From Solaris to the Zone

James Morrow is a Nebula and World Fantasy Award winning author. His writing includes, among many others, The Philosopher’s Apprentice and Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

For the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, the world is a spiritual kindergarten. For the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the world is that which is the case. For the majority of science fiction writers, however, the phenomenon in question is first and foremost a planet. This materialist understanding of the world may account in part for the SF genre’s increasingly internationalist character: we’re all adrift on a circumscribed sphere called Earth—now let’s see what fictive thought-experiments might help us to make sense of our situation.

Through a spasm of serendipity whose mechanism I cannot begin to fathom, two inarguable masterpieces of Eastern European science fiction—Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky—have recently been accorded fresh translations. In this posting I would like to briefly consider the virtues of these new versions, then direct your attention to other valuable foreign-language SF works lately made accessible to North American and United Kingdom readers.

First, the Lem. As most Locus readers know, for the past forty-two years anglophone Solaris aficionados have had to content themselves with an English translation of a French translation of Lem’s novel. Despite the great skill that Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox obviously brought to their project, I can’t help assuming that it missed certain linguistic subtleties of the original—and so I am happy to report that last year the good folks at Audible.Com took a great leap beyond the venerable Harcourt trade paperback, commissioning Bill Johnston to revisit Lem’s Polish text and render it anew. The results of this effort are now available in both audio and e-book formats.

A few swatches will suffice to convey the measure of Johnston’s achievement. Chapter Two, “The Solarists,” presents various theories concerning the cryptic planet’s essential nature. Kilmartin and Cox give us the following English version of the final sentences of paragraph forty-two:

For some time, there was a widely held notion (zealously fostered by the daily press) to the effect that the “thinking ocean” of Solaris was a gigantic brain, prodigiously well-developed and several million years in advance of our own civilization, a sort of “cosmic yogi,” a sage, a symbol of omniscience, which had long ago understood the vanity of all action and for this reason had retreated into an unbreakable silence. This notion was incorrect, for the living ocean was active … Moreover, any scientist who devotes himself to the study of Solariana has the indelible impression that he can discern fragments of an intelligent structure, perhaps endowed with genius, haphazardly mingled with outlandish phenomena, apparently the product of an unhinged mind. Thus was born the “autistic ocean” as opposed to the “ocean-yogi.”

In Johnston’s translation, these sentences read as follows.

For some time one popular view, eagerly disseminated by the press, was that the thinking ocean covering the whole of Solaris was a gigantic brain more advanced by millions of years than our own civilization, that it was some kind of “cosmic yogi,” a sage, omniscience incarnate, which had long ago grasped the futility of all action and for this reason was maintaining a categorical silence towards us. This was simply untrue, because the living ocean certainly does act … Since, on the other hand, anyone plunging stubbornly into all this literature cannot resist the impression that though he encounters fragments of perhaps brilliant intellectual constructions, these fragments are mixed indiscriminately with the products of utter foolishness bordering on insanity, as an antithesis to the concept of the “oceanic yogi” there arose the idea of the “oceanic idiot.”

Although I don’t speak Polish, my ear hears something eminently Lemian in Johnston’s choices: the robust “omniscience incarnate” as opposed to the flabbier “symbol of omniscience”; the lapidary “futility of all action” rather than the vaguer “vanity of all action”; the chilling “categorical silence” versus the more technical “unbreakable silence”—and so on. My point is not to demean Kilmartin and Cox, whose classic rendering of Solaris boasts extraordinary lucidly. But I do want to celebrate the advent of a translation that apparently captures more of Lem’s unique and sardonic voice.

In the case of Roadside Picnic, the improvements wrought by Olena Bormashenko over Antonina W. Bouis’s earlier version lie more in the realm of artistic integrity than verbal felicity. Upon submitting their manuscript for publication, the Strugatsky brothers inevitably endured censorship from their Soviet editors, who confronted the authors with not only “Comments Concerning the Immoral Behavior of the Heroes” but also “Comments about Vulgarisms and Slang Expressions.” In both these domains—immorality and vulgarisms—I can best communicate Bormashenko’s accomplishment by adducing Michael Andre-Driussi’s “Notes on the New Translation of Roadside Picnic,” his splendid article that appeared in the June 2012 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

In the matter of “immorality,” Andre-Driussi cites this moment from the older Bouis translation, in which the protagonist, Redrick “Red” Schuhart, ruminates on a pleasure-seeking young woman named Dina.

He was repelled by the thought and maybe that’s why he started thinking about Arthur’s sister. He just could not fathom it: how such a fantastic-looking woman could actually be a plastic fake, a dummy. It was like the buttons on his mother’s blouse—they were amber, he remembered, semitransparent and golden. He just wanted to shove them in his mouth and suck on them, and every time he was disappointed terribly, and every time he forgot about the disappointment.

Andre-Driussi then gives us Bormashenko’s rendering of the unbowdlerized text.

Thinking about it was repellent, and maybe that was why he starting thinking about Arthur’s sister, about how he’d slept with this Dina—slept with her sober and slept with her drunk, and how every single time it’d been a disappointment. It was beyond belief; such a luscious broad, you’d think she was made for loving, but in actual fact she was nothing but an empty shell, a fraud, an inanimate doll instead of a woman. It reminded him of the buttons on his mother’s jacket.

Concerning “vulgarity,” Andre-Driussi reprints this moment from the Bouis translation of the censored manuscript.

Redrick got up, went behind the ore car, sat on the embankment, and watched as the green wash dimmed and quickly turned to pink.

Andre-Driussi subsequently reprints Bormashenko’s translation, keyed to the original—and earthier—manuscript of the novel.

Redrick got up and, unbuckling his belt, said, “Aren’t you going to relieve yourself? Keep in mind, we might not have another chance.”

He walked behind the railcar, squatted on the embankment, and, grunting, watched as the green glow quickly faded.

Beyond the new renderings of Solaris and Roadside Picnic, I would like to point Locus Online readers toward several other indispensable translations. For my money, the two finest European writers working today in the medium of the SF short story are the French author Jean-Claude Dunyach and the Serbian author Zoran Zivkovic. If I ran the universe, all of Dunyach’s fiction would be available in English translation, but at the moment we must settle for two sterling collections, The Night Orchid: Conan Doyle in Toulouse and The Thieves of Silence. Meanwhile, much of Zivkovic’s oeuvre is available in handsome editions from Aio, including the sublime Seven Touches of Music.

Predictably enough, I shall conclude this entry by flogging The SFWA European Hall of Fame, which I edited several years ago in collaboration with my wife. This anthology comprises sixteen stories translated specifically for the volume, each text emerging from a protracted three-way internet conversation among the author, the translator, and the editors. In my opinion you cannot consider yourself a well-rounded student of time-travel stories unless you have read “A Blue and Cloudless Sky” by Bernhard Ribbeck, and your education in over-the-top dystopian fiction is indubitably incomplete without Johanna Sinisalo’s “Baby Doll,” Valerio Evangelisti’s “Sepultura,” and Lucian Merisca’s “Some Earthlings’ Adventures in Outrerria.”

3 thoughts on “From Solaris to the Zone

  • July 5, 2012 at 1:01 am

    Glad to see a mention of Zoran Zivkovic, one of my favorites. Lovely subtle fantasy. Beyond the Aio editions, Britain’s PS Publishing has published ebooks of virtually all of his books. (available from their website, or from Amazon).

  • July 11, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Great analysis – I am native speaker of Polish and I can tell you right away that the new translation is very, very good. Two things that you notice right away when comparing the old translation with the original:
    1. Although there is passive voice in the Polish language it is used as little as possible. Sometimes when translating into English it needs to be changed into passive to sound natural. But to tranalate “ocean dziala” jako “the ocean was active” does not make sense. It is all about activity. Why the passive voice? “The ocean does act” seems to me much better.
    2. Lem mixes scientific language with extremely colloquial phrases. The first translators missed that completely. A good example is “outlandish phenomena”. The phrase Lem uses here is “gluptactwo”, a half made-up word that doesn’t have a good equivalent in English, but its much closer to something like “dumbass stupid”. The second translation has utter foolishness” and it is much better. The first translation has an “autistic ocean”, while the ocean is a retard or a moron. “Oceanic idiot” is fine (and it doesn’t offend anyone)

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