Seduced, shaggy Samson snored

The fictional machine that generated poems, and the real people who had to translate them


One of the most famous part of Stanisław Lem’s The Cyberiad is the story of one of the many colourful robotic inventions from the book, Trurl’s Electronic Bard — a machine that could program out poetry. Trurl’s friend slash competitor, Klapaucius, proceeds to run it through its paces, giving it more and more sophisticated tasks to perform.

It’s one of the most memorable and delightful fantasy/sci-fi stories, and one that exemplifies Lem’s unique medley of playfulness around both science and language.

Throughout the years, people asked me about how the English translation compares to the original. This will attempt to shed some light on this.

English, professional translation
(by Michael Kandel)

The most memorable passage in its English translation by Michael Kandel, the renowned author and translator, goes like this:

Daniel Mroz’s illustration of the electropoet for the 1972 Polish issue of The Cyberiad

“Just a minute,” said Klapaucius, annoyed. He was trying to think of a request as difficult as possible, aware that any argument on the quality of the verse the machine might be able to produce would be hard if not impossible to settle either way. Suddenly he brightened and said:

“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!!”

“And 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 melodious voice filled the hall with the following:

“Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.”

Polish, the original passages
(by Stanisław Lem)

You can compare it to the original written by Lem, in Polish:

“Niech ułoży wiersz o cyberotyce! 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!!”

“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!!”

Notice that the verses feel quite different, the letter was originally C instead of S. How different are the contents or Klapaucius’s original request? We can answer that by looking at:

Polish, naïve/literal English translation (by me)

If you translate Polish literally, word by word, without worrying much about style and rhyme and beauty, this is what you get:

“Let it compose a poem about cybererotica! Six verses at the most, and in them about love and betrayal, music, Afro-Americans, high society, disaster, incest; it should rhyme and all the words should start with the letter C!”

“Cyprian the cybererotomaniac, a cynic, fondly valuing
the miracle of the dark body of a black imperial daughter
continued to work magic with a zither. She turned red, all of her,
quietly, waited everyday, suffered, watched…
…Cyprian kisses the aunt, pushing the black woman away!!

Compare with the professional translation to English again

“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!!”

“Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.”

So here you go. Quite a difference, and quite a challenge — finding the balance between staying true to the original story, and respecting the requirements and differences of the target language.

I have recently translated a Stanisław Lem story. It was a much simpler endeavour, since the original didn’t have very many puns and word inventions, and yet it surprised me how difficult some of my choices were, as a translator. I can only imagine what Mr. Kandel and other translators had to endure to move the above and many other Lem’s stories to new languages.

Below, I will include a few pictures of various translations of the same passage in The Cyberiad. You should check out The Cyberiad, which recently came out in a beautiful Penguin Modern Classics edition, especially if you’re interested what poem you the electric bard generated after Klapaucius’s next request:

“Now all in g! A sonnet, trochaic hexameter, about an old cyclotron who kept sixteen artificial mistresses, blue and radioactive, had four wings, three purple pavilions, two lacquered chests, each containing exactly one thousand medallions bearing the likeness of Czar Murdicog the Headless…”

Not to mention many other wonderful and colourful stories.


A few other translations of “The Cyberiad,” for reference

German (translated by Jens Reuter)

Greek (translated by Rosita Sokou)

Hungarian (translated by Beatrix Murányi)

Korean

Russian (translated by R. Trofimov)

Spanish (translated by Jadwiga Maurizio)

Swedish (translated by Martin von Zweigbergk)