Hear Solaris in a New Translation

As reported in The Guardian (via The Literary Saloon), esteemed translator Bill Johnston has completed the first Polish-to-English translation of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris. The existing English translation is actually a translation from the French translation, and as such is barely an approximation of Lem's style or, in some cases, meaning.

Johnston's translation is currently available as an audio download from Audible.com and will be available as an ebook in 6 months. Lem's family say they would love to see it as a book, but, Lem's wife said, "Currently this is impossible due to legal issues, but recognition of the new translation might persuade the publisher to rethink their position."

What can the publisher's position possibly be? "We like to keep this inaccurate translation of this writer's most famous book in print because it would take too much effort to do otherwise..." or "What do translators and a writer's family know?" or "Really, do you think English-language readers care about a translation? All they want is a good story! Go back to your hovels, you nincompoops! Publishing is a business!"

I'm probably slandering them. I'm sure it's all very complicated and legalistic, and of course they would do the right thing if they could do the right thing but they can't do the right thing because there are laws and contracts and copyrights and all that jazz.

In the U.S., the publisher of Solaris is Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in the U.K. it is Faber & Faber. Please put on your hoping caps and direct your hopes toward them in the hopes that they will hopefully do whatever needs to be done legally to bring Bill Johnston's translation into actual print. This would not only give English-language readers a more accurate view of the novel itself, but would, perhaps, lead the publishers to put a new cover on the book and not force us to remember that dreadful Steven Soderbergh film of it.

Meanwhile, we can at least be grateful that Criterion keeps their edition of the Tarkovsky movie in good shape, with a new high-definition transfer and a beautiful new cover. Again and again, Criterion produces my commodity fetish-objects of choice. (One could argue, I suppose, that Lem didn't like the Tarkovsky film and also didn't like the English-from-French translation of the novel, and therefore because the film is a work of genius, the original translation must be, too. One could argue this, but one would be demonstrating blithering idiocy.)


  1. Matt, it does sound as if the problems in getting the publisher who holds the rights interested in a new translation are analogous to what The Second Sex went through, which might indeed have some overlap with the attitudes you postulate.

  2. I think you've hit the nail on the head, Josh -- Toril Moi's review of the new translation of The Second Sex in the LRB was infuriating, and its revelations about the history of how that book has been treated by its English publishers probably informed some of my feelings here.

  3. Great news. I know that Lem translator Michael Kandel hated the old Solaris translation and had wanted to replace it himself but for these problems. I hope Johnson gets the opportunity to do some of Lem's work that has never been translated into English.

  4. I'd be very happy to put this new translation on the reading list of The Science Fiction Bookclub in London England, which I am proud to say I organise. That's 40 copies sold straight away...


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