Gained in translation?


Recently, my brother recommended I read The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem (1965), who’s better known for writing Solaris. The Cyberiad is a collection of stories written about two robotic “constructors”. Most of the characters are robots or intelligent machines of some type and the stories appear to aim at a deeper philosophical message. My brother recommended it because, he said, the ideas in some of the stories resembled those of Douglas Adams. One example is a story called “The Third Sally, or The Dragons of Probability”, which features an improbability generator. Apparently, Adams said that he had not known about it before he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide with its Infinite Improbability Drive.

The book was originally published in Polish. An English translation appeared in 1974. I wondered how accurate the translation is, in terms of the original intent. Some of the English is clearly made up, had Lem used the same words in Polish? Probably not. That got me thinking about translation, which I’ve done a bit of over the years (if the person who got me to translate that German book in 1981 is reading this – your payment is 34 years overdue). You have to make choices at the textual level, and also take into account sociocultural differences between the source and the target audiences. There’s a balance between adapting texts to minimise or disguise cultural differences for the benefit of the target audience and keeping the source text’s cultural distinctiveness—and that makes greater demands on readers.

Every text is a product of a culture and of a particular moment. It might say something that has resonances at one point in time that aren’t particularly meaningful at another. If that’s the case, you got to work to see what of those meanings can be brought over into the contemporary for the new set of readers and what might have to be adjusted and rewritten. You have to understand how the work is put together in terms of its basic meaning, its structure—and to understand the context of the work—not only what’s being said, but what actually isn’t being said, and implied instead.

I think the question of what makes a translation good is interesting. The way it’s mostly done in the English speaking world is to make a translation sound like it was written in English in the first place, anything that sounds like a translation isn’t really acceptable.

A bigger question is whether or not a translated work is the same, and it could be argued that it isn’t. In a way what translators are doing is rewriting; sometimes the rewriting is fairly minimal, sometimes it’s enormous, it can be a complete sort of reshaping and rethinking of the work. But I think there’s no doubt that translation is an art, and a translator is involved in a creative process.


Lem, S. (1965) Cyberiada, Krakow, Wydawnictwo Literackie