This is a backstory of why I translated Stanisław Lem’s short story
One hundred and thirty-seven seconds.
Translations of [Lem’s] works are difficult due to passages with elaborate word formation, alien or robotic poetry, and puns. — Wikipedia
Many terrific works of the celebrated Polish writer and philosopher Stanisław Lem are available in English — popular sci-fi books such as Solaris, The Cyberiad, His Master’s Voice, and even more ambitious titles, e.g. Summa technologiae. However, many short stories, originally attached to longer pieces or published in anthologies, remain untranslated.
I have a soft spot for those stories, many sharing similar themes: a solitary, misunderstood practitioner on the fringes of their profession, making a fantastic discovery that forever changes the world of science… or it would, if only it was properly understood or recognized. There’s almost a romantic streak among them, missing from Lem’s usually jaded works — although all of these short stories end in a usually pessimistic, open-ended manner.
For many years now, I’ve dreamt of being able to share these stories with my English-speaking friends. Today, I finished a translation of one among them: a 1976 tale of news, teletypes, and an IBM computer with unanticipated abilities: One hundred and thirty-seven seconds.
My English vocabulary has always been filled with words and phrases lifted straight from pop culture. Whenever you hear me say nothing, you should know that this word is accompanied in my brain by an image from the bootleg VHS tape of Ghostbusters 2, with English closed captioning baked in — an image of Ray Stantz reporting to his co-workers about what he found under Dana’s kid’s crib. (That tape was the first time I saw and heard English simultaneously. It was a revelation.)
I’ve used James Earl Jones’s I am going to be sick from the finale of the glorious movie Sneakers ever since I memorized it in early 1994, cargo-culting that sentence for a few subsequent years without knowing precisely what it meant, or the rules of grammar behind it.
Among my favourite songs ever is Pet Shop Boys’s somber King’s Cross, with a line we’ve been had — an idiom that riveted me with its simple bilateral logic (you can have someone, or you can be had), which had no equivalent in Polish.
And then, there were numerous Sierra On-Line text adventure games, some wholly inappropriate for a boy aged 11.
But that boy missed out on most of that inappropriateness, sitting in his dad’s shipyard office in Poland, trudging through Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards on an amber-screened PC, and leafing through the English-Polish dictionary, looking not for translations of pervert, but of phrases as simple as thank you or get out.
At the same time, I was swallowing Lem’s books, in Polish, in quantities that would require an unlimited data plan on Kindle today.
I flew with Pirx in his Cuivier, visited Eden and Solaris, went on incredible adventures with robots from The Cyberiad. Fiasco made me angry enough to throw it against a wall. (I consider it my favourite book today. Go figure.) I was obsessed enough I once paid an unannounced visit to Lem’s house in Cracow. And I read, and re-read, and re-read yet again those short stories about mad scientists, finding myself within them to the extent that today seems embarrassing to admit.
I wrote, too. Many of the nascent pieces I’ve written then were aping Lem: language play, page-length sentences, open quasi-endings. It was all horrible, but would get better in time — to the point that my first actual job was as a writer at a Polish computer games magazine, on the strength of some satirical pieces I sent in to the headquarters.
My English, ever spotty and idiomatic, would improve as well. I remember the pride with which I read my first book in English (it was 1984), or the first movie I watched without subtitles (Bad boys 2, have mercy). Then I moved abroad. But while this provided my English with a steady workout, my Polish slowly started atrophying through disuse. The latter was happening faster than the former, and it was frightening: for the first time I remember I couldn’t write well in the language I was using to communicate every day.
But then, I fell in love. I wanted to share my stories, and since she didn’t understand Polish, I had to use English, no matter how rough it was.
That was almost a decade ago, and I’ve been writing in English ever since. (I don’t think she has any idea.)
Throughout those years away from Poland, I celebrated Lem’s work with a Google homepage mini-game, and his writing inspired me to go on a zero gravity flight. I also, naturally, bought all of Lem’s book in English to share with my friends.
Which brings us to today. It all kind of snuck up on me. I must have been dreaming of translating Lem’s short stories into English for about a decade now, and, suddenly, today, I sit in front of one.
There’s something awesome in the mere possibility of finally knowing two languages well enough to freely traverse between them. I’m lucky that for me it happened to be a byproduct: of Hollywood being in America, of pop music I liked hailing mostly from the U.K., of my enchantment with computing, of my first serious job being located in Silicon Valley.
Mine’s not a perfectly balanced bilinguality, but it is lopsided in the right way for this particular project — I can still read well in Polish, and I long ago sacrificed my writing in Polish for being able to express myself in English.
Of course, my prowess might be an illusion. This is my beloved writer, after all, and I’m frightened I can simply botch the translation, blunt the sharp edges of Lem’s writing, pave the wrong road with my intentions. Lem, after all, has a reputation of a master of a language — who am I to assume I’m an equal master of a non-native one?
Hopefully, it’s good enough. I picked a relatively simple story, without the vaunted “alien or robotic poetry, and puns.” I asked many for help. Finally, I edited, and re-edited, and re-edited yet again my fledgling translation.
And now it’s here. The two months I spent working on it was a fascinating process. My experience reading it today is unlike anything else: a story that feels both my own and absolutely alien at the same time. It’s hard to find an analog to this feeling; my friend Jessica Spengler took a stab at it in her fantastic essay about how it is to be a translator, and she also struggled.
But it’s a wonderful feeling nonetheless, and I hope your experiences reading that story will be positive, too. Because the truth is, I want to bring to English at least a few more of Lem’s landlocked creations: The truth, about the secret life of fire; The hammer, about a HAL-like machine a decade before 2001; the atmospheric The darkness and the mildew, and my absolute favourite, 1959’s The friend.
But right now, here’s my first translation. Before I send you off, I wanted to say thank you to the awesome Jessica Spengler, Brian Fitzpatrick, Bobbie Johnson, John E. Branch Jr., Andrew Hyatt, and Alex Limi for their help, encouragement, and metric tons of great advice and feedback.
Now, go read One hundred and thirty-seven seconds, and tell me all about it.