Mohammad and Kundera: On the Power of Humor and the Troubles of Translation

02/09/2012 10:36 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012
  • David Kersh Writes about Culture, Parenting and Politics

A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Firoozeh Dumas, the author of Funny in Farsi, beautifully and chillingly depicts her interactions with Mohammad, her Farsi translator, and his imprisonment four weeks ago by the Iranian government for doing nothing other than translating her funny book.

Soon after I finished the article, I recalled a scene from Milan Kundera's novel, The Joke: one of the characters, Ludvik, a popular and witty student who is a supporter of the Party, sends a postcard to a girl in his class during summer vacation. Since he thinks the girl is too serious he writes, jokingly: "Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotksy!" The joke does not go over well and he finds himself expelled from the Party and sent to working the mines with the other subversives. Whereas Ludvik ends up surviving the work camps and becomes a successful scientist, Mohammad's fate, as per Ms. Dumas' poignant piece, looks rather bleak: "Mohammad reminds me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince. His gentle soul shines through. He is not somebody who will survive an Iranian prison."

Given the geographic and temporal distances between Ludvik and Mohammad, and the different endings of their stories, the fictional and the real come together to illustrate how repressive regimes just can't deal with the destabilizing force of humor and seek to crack down on it to make it go away.

Kundera, who initially wrote in Czech and then in French, has had many things to say over the years about the act of translation and has been extremely sensitive to its complications; like laughter and forgetting, it is a recurring theme in his books. In The Art of the Novel, for example, he explains how he left a publisher because he tried to change his semicolons to periods; in Testaments Betrayed, he took one sentence from Kafka and translated it three or four times to illustrate the foibles of translators. And, I believe, there are five versions of The Joke, because of his concerns about prior translators' failure to adequately capture his style.

In her piece, Ms. Dumas provides her own examples of the problems that arise when you are trying to translate the comic nuances of topical references from one culture to another (i.e. the association of Shake n' Bake with housewives shaking drumsticks in a bag; or the political problems of rendering "the bearded fellow coming down the chimney" in a Christmas story in Farsi).

Undoubtedly, translation is a tricky business; but what is sadly clear, though, is how the need to do away with humor translates so seamlessly and all too well, across time and cultures, from the fictional Czech republic of The Joke to a very real intolerant and dangerous Iran.

I would like to believe maybe there is a silver lining somewhere here: though I know it is rather naive on my part, our recognition that humor has a destabilizing and life-enriching power ought to propel us to pressure our American and Israeli leaders who are debating bombing Iran in the not so distant future to pool together our vast creative resources and work alongside dissident Iranians to develop an alternate comic strategy to the military one. Per a recent NPR story, Tel Aviv seems a happening place these days for budding sit-com writers. Who knows? such an alternate comic strategy might help prevent the upcoming regional conflagration from taking place.

In the meantime, Mohammad, the gentle Farsi translator, remains in prison and no one has heard from him. And just because he translated a funny book.