I’d like to offer fervent thanks to commenter MOCKBA, who in this thread wrote that the Strugatskys‘ 1962 Попытка к бегству (Escape Attempt; the translation is apparently hard to come by) “is kind of developing the ground for their later, deeper works. The short novel, deeply tragic as it is, has many embedded funny linguistic, language-reconstruction, and machine-translation sorts of cross-cultural blunders.” I recently finished it, and it astonished me—there was very, very little American sf in 1962 that even attempted to be as adult as the Strugatskys, who (apparently effortlessly) combined the tropes of sf with the style and themes of what I suppose we must call “real literature” (though, as a proud sf fan, I say it with slightly gritted teeth). The first thing that surprised me was how much it reminded me of Aksyonov, both in its colloquial style and in its lighthearted young characters. But then an older and somewhat mysterious character shows up, and they all go off to an unknown planet, and all hell breaks loose (and I am putting more emphasis on “hell” that is usual for that phrase). It’s a scarifying tale with deep moral resonance (reminiscent of, say, Blish‘s Case of Conscience) but told in a manner completely free of the heaviness one would expect from such a story. I’m very much looking forward to working my way through the rest of their output (Sashura has given me some useful recommendations).

Unrelated, but I have to recommend a brief, moving memoir by Patti Smith in the latest New Yorker; I suspect I’m not the only one who will recognize themselves in her desperate childhood longing for a book.


  1. Well, shoot. That Patti Smith piece made me cry.

  2. Any chance of blogging some specific examples of linguistic/language-reconstruction/machine-translation gags, for those of us who can’t speak Russian or afford a $60 paperback?

  3. slawkenbergius says

    I really like Град обреченный, if you can get your hands on a copy (you may find it to be a little too capital-D Deep for your tastes, though). The last novella of the Kammerer cycle, Волны гасят ветер, is amazingly haunting, like a lot of their best work. It’s really worth a look.

  4. Thanks, slawk, I’ll add both to my list! (And yeah, Dale, it choked me up too.)

  5. Don’t grit your teeth: quality is quality, and real literature is real literature, whether it’s sf or anything else. And if we don’t try to uphold literary standards, who will?

  6. Glad you liked it, language! Of course it’s been decades since I read it last time, and as it turns out, mot all of the funnier moments I associated with this piece are actually there. Some are. Like Saul’s constant trouble with the honorific “Great and Mighty Cliff”. Or his bemusement with the supposedly-trembling “банный лист”.
    [possible spoiler alert but… ]
    You’ve heard that the character of a Nazi prisoner of the printed version used to be, at a first, a Gulag prisoner? Edited to make the novel publish-able? Does anybody know if the original version survived?

  7. Yes, Sashura sent me this Wikipedia link, which says: “В первоначальной редакции повести Саул бежал не из фашистского, а из советского лагеря. Однако в этом виде текст не прошёл издательской внутренней цензуры. Авторы изменили акценты, чтобы сделать произведение цензурно проходным, добавили финал — гибель Савела Репнина при нападении на группу немцев около концентрационного лагеря.”

  8. I second slawk’s recommendation of Волны гасят ветер.
    And speaking of real literature, what about fantasy? Now that Sapkowski’s Blood of Elves is available in English, I’d love to hear what you fine folks think of it.

  9. Thanks for the tip bulbul, but since this is Languagehat probably a fair number of us would prefer to read Sapkowski in Polish. Since I am actually in Lodz today I may try to pick up a copy tomorrow, seems fitting.

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    By the way, for those who haven’t had occasion to check it out (and esp. those who are naturally suspicious of award-winning memoirs by people famous for accomplishment in fields other than prose writing), the Patti Smith memoir _Just Kids_ is much better than one might have supposed. In particular, the prose style is quite clear and lucid, which was something of a surprise to this reader who spent his high school years reading and rereading the more delerious style of the prose-poems in her old paperback anthology _Babel_. I mean, delerious in kind of a glorious way, but far from lucid and not what you would want to read too many pages of at a sitting.

  11. vanya,
    by all means, do go ahead, I was merely thinking of those unfortunate sould who cannot yet read Polish. Get the omnibus edition.
    BTW, you might want to start with the short stories. I see they are available for Kindle.

  12. moving memoir by Patti Smith
    a box of tissues wasn’t enough, thanks for posting this link!

  13. tropes of sf with the style and themes of what I suppose we must call “real literature”
    That’s probably why their pull is so strong.
    In the Max Kammerer trilogy I liked best the first novel, The Inhabited Island, with its unbridled optimism. In English it is Prisooners of Power, because of the untranslatable Russian pun – обитаемый – inhabited vs необитаемый (остров)- desert (island).

  14. Sashura, interesting, I never realized that the pun of the Inhabited Island would be so hard to translate into English. A web search turns up a zillion “uninhabited islands” along with the “desert islands”; and a smattering of “inhabited islands” too.
    I always thought this first (and also my fav) of Kammerer novels is so intensely visual, it just begs to be turned into a movie. But the recent movie is disappointing IMVHO (note however that it is entitled “Inhabited Island” in English, unlike the book).
    BTW, as often with Strugatskys, the Island also used a few “mistranslation jokes”, starting from main character’s own name which makes the prisoners roll with laughter.

  15. yes, I too thought Fedor Bondarchuk’s film (it’s out on DVD) is disappointing.
    The difficulty in the pun is that a ‘desert island’ invokes desolation, being stranded, while ‘uninhabited’ or ‘inhabited’ is simply a geographical note, though Crusoe’s original title was just that – ‘un-inhabited island’. Max is stranded like Crusoe, except that his island is a planet. In Russian desert island is ‘neobitayemy ostrov’, so the title ‘Obitayemy ostrov’ (inhabited, non-desert) is immediately recognisable as the opposite of ‘desert island’, practically as an oxymoron, while the English ‘inhabited island’, I think, is not.

  16. JW Brewer:
    Just Kids came out in Russian a few months ago. I only read a few passages which looked good.

  17. I’m currently reading Astafyev’s Перевал, in which the protagonist, a young boy, runs away from home to live on an island in the nearby river (a tributary of the Enisei); the only book he has read is Robinson Crusoe, and when he falls in with a group of rafters (lumbermen managing the logs sent downriver), they immediately compare him to Crusoe.
    the English ‘inhabited island’, I think, is not.
    It is not.

  18. Undeserted Island would be recognisable if a little laboured, I’d do a better job for money.

  19. I am glad Strugatskys are being read and translated. I recently had a chance to re-read “Inhabited Island” and some other novels together with my 10-year-old and enjoyed it again after so many years. The recent film by Bondarchuk was disappointing though.
    My all-time favourite by Strugatsky used to be “A Billion Years to the End of the World” (“За миллиард лет до конца света”); this and some novels by Stanislaw Lem were the SF books I have spent a lot of time re-reading back then.

  20. For collectors of the famous Russian shifting stress: Robinson reads as Robinzón, with the stress on the secon o, and Crusoe is Krouzó, like Inspector Clouseau.

  21. I recently saw Крузо pronounced KRU-zo, with initial stress, on a YouTube clip, I believe the 1969 episode of “Исторические хроники.”

  22. Crusoe is Krouzó, like Inspector Clouseau
    Except in Britain, where Clouseau is like Crusoe.

  23. Крузо pronounced KRU-zo,
    You are right, my mistake!
    Don’t know why I said it’s on ZO, perhaps because it’s usually accentuated, not ‘ah-ed’ as in most Muscovite non-stressed ‘o-s’.
    AJP – thanks, too.

  24. marie-lucie says

    in Britain, where Clouseau is like Crusoe
    Conversely, in France Crusoe is written Crusoé and pronounced with three syllables “cru-zo-é” (same with other English words ending in oe (eg DeFoé, canoé, etc).

  25. marie-lucie says

    Sorry, canoe is “canoë” but still pronounced the same. In Canada the equivalent word is the French “canot” which in France means ‘dinghy’.

  26. Interesting, m-l. I didn’t know that.

  27. ah, that – French influence – probably explains why old Russian translations of Crusoe transliterated him as Крузоэ and Defoe as Дефоэ (modern: Крузо, Дефо).

  28. Yes, that’s definitely the case. In his magnificent notes to Eugene Onegin (which accompany his appalling translation), Nabokov hammers home the point that early nineteenth-century Russia saw the outside world through French lenses; Pushkin read all the English authors in French translations (usually appalling in a different way).

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