The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem
Posted January 2, 2013on:
The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006) was known for his works in science fiction, satire, and philosophy. His writing style is detailed, subtle and literary, making translations a challenge. I got into a great discussion on twitter with Joachim Boaz about the Lem translations. Apparently much of his work was translated to French and then translated to English, doubling the chances of wit and puns being lost in translation. By sheer luck, the copy of The Cyberiad that I read was translated directly from the original Polish by the amazing Michael Kandel. I’ve got to wonder if crappy translation is directly responsible for my mixed luck with Lem titles I’ve read in the past. Note to self: seek out the Kandel translations!
The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem
published in 1965, first English translation available 1974
where I got it: borrowed from a friend
Subtitled “fables for the cybernetic age”, many of the short stories in The Cyberiad have a bedtime story fairy tale feel to them. Featuring quests and adventures and demanding royals and hermits and pirates and even the phrase “once upon a time”, alongside literary devices such as alliteration, punny phrases and nested tales, I quickly became desperate for a nerdy 8 year old to whom I could read these out loud to.
The series of stories follows the robotic constructors Trurl and Klapaucius. The two friends build amazing machines either for their own amusement or to help (for vast sums of money, of course) people on other planets. As with many parable style fairy tales, the machines and prophecies never quite work as intended, and on more than one occasion Trurl and Klapaucius are forced to destroy their creations and/or escape their insatiable clients. Most of the Sallys (as in To Sally Forth) are 10 pages or less, making the whole of The Cyberiad easy to digest in small portions, if you’re able to put it down, that is (which I wasn’t, and devoured this dense little package of amazing in just a few days).
Since Trurl and Klapaucius (and nearly every other character we meet) are robots, and can’t die or experience physical pain, there is a surprising amount of violence – people getting kicked and repeatedly beaten up or thrown off or into things. Since no one ever gets hurt, it’s humorous, not unlike an old style Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Beyond the hysterical and madcap adventures and Klapaucius egging Trurl on every step of the way, the writing is absolutely brilliant, with a level of literary humor and intelligent wordplay that is absolutely off the charts. Imagine if Charlie Stross and Terry Pratchett rewrote a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, and then ratchet the whole thing up a bit more.
For an example of the stunning writing, take this excerpt from out of The First Sally (A) or Trurl’s Electronic Bard, where Trurl has built exactly that, an Electronic Bard, and Klapaucius is trying to give the Bard an impossible task:
“Have it compose a poem – a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter S!”
“Any why not throw in a full exposition of the general theory of nonlinear automata while you’re at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such idiotic-”
But he didn’t finish.
A melodium voice filled the hall with the following:
Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed.
Some savage, spectacular suicide.
(want more details on that bit of translation? click here for the full story!)
Or this, an excerpt from The Fifth Sally (A), or Trurl’s Prescription, when Trurl comes across the Steelypips, a civilization that is being harried by natural invaders. For the full metered effect, read this outloud:
One day there flew up to the white sun behind the green star a comet in a bonnet, namely a female, mean as nails and atomic from her head to her four long tails, awful to look at, all blue from hydrogen cyanide and, sure enough, reeking of bitter almonds. she flew up and said “First I’ll burn you to the ground, that’s for sure”.
The Steelypips watched – the fire in her eye smoked up half the sky, she drew on her neutrons, mesons like caissons, pi- and mu- and neutrinos too – “Fee-fi-fo-fum plu-to-ni-um.”
and they reply: “one moment please, we are the Steelypips, we have no fear, no spats in our vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence of the moon, for we have a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect, so go away, lady comet. or you’ll be sorry.”
The entire book certainly doesn’t read metered like that, but it sure was fun to come across that style of prose in a science fiction book, of all places! And can you imagine the challenge in translating? Lem originally wrote in Polish, and many of his works were translated to French before being translated to anything else, like English. If you shop around for a copy of The Cyberiad, find one like this one, translated directly from the original Polish by Michael Kandel. It’s so easy to lose the subtleties and wordplay in translation. Perhaps some jokes were left behind, but If I ever meet Mr. Kandel I’d like to hug him, and thank him for keeping the magic and the poetic meter alive in the english version of The Cyberiad.
As I hope is obvious by now, I simply adored The Cyberiad. Having had mixed luck with Lem in the past (I always enjoy his works, but rarely do I understand what I’m reading), it was a relief to get so much pure enjoyment out of this phenomenal little book. Every time I thought “that was the best story in here!” I’d read the next one, and it would be better and funnier.