Invincibly lost in translation

One of the best sci-fi novels I’ve read is Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible. It’s short, sharp and deals with fundamental questions of humanity and the nature of the human condition, versus machines. Where will our technology – and our arrogance about the powers it gives us – lead us?

Concept artwork by Alex Andreev.
Concept artwork by Alex Andreev.

It’s one of those deep-concept things that Lem excelled at. The plot is simple: the space-cruiser Invincible lands on a desolate, Mars-like planet, Regis III, looking for her missing sister ship Condor. The crew rely on a vast array of machines and robots – labouring robots, energo-robots to provide a protective force field, tractors, mobile antimatter mortars and a raft of other things.

I won’t spoil the story by outlining more – suffice to say it’s a brilliant novel that deals with real human fundamentals, and you must run, not walk, to find a copy. Someone, I hope, will make a movie of it, one day. Russian artist Alex Andreev produced a whole raft of ‘concept paintings’ for such a film which are simply brilliant.

Concept artwork by Alex Andreev.
Concept artwork by Alex Andreev.

But I really wish somebody would translate the book better. The thing is that the novel is styled oddly, at least in its English version. Lem’s writing style was always accessible, chatty and easy to read – except when it came to The Invincible. It’s got phrasing clangers in it such as this one on p10 of my Penguin edition: ‘the turbines extruded the fuel in a downward direction’.

The problem wasn’t Lem, who was a talented writer and stylist. He wrote originally in his native Polish, but for some reason the English version of The Invincible hasn’t been directly translated – it’s come, instead, from the German version, translated into English by Wendayne Ackerman (sci-fi superfan Forrest Ackerman’s wife). And that double-translation has really done a number on the writing style.

I don’t speak Polish, but I suspect the original issue was the conversion of Polish (which lacks articles, for instance) into German (which has them, among other things). A lot of the phrasing has German rhythms to it and there is an almost complete lack of English colloquialism.

The rather wooden nature of the styling doesn’t detract from the incredible power of Lem’s novel – but I can’t help thinking that some of his subtleties have been lost in translation. Sigh.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


8 thoughts on “Invincibly lost in translation

  1. I completely agree (currently reading The Invisible). That said, some of Cyberiad + Solaris translations are quite good, I think the difference is that French was the intermediary language, rather than German.

      1. Ah, see, I think there’s some confusion. Many have been translated into English from Polish! Eden for example, The Investigation, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Return from the Stars, etc etc.

        Sometimes copyright issue with some of his more famous works like Solaris… (I was wrong about Cyberiad, it was translated directly from Polish).

  2. I found you through Susie and I just subscribed to your blog. I read some Lem books a long time ago and I am inspired to read this one (though disappointed by the apparently clunky translation), especially since I am currently working on a novel dealing with some of the same themes.

    1. ‘The Invincible’ is a great novel and a fairly quick read despite the clunky styling. Susie throws some great blog parties! Thanks for jumping across to my blog and subscribing – much appreciated. ☺

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