Milan Kundera’s novels were banned in his native country of Czechoslovakia, so for many years he was read almost exclusively in translation. His best-known work is probably THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, a tale of love, infidelity and ‘improbable fortuities’ against the backdrop of the Prague Spring. It was written after Kundera went into self-imposed exile in Paris in 1975, and first appeared in 1984 in the French translation by François Kérel. Michael Henry Heim’s English translation followed soon afterwards, but it wasn’t until the following year that it was published in the original Czech – by a Toronto-based publishing house, Sixty-Eight Publishers. This was run by two other émigré writers, Josef Škvorecký and Zdena Salivarová. The book was finally published, and became easily available, in the Czech Republic in 2006; until then most people only knew it from the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. This new edition, which was substantially reworked by the author, became an instant bestseller.
Kundera became a French citizen in 1981. Around this time he began to write in French. On discovering that relay translators were working from the French translations of his earlier books, he proceeded to revise them and eventually declared these his new ‘originals’.
Kundera is famously mistrustful of translators. ‘Alas,’ he has said, ‘our translators betray us… You have no idea how much time and energy I have lost correcting the translations of my books.’ He demands full editorial control, insists on close collaboration with the translator wherever possible – particularly in English and French – and has often changed his mind about whose work he does or does not approve. The vexed history of his relationship with his translators, translations, and translation is detailed in a fascinating study by Michelle Woods, TRANSLATING MILAN KUNDERA – well worth a read.
Also in 1984, Primo Levi’s haunting memoir of life as a Jew in Mussolini’s Italy, THE PERIODIC TABLE, was translated into English by Raymond Rosenthal. A collection of twenty-one autobiographical stories themed by chemical elements, the Royal Institution declared it the best science book ever written, ahead of works by Charles Darwin and James Watson. (For more Primo Levi, see #TA60 1959.)