According to this post at Desbladet (and if you can’t trust Desbladet, what Angloscandiwegian prinsessor-obsessed scandal sheet can you trust?), Stanislaw Lem’s novels have been translated into English pretty much exclusively via French versions. Furthermore, Faber & Faber likes it that way:

Solaris indeed has never been translated directly into English and Mr Lem is dissatisfied with the current translation. Whether this state of affairs will change remains an open question. The following quote from a letter from the Managing Director of the Publishing House Faber and Faber serves as an explanation: “With regard to Solaris, I am afraid that we would not currently be willing either to publish a new translation or to license one.”

Now, I am not a fan of Lem’s (and no, I don’t think I’d be a fan even if he were translated direct from the Polish—I’m allergic to that variety of heavy-handed, supercilious irony, and I dislike even more his contempt for all other science fiction writers), but this is ridiculous. I could understand, sort of, translating from the French if the original were in, say, Abkhaz, but can it possibly be that hard to find translators from Polish?


  1. Sounds like an internal turf war at FnF, possibly spearheaded by a clueless management type.

  2. Michael Farris says

    Poland traditionally uses the Moscow system of translation (translators concentrate on one language and are expected to translate into Polish and from Polish into their second language). Sometimes natives are brought in to clean up preliminary drafts (but aren’t always welcome and their advice is often not followed).
    There are native English speakers who are qualified to translate from Polish (me, for example) but we haven’t been around long enough to get the right kind of contacts for the high profile jobs.
    I’ve never read any Lem (in any language) but I have a compy of Eden in Polish which I just haven’t gotten around to yet (my scifi reading comes in ireegular jags). But I understand he’s not a very agreeable person.

  3. I’ve read most of Lem’s books and I think Solaris is his only novel that was translated from French instead of from Polish. I circumvented the problem by just reading it in French, but I’ve most of the rest of his work in English, and I would never buy a translation of a translation if I could avoid it.

  4. LH,
    You don’t like Lem? I have to say, I don’t give a rat’s ehm, body part about his opinions of other SF writers, but his fiction is a great enjoyment for me. Statistical SF in particular (The Chain of Chance [Katar]), I reread it 2 weeks ago and it stil works.
    I just googled Lem bibliography – and you’re (or Des) right: most of the books are translated to English from French edition (Harcourt), which is amazing. Some of the SF writers translated to Russian I actually find better read than in original (Bradbery, f.ex.), but Lem is not one of them.
    If you don’t like his SF, have you ever tried Highcastle: A Remembrance (Wysoki zamek), the book about his childhood in L’vov btwn 2 wars? A delight, but may be only for us, expats…

  5. Well, I’ll read Highcastle if I can find it (maybe in French?), then if I like it I’ll give the sf another try.

  6. Never mind Lem specifically, if you don’t like “his contempt for all other science fiction writers”, how do you really feel about Theodore Sturgeon?

  7. Semantic: On Sturgeon…90% crap?

  8. In the first place, anybody who could write like Sturgeon gets a free pass from me to feel however the hell he wants. But this is the first I’ve heard about his not liking other writers; what do you base this on? He didn’t seem standoffish at the sf convention I went to. And there’s nothing about such feelings in this intriguing and saddening online essay. He certainly doesn’t seem to have worshipped himself:
    “I’m not a writer,” he told Judith Merril in 1947. “A writer is someone who has to write. The only reason I write is because it’s the only way I can justify all the other things I didn’t do.”
    And he doesn’t seem to have been really close to anyone:
    “You ask me who to speak to; well, Wina makes the point that I don’t have any friends. I know lots and lots of people, and lots of people know me — lots of people feel they are my friends, and although I welcome them, when I see them, I still don’t feel … I don’t seek anyone out. When people come to me, that’s fine. But I really don’t reach out to anybody.”
    Did he dis the entire confraternity of sf writers in print (as Lem has done)?

  9. No, I really only had the “90% crap” line in mind. I can’t recall ever seeing anything out of him quite like Lem’s statements, but taken literally (not that I’m sure Sturgeon meant it to be), it’s not a much rosier view of everyone else.

  10. I like what I’ve read by Lem a lot and I’ve read Solaris in Polish, although I understand the English version (via French) is pretty hideous (Harey becomes “Rheya” for some unfathomable reason). I tend to avoid reading what writers say about other writers nowadays (but, hey, at least he’s not a literary critic). I’d be interested to know what changes the Soviet censors forced Tarkovsky to make to the script of Solaris (IIRC I don’t think Lem liked the finished film, claiming Tarkovsky had “turned it into Dostoyevsky”).

  11. No, I really only had the “90% crap” line in mind.
    Ah, I see. Well, that’s hardly evidence for his feelings about other writers, since it refers to everything. Furthermore, it’s true.
    I don’t think Lem liked the finished film, claiming Tarkovsky had “turned it into Dostoyevsky”
    And let me guess, he considered Dostoyevsky far inferior to Lem, eh?
    *sharpens knives*

  12. I think the relevant passage is here (scroll down, Lem’s comments are below Tarkovsky’s). There’s nothing in this excerpt to suggest that he considers himself superior to Dostoyevsky; admittedly, nothing to suggest otherwise, either. All he says on the matter is “… as I told Tarkovsky during one of our quarrels – he didn’t make Solaris at all, he made Crime and Punishment.”
    There’s a bit about translating Lem in Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, incidentally.

  13. scarabaeus stercus says

    Nutin changes: Nemo umquam neque poeta neque orator fuit, qui quemquam meliorem quam se arbitrater.
    it is said that Ciero “rit it” , epistulae ad Atticum, xiv, 20, 3
    in saxon: no Orator{speechwriter} or Poet ever thought anybody was cleverer than he.

  14. When I saw Solaris at a theater in San Francisco several years back, they showed the reels out of order. As far as I could tell, no one else noticed – everyone I was with thought the movie was supposed to be that confusing; even the projectionist hadn’t noticed, and the people who overheard me telling him what happened were all surprised. (I had seen the film before.)
    If I recall correctly the continuity went like this: shortly after the main character arrives on the space station, there is an abrupt cut to a female character who has not been introduced being shoved into a space capsule and jettisoned…

  15. ben wolfson says

    Lem had good things to say about Philip K. Dick.
    According to Matt McIrvin’s Lem page at least a few of his work has been translated directly from Polish: The Futurological Congress, His Master’s Voice (the only one I’ve read; I loved it), Highcastle, Hospital of the Transfiguration, Fiasco, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Mortal Engines, A Perfect Vacuum, and The Star Diaries.

  16. aldiboronti says

    Maybe he’s better in Polish. In English I find him unengaging. Keats said somewhere that he didn’t like poems that ‘had a palpable design upon the reader’. That’s the feeling I get with Lem’s works.

  17. I suspect the intermediate language in many of the cases of intermediation was German (I didn’t say it was French in general) – has a lot more Lem than any of the other flavours.
    Which is another thing – the amount of stuff of his that hasn’t been Englished at all is non-trivial. (Of course, the simplest solution to that is to learn German.)

  18. Michael Farris says

    “(Of course, the simplest solution to that is to learn German.)”
    Or Polish! It’s really not that hard, no, seriously, it’s not. Stop laughing, damn it!

  19. As far as I remember from the family biography book by Tarkovsky’s sister Marina (Shards of Mirror) – btw, LH has a post related to this book in archives – the changes were made not so much by censors but by Tarkovsky himself. Same happened to br. Strughatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic (adapted for Stalker), and they were not that pleased with the fact either.
    Other quotes in Tim May link above confirm that, too – as well as expand on the differences as stated by Lem and Tarkovsky.
    As far as I could get from Marina’s book, Tarkovsky was not a dissident type; even though he had a number of aborted projects due to the stinking policies of Soviet Cinematographers Union. Considering the fate of other directors, he was quite lucky and I would even risk saying – he was sort of in mainstream (no rotten tomatoes, please) and the whole story with him staying in Italy (according to Marina) is a deliberate plot by KGB and Party authorities; he was writing letters to his father, f.ex. knowing they will be perlustrated proclaming his love to the Motherland and his wish to come back as soon as he’ll be permitted.

  20. Oh, sorry- my 1st paragragh got erased- that was in response to J.Cassian, namely:
    …I’d be interested to know what changes the Soviet censors forced Tarkovsky to make to the script of Solaris …

  21. Here‘s the post Tatyana refers to, and it’s a good ‘un.

  22. Thanks for the info.

  23. Cory Doctorow reported the other day that a “fan translation” of one of his books into Russian is being released chapter by chapter. Perhaps a punishment fitting Faber & Faber’s crime would be the appearance online of an unauthorized fan translation of Solaris directly into English.
    And if one worries about the quality of fan translations, then heck, surely there are enough SF fans with a soft spot in their hearts for IP piracy that one could pass the hat and fund an (anonymous) professional-grade translation — especially if it was done in installments., anyone?

  24. That’s an idea with much wider scope. It’s high time, for instance, that somebody did a better translation of Cortázar’s Rayuela than the wretched Gregory Rabassa version that’s the only one available (or likely to be, legally).

  25. Solaris seems to be the only one to be translated from French – Gombrowicz has suffered much more from the 2nd hand translating stuff.
    ‘Converstaions with Stanislaw Lem’. is good.

  26. For those of you who can read Spanish, Minotauro has just (Jan. 2004) re-issued Solaris, in a first-hand translation by Matilde Horne y Francisco Abelenda. I remembered his “Fábulas de Robots” (Bruguera, tr. Jadwiga Mauricio) as so sarcasatic as to sound silly; I have to admit that I liked Solaris allright, but not as much as “Fiebre del Heno” (which I read a looong time ago).
    And as for Cortázar, I’d rather see other Argentinian writers translated before his Rayuela. Pauls, for instance, whose “El pasado” is masterful (as it is exasperating). Or Marcelo Cohen.

  27. And let me guess, he considered Dostoyevsky far inferior to Lem, eh?
    I think he’s referring to Tarkovski’s predilection for mysticism, specifically of the Christian variety.

  28. Rayuela distributed over the ‘net, anyone?

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