Sunday 26 October 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

'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' which renders the book a different meaning, but that's another post for the near future). With more time in hands and not a single person queuing up to borrow the novel after me, I took longer to attempt to decipher Kundera's symbolisms and as a consequence I was able to enjoy the nuances in the narrative more.

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.

Copyright 2008


  1. As I see it:
    In Spanish and French: "dormir" (to sleep) with someone doesn't necesarily means sex and in general, it doesn't.

    In Spanish "acostarse con" and in French "se coucher avec" (sleep) with someone, almost always implies sex.

    In English "to sleep with" always means sex.

    Al Godar

  2. Gracias, Al, it's confusing for a non-native, but I agree with you. However, I have seen the French 'se coucher avec quelqu'un' used in a non-sexual context many times. I have yet to see the English equivalent, 'to sleep with' used in the same way, unless we are referring to relatives and/or friends.


    Greetings from London.

  3. English, as you know, is not a clear language. I agree with Al, every reference I've ever heard or read "to sleep with" means sex.

    I must re-read this has been years since I first read it...

  4. Cuando la insoportable levedad del ser se me hizo realmente ‘insoportable’, (1992) entendí que vivía exiliado en mi propio país.

    Kundera fue otro empujón para convencerme que “la vida esta en otra parte” y la patria, quizás adentro de uno mismo.
    Una previa,

    Decía Alfred Jarry que el se acostaba con una mujer (pelirroja) no para hacer el sexo, sino para practicar la ‘ternura’, la cual equiparaba al mero ejercicio de sentirse abrazado por las noches... Una tesis demasiado Cartesiana para un caribeño like me, que reza antes de acostarse cada noche aquello de, si me pides el pescao te lo doy, te lo doy, te lo doy.
    Oye magnifico post, cuban. Un abrazo,

  5. Hermano me gusta el nuevo look. Menos mal, ya no mas blanco, este tono de verded es muy relajante. Pues yo aqui en tu puerta, como siempre con insomnia, y melancolica para ya darle la patada a la lata. Ese libro lo lei hace mucho tiempo. Me siento vieja.

    Hablas tambien Frances?

  6. Hahaha! One tries to be serious and intellectual or as Bola de Nieve would put it, 'intelertuar' and asere, te me bajas con lo del pesca'o.

    Thanks, diva. I agree with you, that's why I threw the question in the open.

    Yoli, speak is not the word I would use for my parlance in French now. I do read in it, though and you will always find me on the Liberation's website keeping my skills up to scratch. It's a long time, though, since I had a long conversation in French and my fluency has suffered as a result.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Je n'ai pas tout compris, je suis à peu près d'accord avec Al godar...

  8. Hi neighbor, i had to laugh when i read your comment but i must say it was too tempting to use that phrase especially on a monday..

    On the subject, i like the subtle nuance between the French verbs "dormir avec quelqu'un" et "coucher avec quelqu'un". Like i explain to my boyfriend : "au début nous dormons et ensuite nous finissons par coucher ensemble.."

    it's a long time i've read Kundera's novel and i read it only in French. Would be interesting indeed to read it in both languages. I'm impressed you did !

    Have a great day..

    ps : i agree with Yoli. your new look is very refreshing. et alors, tu lis Libé ? moi aussi, je le reçois dans mon email tous les matins!

  9. Moi aussi, webradio, moi aussi.

    "au début nous dormons et ensuite nous finissons par coucher ensemble.."

    Precisely, that was my point, castle, absolutely spot on. However, if you were to say that you 'te couches avec ton fiance' I would not necessarily see it as love-making, though your beau might disagree with me ;-)

    Liberation, mais oui, ma chere!

    Greetings from London.

  10. Tu como siempre modesto. Asere me tiene muerta de risa.

  11. Gracias por pasar, yoli. El asere me desperto el huesito de la alegria.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  12. Entre el pescado del Asere y el ¡perrísima! de Garrincha I've made my day.
    Yo sé quién te pudiera contestar esa pregunta. Este compañero, además de haber sido bastante sato, fue profesor de checo en Cuba (y fue a Checoslovaquia y todo, a comprar películas para el ICAIC). Él también era muy intelertuar, lo cual me hace pensar que seguramente leyó a Kundera. El problema es que este ser está insoportablemente muerto muerto. Pero si lo vuelvo a ver en sueños procuraré acordarme de preguntarle.
    Mientras tanto le remito el post a una amiga mía, traductora trilingüe que se crió entre Francia y La Habana y que (por) ahora vive en Miami.


  13. Gracias, Adriana, y si, ese perrisimo de garri le quedo muy "regio" :-)

    Saludos desde Londres.

  14. noooo. ¿y viste lo del pepino? el surrealismo del post pica y se extiende.
    pero volviendo al asunto de este post, tengo un datico para tí, que tiene que ver con Kundera. Léete las dos primeras oraciones del artículo:

    ¡Todo está conectado!


  15. OK OK OK aqui estoy! :) Veo que Martin es MI Adriana (si porque hay otras Adrianas por alli que no me son nada asi que para diferenciar te hago mia, jajaja).
    OK, la dida es entonces entre dormir y coucher avec quelqu'un.

    Coucher avec quelqu'un: always implies sex. J'ai couche avec lui... No hay ninguna duda, es exactamente como el espanol, me acoste con el...
    Igual que en espanol, la cosa esta en el uso de la preposicion, avec, o con.
    Porque se coucher dans le meme lit, par exemple, o, se coucher pres de quelqu'un, (acostarse en la misma cama o acostarse al lado de alguien) quita la nocion de sexo...

    Ahora, me parece que mas bien es :d'abord on couche ensemble puis ensuite -si tout va bien!- nous dormons ensemble :)


    Muy bueno este blog...

    Bye mi cubanito en Londres... :)


  16. OH! Deje la mitad de la duda... Dormir... Efectivamente, dormir avec quelqu'un es mas ambiguo, pero diria que mas bien NO implica sexo. Es decir, estoy de acuerdo con todo el mundo :) O casi... ?

  17. Ah... And we could talk about the difference between sleeping with someone, and making love...
    Not the same...
    I had this conversation with a friend once -male friend- and he didn't see the difference as I see it -men men men..., between having sex or f..., and making love(sorry that was the conversation, he's a married friend and he says he makes no difference and for him f... his wife or making love with her is the same... I hope I'll find a man who does see the difference? :)...).
    I was just thinking about this when I read Kundera's quote.

    Also, instead of sleeping with someone, is there any difference if we say sleeping together? It sounds less sexual to me...

    Is there anyone who speaks checo around here? (I don't even know how to spell it in English and these c and k together it's tricky :) So I opted for a safe Spanglish...)
    That would be perfect to get the original quote and another translation...

    OK now I've got to go!

  18. Bienvenida Valeria! Muchacha, de donde tu saliste? Eres un reguilete de los buenos :-D

    Wow! Yes, I agree with most of your comments, yet, I have used the phrase 'nos acostamos juntos y nos fuimos a dormir' when talking about a friend and there's no sexual shenanigans implied in the phrase. Yet, in English you would say 'We went to bed and slept together'; there's no other word for those two 'dormir' and 'sleep' that we have both in French and Spanish.

    I'm dashing off to your blog now (if you have one). Esto se esta poniendo bueno.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  19. What an interesting analysis of Kundera in translation. I’ve read The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being but only in English. I’m always extra impressed when a novel sounds beautiful and thought provoking in translation. It implies that the ideas transcend language or that the translator is gifted or both. It’s too bad you haven’t had a response.

    I’d guess the slang words, which often cloak the literal meaning of a word, would be the hardest to translate. I’m coming across these issues in writing a novel set in the US and in the UK. It’s hard to know what I need to “translate” as there are different idioms within the same language, but that does afford some humor too. My working title is NOT CRICKET, but I'll have to explain that expression to the Americans. My published author friends in England say it’s really hard to break into the US market. I wonder how much of that is language and cultural context.

  20. I don't know French and I studied Spanish for one semester in college, but I can look for the book in Bulgarian (I've also only read it in English). Let's see how a Slavic language fits into the picture :)

  21. NOT CRICKET, does cricket mean crazy?
    I read the book of Bridget Jones -Bridget Jones' diary- and there is a lot of British slang it's hard to understand sometimes...
    Mi cubanito: I have a blog but, as you saw, it's kind of, abandoned... It was a mail art blog, I haven't been drawing in a while I should go back to it OR use my blog for other pensamientos y reflexiones (tengo muchas jejeje) you're right!

  22. Valeria is Gemini ascendant Gemini, which makes her... four different people in one!
    The blog is (was?) a show room for her mail art project about hummingbirds. She loves those birds. And rightly so! If she wasn't a human being she would be a hummingbird.


  23. love Kundera...
    on the same idea I quote HD Lawrence - Sons and Lovers. "The warmth, the security, the peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing." Greetings!

  24. Thanks to all for your kind comments.

    I loved that quote by DH Lawrence, betty. And that reminds me that I need to give my very own copy of 'Sons and Lovers'a read some time.

    Four people Gemini :-), thanks for your visit. Much appreciated.

    Sarah, my dilemma is that not being able to speak any Slavic language I cannot get to the bottom of the issue which means...

    ... that bloodymirova, your help is more than welcomed!

    Greetings from London.

  25. Hello. I'm not sure how I found my way to your blog but am glad I did. I'm always looking for Cubans trasnplanted to France. But never thought to look for Cubans in London! I am a Cuban-American living in Seattle, WA. Et je suis prof de français à l'Alliance Française de Seattle. ¡No te estoy corriendo una màquina! Enjoyed visting your blog. --Curmudgeon

  26. Hello, www, welcome to my blog, por supuesto que creo lo que me dices, oye, mi'ja, que pa' maquina lo que tenemos desde hace casi cincuenta an-os basta y sobra!

    Saludos desde Londres.

  27. Uyyy... creo que me he enredado toda leyendo esto. A Kundera solo lo he leido en espaniol y frances asi que me imagino que las diferencias son mas bien minimales. La primera vez tambien fue en Cuba con un libro forrado y la segunda (y la vez que me agarro la fiebre Kundera y me los lei todos) fue ya cuando hablaba frances en Suiza. Ahora tanto coucher y se cocher que leo aca que me voy a ir a buscar el libro para leermelo !
    Un saludo

  28. Gracias lena, como mencionas, tanto en francés como en espan-ol, las diferencias son pequen-as.

    Saludos desde Londres.



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