Masked in Translation

If only I had time to read every book or article recommended, emailed or handed to me—this week though I read them all, watched a film and ordered four books. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel was one such book placed into my hands this week—the invitation was to read essay number 6 entitled “Sixty-three words.” This particular essay was recommended as an example of how each one of us has a lexicon of words that are unique to us—or at least unique to the way we think about them and use them. That idea intrigued me, in light of a word that we use so often in Kabbalah study—and which has very specific meaning to me—the word is “mask.”


This coming weekend is the holiday of Purim—a time to put on masks and costumes. Donning a guise—disguising—is an act of both revealing and concealing at the same time. Who of our self (selves) are we showing and hiding? To add to the merriment and masquerade, Purim is also an occasion to alter our consciousness with the aid of intoxicants—wine is prescribed as that which will tip us into a state of revealing that which is hidden—a ploy that Esther (her name means hidden) the queen deftly used to stage her own unmasking—revealing her hidden identity in order to save her people.


Does the mask help us be who we “are” or is it a ploy to help us realize who we “are not”?


Back to Kundera and his 63 words—the premise of his essay is his frustration with translators not getting what he means (in Czech) by words that he uses repeatedly. He wants to set the record straight. His essay is an attempt to set the record straight (once and for all) on what he intends when using such words such as beauty, being and betrayal. The essay is kindly translated from the French translation into English by Linda Asher. I am being funny.


Entry 3 (of the 63 words) in alphabetic order is entitled: BEING.


Many friends advised me against the title, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Couldn’t I at least cut out the word “being”? This word makes everyone uncomfortable. When they come across it, translators tend to substitute more modest expressions: “existence,” “life’” “condition”…There was a Czech translator who decided to update Shakespeare: “To live or not live…” But it’s precisely in that famous soliloquy that the difference between living and being is made clear; if after death we go on dreaming, if after death there still is something, then death (nonlife) does not free us of the horror of being. Hamlet raises the question of being, not of life. The horror of being: “Death has two faces. One is nonbeing; the other is the terrifying material being of the corpse.”


What then shall we choose? This is the question Kundera raises at the start of his uncomfortable novel. Do we choose weight or lightness? Perhaps it depends on how you translate death and being. And mask? That too requires translation. Mask that reveals and conceals—much like death and being.


1 Comment

Corinne · February 20, 2013 at 1:49 pm


I am thrilled at what you got out of this essay by Kundera. Each time I read it, I find another word that I connect to. In light of kabbalah, “being” certainly resonates for all of us.

We could all begin to make that list of important words. It’s inside us already.
Thanks for the commentary.


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