Earlier this month, Audible.com announced they were releasing the first ever direct to English translation of Solaris by Stanisław Lem. Previous copies of Solaris available in English were the result of a translation of the book from French which Lem himself described as poor.
Audible is touting this as the book as the late Lem “intended it.” Bill Johnston, Solaris’ new translator and a professor at Indiana University, told the Guardian
“Much is lost when a book is re-translated from an intermediary translation into English, but I’m shocked at the number of places where text was omitted, added, or changed in the 1970 version,” said Johnston. “Lem’s characteristic semi-philosophical, semi-technical language is also capable of flights of poetic fancy and brilliant linguistic creativity, for example in the names of the structures that arise on the surface of Solaris. I believe this new translation restores Lem’s original meaning to his seminal work.”
As lifelong fan of audio books, it’s nice to see the medium get the jump on visual books for once. An ebook of the translation is to be released six months from now, but a print edition is not planned due to legal issues.
The book itself is fantastic science fiction. Solaris was one of the first works of science fiction to tackle the limitations of humanity as an animal to understand the universe around us. It does so by placing three scientists under the influence of a planet-sized sentient sea that has knowingly or unknowingly thwarted the experiments of generations of scientists attempting to gain some kind of insight into its workings. Perhaps as a result of these experiments, the sea is now dredging up and mimicking disturbing events from these scientists’ lives. The scientists and by extension the reader can no more know the intentions of the sea or even if these horrible recreations are intentional at all. The resulting effect is superbly suspenseful.
But if you are an avid science fiction fan, you probably already knew the book was great. The question for this new edition isn’t if the book is good, it is whether or not the new translation benefits the book AND whether or not Solaris works as an audio book.
Alessandro Juliani of Battlestar Galactica fame turns in one of the best performances for a book reading I have heard in a while. He develops great, distinct character voices for Harey, Snaut, Sartorius and Kris, giving the book a radio play quality. I hope this is the first of many audio book narrations we see from him.
Something I’ve had to learn from pushing audio books on friends time and time again is that listening to books is not for everyone. Not being able to control the speed at which you read, the inability to skim and the concentration needed to follow an eight hour story while walking your dog, driving or buying groceries sometimes puts off even the most ardent book lovers. With that in mind, I can see how listening to Solaris could give some readers a challenge even given the fantastic performance, improved translation and relatively short length. For example, Lem’s long, poetic descriptions of the planet Solaris through the descriptive reports of the scientists who studied the planet do not necessarily translate well to audio. The following is from an account of the activity of the sentient planet that continues over about 38 minutes.
“In the meantime successive rings of waves are continuing incessantly to descend from above into a huge and ever more distinctly concave circle. This game can go on for a day or it can last a whole month. The conscientious Giese labeled such a variant an abortive mimoid as though, from who knew where, he possessed the certain knowledge that the ultimate goal of every such upheaval was a mature mimoid.”
Ironically, these passages have benefited the most from the new translation. The care with word selection and the love of language shine through and these passages remind me of nothing so much as Jules Verne’s passionate, naturalistic descriptions of sea life in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That said, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is not necessarily the best book to read as an audio book either.
If long, poetic passages with lots of scientific jargon describing an massive, unknowable alien sea does not sound like something that would keep you from enjoying a book, then I highly suggest you check out the audio book. If that sounds a bit too daunting for pleasure reading, I suggest you wait for the ebook were you can digest those passages at your own pace.