Summary and Stance in Milan Kundera's A Sentence

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Kundera's essay centers on Kafka's work and the fate it has suffered at the hands of both translators and publishers, who have changed and distorted, sometimes against the author's wishes, "…the beauty of Kafka's art…" (101).

He (Kundera) begins with an example of a sentence from The Castle, one of Kafka's most important works, in which the author describes the coition of K., the main character, and Frieda, a woman with whom he has a sporadic relationship. I will only cite Kundera's translation from the German original, which he was motivated to write due to the imperfections he found in Alexandre Valetti's, Claude David, and Bernard Lortholary: There hours went by, hours of mutual breaths, of mutual heartbeats, hours in which K. continually had the feeling that he was going astray, or that he was farther inside the strange world than any person before him, in a strange world where the very air had in it no element of his native air, where one must suffocate from strangeness and where, in the midst of absurd enticements, one could do nothing but keep going, keep going astray.

(103) The imperfections found by Kundera stem from the sentence being a metaphor. He states that, by using the verb "thrust" instead of "to be" (into, which is what Kafka wrote), the metaphor is broken and revealed, since the act of lovemaking involves the man to "thrust." Even Lortholary, the closest of the translators, uses "advance into," which is far apart from "to be." Another mistake comes in the elimination of the word "strange," which is repeated three times. Here, the translators avoided the repetition and substituted it with "foreign" and "exile," which do not hold the same meaning as "strange". If an author chooses a specific word, he does it thinking about style. If Kafka uses Fremde, which means strange, we cannot turn it into "a foreign country," or "abroad," since this is not the meaning he wanted to express in his metaphor. This is perhaps the biggest mistake in the translation.

Metaphors catch existential situations in Kafka's work. This could, of course, be done by a blunt description, but in the metaphor an author not only secures his own style, but the aesthetic of his work. Words are carefully chosen as "key" words to grasp the situation. By changing them, translators break, not only the aesthetic value of the metaphor, but transfer it from its existential domain to the domain of visual description, thus, ending the metaphor. Kafka expresses coition between K. and Freida in metaphors, which is more beautiful than simply saying: "K. and Freida licked and groped each other." The translator's situation is delicate. They must understand the author and his/her intentions. Unfortunately, they often overlook this most important aspect of their work.

One of translator's most repeated (and here we are being redundant on purpose) mistakes is the elimination of repeated words. They feel the need to synonymize when they come across a word that comes out two or three times in a sentence or paragraph. What they fail to understand is that sometimes the author has chosen this simplicity because in it lays the beauty of the work. Translators sometimes show their mastery of vocabulary by finding synonyms for these types of "mistakes" they encounter. They feel like they are ambassadors of "good language, thus, feeling themselves with authority and even duty to "correct" an authors transgression of good language use. Transgression is an author's right. It shows his/her personal style, which should be the translator's authority, not his desire to write "conventionally good." When an author (especially a renowned one) repeats words, it is not because he lacks a vocabulary bank, but because he sees in the repetition an emphasis on its importance or its melodic effect.

On a text's grammar, it is the editor's responsibility to correct overlooked mistakes, but when these "mistakes" are made intentionally in order to preserve the aesthetic value of the text, neither the editor, nor the translator should intervene to change or "correct" them. If Kafka writes with a lack of punctuation, it is because he wants to preserve the breath, which keeps the reader going and sweeps him/her away. Kafka wrote long paragraphs, sometimes dividing an entire chapter in two paragraphs. Some translators have chosen to split the paragraphs to give a sense of rational order (in the minds of translators). Fortunately, (and strangely) this happens only in French translators.

Kafka wanted his paragraphs long. In fact, he requested that his works be published in large font, so that the reader would not be burdened by an excessive amount of words, or lose their place in the reading.

I agree totally with Kundera on his criticism of translators and his suggestions on the topic.

Translating is necessary. As it was mentioned in class, it is nice to know many languages, but one cannot learn them all. That is the importance of translation. Without it, we wouldn't be able to read many important authors from around the world.

With this importance, comes a great deal of responsibility. A translator must master both the language translated and the target language. Most importantly, he must try to understand the author's intentions before taking the task of interpret metaphors or eliminate repeated words.

One cannot invade the author's style by changing words or eliminating repetitions. One of the joys of reading and writing is that we discover new ways to tell stories and experiences, to focus themes and situations.

If a translator's job is to make the text available across the borders of language, then he/she must take the responsibility of relaying the author's message, style and intention, as the author wishes it.

Style is an author's right. Let us not infringe on the right, which makes this diversity in writing, the enriching and joyful experience it is.