“One hundred and thirty-seven seconds”: The translation process

Translators… are going to fail. No matter what you do, you’re not going to succeed. People may like what you do, but they like something else that isn’t exactly what you really set out to do. ¶ It’s… quixotic.

Michael Kandel

I recently translated Stanisław Lem’s short story One hundred and thirty-seven seconds. This article talks about the process of this translation. I also wrote why I started this project.

  • One of the biggest early challenges was… figuring out how to prop a thick hardcover book and be able to type on my laptop at the same time. 0_O
  • I edited and edited over and over again, probably a dozen times. I left weeks of breaks in between, to be able to look at the story with the fresh eyes.
  • I compared some Polish–English translations with the original to see what the professionals have done (e.g. Michael Kandel, a widely respected translator of Lem). I picked His Master’s Voice, since its style and subject matter seemed similar to the story I was translating.
  • I sent my translation to a few great friends — native English speakers — who left fantastic notes on my writing. I did it one by one, making changes before sending to another person. However, while I responded to the notes immediately, I also came back and reviewed all of them on the last day.
  • For a number of phrases (even throwaway ones) used by Lem in Polish, I researched that topic more extensively in English, to pick up the right words or phrases. Examples include: dog training, smoking pipe anatomy, teletype sounds, Pauli exclusion principle, cloud condensation nuclei, and… boxing.
  • My friend Bobbie Johnson looked at it as a professional editor, and also put me in touch with a professional translator, Jessica Spengler, who took her precious time to look over my translation and patiently answer my general questions.
  • I made copies of the story at each stage. I will share most of them at the end.
  • I used Medium. Medium is awesome. (Disclaimer: I work at Medium and own Medium stock.)
  • Lem tends to write long run-on sentences, and page-length paragraphs. I left most of them the same way since that felt more authentic.
  • Many of the Polish idioms do not exist in English. I had to “unpack” some (express them in plain language), but I left one or two for flavour (e.g. “as deaf and dead as a tree trunk,” which should probably be “doornail” in English).
  • I purposely added one or two archaic English idioms since Lem’s language was a bit vintage even when it was published (e.g. “worth the candle”).
  • The story was written in 1976, predating desktop-publishing and Internet (although not Arpanet). It is set in America, which at that point was unattainable to Polish citizens. Most of that context will be lost to today’s readers, although I captured a bit of it in the translator’s note.
  • Lem makes mistakes, too. The word “motto” early on is misused, but I kept it as-is to match the original.
  • I purposely chose a story without much wordplay, but there were two moments that proved hard to conquer: one is when the computer would be called “he” in Polish, but “it” in English… and the “Typical misunderstanding; the computer was okay with the grammar since we could’ve just as well be asking about the milk, not Foster” bit, which feels quite a bit more strained in English.
  • Betraying his origins, Lem uses metric units even when talking about America. I kept a few of those that (American) English readers would understand easily, but chose to convert once or twice.

If you’re interested, here are copies of work in progress:

That’s it! Let me know if this is useful or if you ever translate anything on your own.

Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards: https://aresluna.org/shift-happens

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store