The Curmudgeon


Monday, June 07, 2010

A Rare Pleasure

A very long time ago I wrote an essay on the translation into English of Stanislaw Lem's short novel The Futurological Congress, a screwball science-fiction satire which relies for its humour almost entirely on wordplay. It helped me get my degree, but expanded my repertoire of foreign tongues only to the extent that I could discourse learnedly upon aspects of Slavonic verbs while remaining, as I still remain, unable to request the location of the bathroom in any language other than my native one.

Aside from the difficulties of rendering his verbal wit, the translation of Lem's books is notable for a couple of other reasons: first, the usual one that there's too little of it, with almost all his non-fiction, including major speculative works on the philosophy of technology and chance, still inaccessible to English readers; second, that the English translations of two of his books were not translated from the Polish at all. They were translated from other translations: from the German edition in the case of The Invincible, and in the case of his most popular book, Solaris, from the French. Solaris reads smoothly enough, although the author was understandably dissatisfied with the arrangement; but the English version of The Invincible, by one Wendayne Ackerman, is pure butchery. The very first paragraph, which in the original consists of a single sentence, in the translation is broken up into several single-clause sentences, which makes the man who wrote The Cyberiad and His Master's Voice look like a stylistic precursor of Dan Brown. Happily, most English translations of Lem's work are by the likes of Louis Iribarne and Michael Kandel; the latter's version of The Cyberiad, incorporating not only wordplay but rhymed comic verse as well, is outstanding.

All of which serves as a rather oblique introduction to Szczurek's site, whose purpose is to provide "observations about the Polish language and its extraordinary rendition into English", and whose most recent entry consists of some very charitable observations on a book review which I posted here some time ago. The writer even goes so far as to include an image of the book's cover which, considering its rarity, shows remarkable diligence.


  • At 11:47 am , Blogger phil said...

    I wondered where that post was going...

  • At 12:58 pm , Anonymous The Judge said...

    I first discovered Lem via the Mandarin paperbacks which were published in the late 80s, with a variety of translators (Kandel amongst them), and marvelled at the wordplay in, say, The Star Diaries.

    I only have about seven of these, and the lack of a second-hand book shop (of the right sort) within ten miles of here has precluded my adding to the collection. Which is a pity, because Lem was a very good writer indeed.

    I wrote a brief obituary at the time of his death:


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