Monday, March 27, 2006

Stanislaw Lem, 1921 - 2006

Via Boing-Boing, I see that Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish SF writer, has died. Reuters has an obit here. To mark his passing, I'm reposting an edited version of this earlier post which included a snippet of one of his works.

Rest in peace.


This is a long-time favorite of mine. It's from Stanislaw Lem's novel The Cyberiad, translated by Michael Kandel (pp. 50 - 51 of the Harcourt Brace paperback). In it, the robot inventor Klapaucius comes up with an assignment for his competitor Turl's new electronic bard...

The Assignment:

"Have it compose a poem -- a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!"

The Solution:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

Well, what do you say to that?

It's a marvelous poem, I think -- in itself, and particularly given the stipulations. But of course it is also an astonishing piece of translation: it is hard to believe it wasn't written in English. (Douglas Hofstadter talks about this aspect of Kandel's translations, though not that I recall in relation to this particular poem, in his delightful book about translation, Le Ton beau de Marot.) So the question becomes: what's the Polish look like? Fortunately, the Polish version of Lem's Cyberiada is online -- it appears in its entirety. At any rate, it gives us:

The Assignment in Polish:

Niech ułoży wiersz o cyberotyce! - rzekł nagle, rozjaśniony. - Żeby tam było najwyżej sześć linijek, a w nich o miłości i o zdradzie, o muzyce, o Murzynach, o wyższych sferach, o nieszczęściu, o kazirodztwie, do rymu i żeby wszystkie słowa były tylko na literę C!!

The Solution in Polish:

Cyprian cyberotoman, cynik, ceniąc czule
Czarnej córy cesarskiej cud ciemnego ciała,
Ciągle cytrą czarował. Czerwieniała cała,
Cicha, co dzień czekała, cierpiała, czuwała...
...Cyprian ciotkę całuje, cisnąwszy czarnulę!!

As for how literal a translation this is, it turns out that Michael Kandel himself has answered this question. Greg Keogh at the Nancy Street Network has a Stanislaw Lem page on which he describes emailing this question to Kandel. Kandel provided the following literal gloss on the Polish:

Cyprian the cyber sex fiend and a cynic, appreciating tenderly the miracle of the dark body of the Negro daughter of Caesar, constantly wove charms with a zither. She blushed all over, silent, waiting every day, suffering, watching ... Cyprian kisses her aunt, have abandoned the black beauty!

(Of course the paradigms given the machine are quite different.)
Unfortunately, Kandel didn't give a literal gloss on the Polish paradigms (the "assignment" as I've called it). But this gives a sense of what the original is like -- and hence what Kandel was up against.

I still think "Seduced, shaggy Sampson snored..." is a terrific little poem. The question is: given that it isn't really a translation of Lem's poem (but rather an English equivalent of it), but one that occurs in a translation of Lem's novel and wasn't offered for independent publication -- who should be credited as the author of the poem? Lem? Kandel? Lem as translated by Kandel? Both in collaboration?

This is, however, an extreme case: the book as a whole is, quite clearly, a translation. And it's brilliant. For a taste of it in English, check out the opening of The Cyberiad, "How the World Was Saved", which is available (in English) on Lem's web site.

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