'Tomas came to this conclusion: making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)'
'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' by Milan Kundera
The first time I read this novel by the famous Czech writer it was a Spanish translation that did the rounds when I was still in Uni in Cuba. In those days the country was entering a recession that became an economic crisis and texts by writers such as Kundera were avidly devoured by literature lovers like me, desperate to find an alternative to the political dogma we were living at the time (and still live now). The queue to read the novel was long which meant that I had to rush through the book as quick as Usain Bolt ran the 100 metres at the Beijing Olympics last summer. However, I got the gist of it and liked it enough to give it another read as soon as I had a chance.
That opportunity arrived a few years later after I finished my intensive course at the French Alliance in Havana. The level I obtained was high enough to enable me to read in that language without resorting to a bilingual dictionary the whole time, although I still carried one with me, just in case. The novel was available at the resources centre in the building. This time around I had no need to disguise the book because it was very unlikely that I would get stopped on the street for reading 'L'Insoutenable Légèreté de l'Être' (Note: in both French and Spanish the translation of the novel's title does not correspond to that in English. In Spanish it is 'La Insoportable Levedad del Ser'
Fast forward a couple of years later and when I relocated to the UK in 1997, two of the first books I purchased were 'The Joke', Milan's first novel and 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. Apart from noticing that the translation was very good, I also spotted a couple of details: one was the difference between the titles in Spanish/French and English already referred to above and the other one was the passage I quoted at the beginning of this post.
Both in the Spanish and French versions the verbs used in the quote were 'dormir' and 'acostarse' ('to sleep') in that order, so instead of inferring that the person was engaging in coital activity the image I got was rather of someone enjoying another person's company in bed.
Why this disparity? And by no means understand the nature of my confusion as a contentious line of enquiry. It is just that there's a massive gulf between both acts in the languages I mentioned previously. However, it is the English version that makes more sense at first as someone who has read the book will aver.
The plot centres on the aforementioned Tomas, a Czech doctor who begins a relationship with Tereza, a waitress at a hotel. After Tomas spends the night at the hotel Tereza follows him to Prague the next day. Tomas is a serious philanderer and this is when the above quote rears its head. At this point in the novel, the doctor violates his unwritten contract of erotic friendships that stipulates that he should exclude all love from his life. In order to achieve this, he never sleeps with the women he conquers. This, according to him, is the corpus delicti of love.
The passage quoted before appears in chapter 6 of the 1st Part, 'Lightness and Weight', page 14. By then, Tereza has managed to get a strong grip on him (literally, as she squeezes his hand tightly whilst sleeping) and he surprisingly finds himself warming to her. This is where my linguistic confusion appears. As Tomas runs through the previous few hours spent together making love, 'he began to sense an aura of hitherto unknown happines emanating from them'. So, the English version is very succinct and to the point on this. Or is it?
The next paragraph chucks this notion out of the window. 'From that time on they both looked forward to sleeping together. I might even say that the goal of their lovemaking was not so much pleasure as the sleep that followed it'. It is at this point where both Spanish and French have the upper hand over English. Whereas we have two main words (amongst others) to describe the act of rest afforded by a suspension of voluntary bodily functions and the natural suspension, complete or partial, of consciousness, in English the boundaries are more blurred. Can you say or write 'to sleep with someone' without implying a carnal liaison? Note that we're dealing with strangers or acquaintances. Of course, I have slept with friends of mine and no one has every thought anything of it. But how about when we step out of our friends and relatives' circle? Does it still have the same innocent meaning?
And yes, that's a question for you my dear reader. Because, despite having a good command of and being very keen on this lovely lexicon, English sometimes has the reputable rabbit tucked well inside its hat and makes it appear when I least expect it.
In order to clarify this conundrum, I e-mailed the translator who transposed the novel from Czech to English. And no, I was not and I am not questioning his credentials at all. This is not a post about translation. I wrote one about that subject just the other day. This is a post about the confusion that sets in when Romance languages go to battle against the Germanic ones. No losers, just winners, mind.
The translator, Professor Michael Henry Haim, first came to Kundera's attention when the former published a very good translation of two passages of 'The Joke'. Milan was touched by the professor's gesture because previously Kundera's debut novel had been translated without taking into account his opinion at all, especially in the structuring of the chapters. The result was a literary piece of work almost completely divorced from its creator's original idea. It was professor Haim who carried out the translation of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and it's because of him that I was able to enjoy the novel once more, this time in English.
Mr Haim has not replied to my e-mail so far and I can only speculate as to why there's such a stark difference between the versions in Spanish, French and that in English. I can't speak Czech, in fact Slavic languages are not my forte and therefore my conclusion is that for want of a better word in English to sum up the act of sleeping with someone without implying sexual intercourse, the professor had to resort to the better-known phrase 'make love', which in reality does not fully express what Tereza feels for Tomas, and what he himself experiences in return.
I would be really grateful to you, readers and fellow bloggers, if you could give me your opinion on this subject. Although I do think in English (it would be a funny old world for me if I was to translate each and every thought of mine) I am not a native and maybe I am wrong in assuming that English cannot provide a fitting equivalent to those two words in Spanish and French (dormir/acostarse con) and (dormir/se coucher) respectively besides the conspicuous 'to sleep'. This cyber-conversation will be continued in future posts.
Thanks, and now, if you all excuse me, it is time for me to go to bed to sleep with my other half. Good night.