The short story “How the World Was Saved”, from Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad, opens as follows:

One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. When it was ready, he tried it out, ordering it to make needles, then nankeens and negligees, which it did, then nail the lot to narghiles filled with nepenthe and numerous other narcotics. The machine carried out his instructions to the letter. Still not completely sure of its ability, he had it produce, one after the other, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads, and natrium.

This paragraph seems highly coupled to the English language, but the book was originally published in Polish. Do all these words also start with n in Polish? Did the original use a different letter? What choices did the translator have to make, and did this change the meaning of the text?

  • 5
    Douglas Hofstadter’s monumental (and English language despite its title) work on translation Le Ton Beau de Marot discusses (among many many other things) the issues with translating this specific short story. – Mike Scott Nov 12 '18 at 8:27
  • 2
    I cannot say anything about the original, but when it were translated to Swedish everything created begun with the letter i, probably because the last one was 'inget' = nothing. It is likely that the English translator did something similar and used whatever letter that fit best. – Bjorn Eriksson Nov 12 '18 at 8:52
  • I was lucky enough to meet Michael Kandel and ask him about this. He mentioned that the natrium was the same in the original and was no problem (In Polish, sodium is sód) but that the part that had given him real trouble was when asks the machine to produce Nauka —“science”. It responds by producing a great many scientists, naukowcy. In the English translation, this doesn't work well at all. The closest Kandel could come was to have Trurl ask for “nature”, and get a pack of naturalists instead. – Mark Dominus Feb 28 at 0:52

The translator for this, alas paywalled, version seems to have selected similar items in Polish beginning with the letter n (thread for needles, etc)

Konstruktor Trurl sporządził raz maszynę, która umiała robić wszystko na literę n. Kiedy była gotowa, na próbę kazał jej zrobić nici, potem nanizać je na naparstki, które też zrobiła, następnie wrzucić wszystkie do sporządzonej nory, otoczonej natryskami, nastawniami i naparami. Wykonała polecenie co do joty, ale ponieważ nie był jeszcze pewny jej działania, kolejno musiała zrobić nimby, nausznice, neutrony, nurty, nosy, nimfy i natrium. Tego ostatniego nie umiała, i Trurl, bardzo zmartwiony, kazał się jej tłumaczyć.

Constructor Trurl once made a machine that was able to do everything as a letter n. When it was ready, he tried to make her a thread, then thread it on thimbles, which she did, then throw it all into the burrow, surrounded by showers, settings and infusions. She commanded it to the letter, but since he was not yet sure of its operation, she would have to make nimbs, ear-rings, neutrons, currents, noses, nymphs and natrium. She could not do the latter, and Trurl, very worried, told her to explain why.

  • 3
    Just to add - the last thing the machine was supposed to do was "nic" - nothing. – Yasskier Nov 12 '18 at 9:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.