Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lem's Haircut Poem, or, What is Translation?

Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad is a series of tales about two "constructors," great builders of robots. In one of the stories, one of the two constructors builds an electronic poet. The other thinks the first verse produced by the computer is canned, so the first asks him to set it any task he wants. He says, in Michael Kandel's translation,
Have it compose a poem- a poem about a haircut! But lofty, 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!!
To this the computer responds:
Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide. 
I have long admired this verse and wondered how close this was to the Polish original. Now I know: not at all. In response to an email from a fan, Michael Kandel supplied the Polish original:
Cyprian cyberotoman, cynik, ceniąc czule
Czarnej córy cesarskiej cud ciemnego ciała,
Ciągle cytrą czarował. Czerwieniała cała,
Cicha, co dzień czekała, cierpiała, czuwała...
...Cyprian ciotkę całuje, cisnąwszy czarnulę!!
 and this literal translation:
Cyprian the cyber sex fiend and a cynic, appreciating tenderly the miracle of the dark body of the Negro daughter of Caesar, constantly wove charms with a zither. She blushed all over, silent, waiting every day, suffering, watching ... Cyprian kisses her aunt, have abandoned the black beauty!
Alas my source does not give the actual wording of the instructions.

I would have to say that the wonderful haircut poem is entirely the work of Michael Kandel, and not really a translation at all, although it was Lem who created the situation within which this exercise had meaning.


Anonymous said...

Hi, just found this. Here's the Polish version of the instructions with my feeble attempt at a translation.

Niech ułoży wiersz o cyberotyce! - rzekł nagle, rozjaśniony. - Żeby tam było najwyżej sześć linijek, a w nich o miłości i o zdradzie, o muzyce, o Murzynach, o wyższych sferach, o nieszczęściu, o kazirodztwie, do rymu i żeby wszystkie słowa były tylko na literę C!!

"Make it write a poem about cyberoticism!" he said suddenly, brightening. "At most six lines, about love and betrayal, about music, about the Blacks, about the higher spheres, misfortune, incest, all rhyming and every word beginning with C!!"

Anonymous said...

"the higher spheres", should be "the upper class" (royalty etc). Otherwise translation looks good!