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One Encounter: On Reading Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, translated from the French

In this feature different writers discuss the personal side of encountering works of art

I should start by admitting I am a snob about languages. I love being able to translate foreign words and sentences that I come across in books, and even more I love pretending to know something about linguistics. Nothing annoys real linguists like poorly informed amateurs.

Snob though I may be, the majority of world literature I’ve read has been in translation. I think this is true even for most educated people, at least educated Americans. Of the three languages I studied, I never got far enough in Chinese to approach the classics, and the number of great books I’ve read in German and French is embarrassingly small. I say embarrassing because academics usually claim a book can only be fully absorbed in the original language. For a laugh, try debating the value of translations with a comp lit major sometime. To these people, original texts are like dollars in glasnost-era Russia—the only thing worth accepting.

Monolingual guilt doesn’t stop translations from showing up on lists of both personal favorites and all-time bests: c.f. the popularity of Madame Bovary and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Clearly most people aren’t waiting years to become fluent in the language of their favorite novel. Maybe everyone concedes the superiority of the originals to the comp lit majors and approaches translated novels with appropriately lowered expectations. Viewing a translation as the knockoff of the Prada original text is a practical attitude; it avoids undue lost sleep over whether the leitmotif one so astutely tracked throughout The Master and Margarita might just be an artifact of the translation process.

 
But this can’t account for the misfortune of really enjoying a sentence in a book that just happens to be translated. This has been happening to me a lot recently. (If I were translating this essay, would I use the word happen twice, or would I go for the elegant variation—occur, take place, ensue?)

Take Solaris, a Polish science fiction novel written in 1961 by Stanislaw Lem, who was at one time the most popular science fiction author not writing in English. I was inspired to read Solaris not by the acclaimed Russian film adaptation (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1971) or its less-praised American remake (Steven Soderbergh, 2002), but because of a short essay by Lem that I was assigned in a journalism class and which struck me as a work of pure genius.

The book concerns a psychologist named Kris Kelvin whose spaceship lands on a research base orbiting the planet Solaris. He finds the station in disarray and begins seeing people from his and others’ pasts. They are not hallucinations but psychic projections produced by the living organism of the planet itself. Solaris has been widely praised as a thoughtful meditation on human consciousness. It’s also quite the page-turner, what a friend of mind would call a “two-day muncher.” I would never call it that myself. My only qualm was that Solaris reminded me a little too much of Michael Crichton’s less thought provoking Sphere. But it’s hardly Stanislaw’s fault that a non-practicing Boston doctor liked some of his ideas, is it?

What I really loved about Solaris was the meticulous diction. I haven’t had to consult a dictionary so often in a long time. Here’s an exemplary excerpt:

A giant Negress was coming towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely[,] and her black arms were thick as thighs. Less than a yard separated us as she passed me, but she did not give me so much as a glance. She went on her way, her grass skirt swinging rhythmically, resembling one of those steatopygous statues in anthropological museums.

What’s the most interesting part of that passage, ignoring the outdated term for a black person and the regrettable stereotype that accompanies it? To me, by a long shot, it’s the word “steatopygous.” An adjective from the Greek, meaning “having a large amount of fat accumulated in the buttocks, especially in women.” Now there’s a word I can use. Thank you, Stanislaw Lem! Or perhaps, thank you translators Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. But wait, a check of the front matter in my copy shows that Kilmartin and Cox have produced a translation “from the French.” Didn’t Lem write in Polish? Yes, but this version of Solaris has been battered and mistreated twice: first from Polish to French, then from French to English. It is the only available translation in English, and no new version is forthcoming. So whom do I thank for giving me a new way to say someone’s got a fat ass?

I’ve always had the sense that translated writers should be given credit for the conceptual aspects of a novel—plot, character, setting and so on, since these are things a reader will not remember verbatim anyway. When it comes to the actual sentences on the page, things get more complicated. A good translator will consider the fact that a word in the original language will almost always have multiple possible analogues in the second language depending not just on context but also shades of meaning. The translator has to make a decision whether to use one word consistently or employ different words where appropriate. This happens at every level of language, from matching up semantics to ensuring the book is as easy on the English reader’s ear as it was on the Pole’s.

It wouldn’t be so troublesome if I as a reader knew the translator’s personal philosophy. Poets and translators of poetry often make a distinction between translations that give the sense of the original and translations that preserve form, though of course translating poetry is a particularly doomed endeavor. If I were reading work by a translator I knew to be particularly focused on form, I would be more likely to assume that a striking word or phrase was close to the authorship of the original writer, though possibly less true to his meaning. But how often do you really know a translator’s proclivities, even in the presence of those translator’s prefaces, which usually serve to tell you how little you know about the culture that has produced the book you are about to read and how hard it is to explain it to you?

Perhaps Polish has a much more common and colloquial word that means the same thing as steatopygous. I’ll resist the urge to take a cheap shot at the Polish diet here. In fact, Polish seems to have the exact same noun form of the word—Steatopygia. This doesn’t prove that Lem actually chose the word though. Nothing would, short of procuring the original Polish text and leafing through a lot of funny looking nonsense to find the word. And this is just one word. In almost every case of every word and every sentence in the book, it is nearly impossible for the average English language reader to know if it’s Lem’s choice, or the French translator’s choice, or Kilmartin and Cox’s choice, or an accumulated mound of small errors in translation, like a game of Telephone. What’s frustrating is that in many places, I like what must be at least partially an artifact of translation, the “purple monkey dishwasher” that gets tacked on, to paraphrase The Simpsons.

Another translated book that had me copying down beautiful sentences was Javier Marìas’ All Souls, originally written in Spanish. The narrator is a visiting Spanish don at Oxford. Here’s his characterization of the university’s abundant intrigue:

In Oxford, the only thing anyone is truly interested in is money, followed some way behind by information, which can always be useful as a means of acquiring money. The information can be important or superfluous, useful or trivial, political or economic, diplomatic or epistemological, psychological or genealogical, familiar or ancillary, historical or sexual, social or professional, anthropological or methodological, phenomenological, technological or straightforwardly phallic; it doesn’t matter, but anyone wishing to survive there must have (or must obtain without delay) some sort of transmissible data.

Translated or not, the man knows how to construct a list. A lumbering litany of technical vocabulary topped off by the bluntness of that “phallic,” it’s nothing short of poetically engineered in its rhythm. What’s interesting to me is that Marìas presumably did not write this list with the English translation in mind; the literal passage that so appealed to me is an unintentional result. There are some obvious objections to this line of reasoning. The first is that it is the translator’s job to think about how it sounds in English, so I should be praising Margaret Jull Costa’s finesse in rendering the book in English. The second is that this list with its extended Latinate adjectives, and perhaps lists in general, are easier to translate and have more direct equivalents than more complex sentences. Fair enough, but these two caveats actually cancel each other out. The simpler the sentence, the easier it is to translate, especially with languages as closely related as English and Spanish. Thus the translator’s touch is less apparent in a simpler sentence.

Imagine for a second that computers are able to translate literature as skillfully as highly trained humans. Chomskyan linguists will tell you this is not going to happen any time soon: the ability to translate fluently between languages is a uniquely human talent. But if such a feat were possible, so that a writer could compose a novel in one language, click a tab in Microsoft Word and produce sensible translations in hundreds of others, then foreign readers would truly experience an unintended work of literature. These automatic translations would constitute a kind of found art, since the particular arrangement of words would be entirely coincidental, except in the simplest cases.

My point in all of these unsophisticated thought experiments is that it’s very possible to appreciate a translation on its own merits (or demerits.) This is hardly a revolutionary sentiment; the Scottish novelist and translator Gilbert Adair famously won a translation prize for his rendering of Georges Perec’s seemingly untranslatable La Disparition, a book written without the letter “e.” Not to slight the work of such heroic translators, but it occurred to me while reading Solaris that a translation doesn’t necessarily have to be good to be beautiful. Like all prose, it need only be interesting. I think this explains some of the appeal of so-called Engrish, the laughably inept wording of English phrases on some Asian products. It also suggests something about our composition faculty in general. Vladimir Nabokov, who was probably one of the most meticulous prose stylists of all time, worked as a translator, and he was on some level translating even when he wrote directly in English. Yet Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, is filled with words that are just the right word. Writers skilled in one specific language usually make for interesting writers in any language, even if the beauty of the prose is lost in translation. What’s more, even poor translations have the potential to inspire new and potentially innovative writing, just as repeated “misuse” of language leads to new usage. I’m not claiming I’ll single-handedly reinvent the English language having learned “steatopygous,” but it does seem less likely that I’d have come across such a technical word in an English original.

Solaris is the perfect book to inspire these idle musings. As a result of the planet’s strange manipulations, Kelvin the narrator comes face to face with a mental projection of his lover Rheya, who committed suicide twenty years before. He must decide whether this version of Rheya, who derives her entire identity from his static memory just prior to her death, is a living being or a hideous phantasm. Like the other characters, his immediate violent impulses toward “Rheya” are deterred by her manifestation of uniquely human emotions. She’s something like a translation, I think—not wholly original, but blameless in her naive innocence. Nor does her appearance leave him with much of a choice, since the real Rheya is long dead. Like a monolingual reader, he has to accept this new version on her own terms or do without her entirely. Kelvin can’t suppress his long dormant feelings for Rheya, and I can’t help but love Lem’s bastardized prose.

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Andrew Crocker is an untranslatable word for an MFA student in New York City.