedicated my life to them. Through them I merge with the stream which flows deep below. [page 130 of Atlantis edition; Hamblyn and Stallybrass translation]

      No matter how skillfully it may be done, cutting passages like these from the English and French translations inevitably detaches the characters from the specific times and circumstances in which they live. As a result, the comfortably “cosmopolitan” reader is relieved of the need to contend with the confusing history of “a far-away nation about which he or she knows little,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain. This makes for a simpler, more generalized narrative; from a commercial perspective, something is gained, but at the same time, something greater is obviously lost. These missing parts of your novel endow it with precise local elements that work against the overwhelming contemporary tendency toward historical amnesia. To borrow your own words from Testaments Betrayed, such local elements challenge the foreign reader to “be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own,” the challenge which you tell us is at the very center of the art of the novel.
      So why do these parts of the novel wind up in the wastebasket when the work is presented to French- and English-language readers? Would it be inappropriate to expect such readers to struggle with the nuances of the historical situation that the book addresses? In the end, one cannot help but wonder whether editing of this sort is a fate reserved only for books written in the languages of the small nations, those on the losing side of large historical developments for most of their existence. After all, don’t we instinctively anticipate that readers of novels written in the Empire-building languages will make more of an effort to grasp the particularities of the history depicted? Aren’t readers of The Charterhouse of Parma expected to develop some familiarity with the response of the local population to Napoleon’s military venture into Italy? And aren’t readers of War and Peace presumed to have some grasp of the range of possible reactions to the little emperor’s Russian campaign? It is possible, of course, that the decision to retain the historical particulars in the Czech text while eliminating them from the French and English versions implies a sense that while Czech readers may be counted on to remember the precise moods and attitudes of a complicated historical moment, French- and English-language readers are not likely to be up to the demands of such intimate understanding. But here again, the underlying suggestion is that each audience requires a work in its own image.
      In taking the liberty of reviewing some of your recent omissions and translating a few of them here, I do not wish to overstate the significance of the discrepancies between the old and new versions of The Joke, nor do I wish to challenge your prerogative as an author to alter your own work. It is, after all, hardly unusual for a writer to see a new edition of his work as an opportunity for revision—consider the New York Edition of Henry James’s novels, for instance. Indeed, a colleague of mine, Sergei Davydov, tells me that the writings of Pushkin present us with one of the most vivid examples of continuous editorial change. The editors of his Collected Works have had to contend with this legacy in imaginative ways, publishing both the first and the last versions side by side, with commentaries on the intermediate versions. Nabokov, too, was inclined to modify his Russian novels when he translated them into English. The more radical discrepancies between the Russian- and English-language versions of his autobiography, however, prompted him to assign them different titles, as you no doubt know.
      In the end, I am still uncertain about the implications of your own editorial practice. In what light, I wonder, should we view the differences between the Czech and English versions of your first novel? The differences between them are surely not radical enough to require two titles. But if the changes you have introduced make for a better work, one truer to your deepest aspirations, shouldn’t these modifications also be carried into the original-language version, whenever the opportunity arises to reprint that text? If, despite the alterations made in the translations, that original Czech text remains unchanged, wouldn’t this suggest that there are considerations other than purely aesthetic ones which are guiding the revisions? Even when modifications of this sort are approved by the author, at what point may they be seen as constituting a form of self-censorship for marketing purposes? And if changes made in one language are understood to be inappropriate for the original language in which the work was conceived—if there are to be different versions of the work for different audiences—doesn’t the very notion of a “definitive” text fall apart? How many changes made to accommodate particular audiences are permissible before the sense of the work’s integrity is hopelessly compromised?
      To pose the basic question in another, more practical, way: if a reader now wants to experience Zert / The Joke / La plaisanterie as the author intended, what text should he or she read? The original Czech-language edition certainly will no longer suffice, since the text has evidently evolved since its initial creation. If one reads both the original and your latest revised English-language translation, can one indisputably be said to have read the novel, or must one also take account of your French-language version? Fifty years down the road, which edition should readers consider to be definitive—and in what language? In leaving the reader with a range of alternative versions, does the author have any obligation to distinguish among them, acknowledging and explaining the various modifications he has chosen to make? And under these bewildering circumstances, is it conceivable that there could be anything like a reliable translation by anyone other than the author himself while he is still living?

      I direct these questions to you precisely because of the values you have taken such pains to elucidate and defend, most recently in Testaments Betrayed. There and elsewhere, you have persuasively demonstrated that world literature itself is at stake in the art of translation. The author is obviously the ultimate judge of whether his or her work has been faithfully rendered into another language—at least when the author possesses an adequate knowledge of that other language—and the translator must treat each word in the text as unalterable, unless the author gives him leave to do otherwise. On this, I believe, we agree; and we are in agreement, too, in holding that what the writer has discarded prior to publication is none of the reader’s business. But once the work appears in print, shouldn’t the reader be apprised of the work’s status in the eyes of the author—of exactly where it stands in relation to alternate versions? In contemplating a text which came into being in the late 1960s, shouldn’t readers in the West—especially now—be challenged to comprehend in its full complexity the life of a country that went out of existence on the first of January, 1993? And at this moment in their own history, shouldn’t the speakers of
your mother tongue have the benefit of those stylistic adjustments you have made in the novel in presenting it to an admiring world-wide audience?

      Yours sincerely,
            Allison Stanger
            Prague, 1 April 1996