Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
The prose of the stories in The Cyberiad is a peculiar mix of current usage, archaic medieval language, and jargon from various technical disciplines, particularly cybernetic theory, electronics, and quantum mechanics. The hard sciences around which modern technology is based gain the semblance of medieval magic and make the principal characters resemble Terry Pratchett’s wizards.
An interesting feature of the language in the work is its literalness: changing the description changes the described. In one case, the lack of a dragon was changed into the back of a dragon, producing a dragon with two backs. This literalness is familiar to anyone who has dealt with a computer, and it adds an additional humorous element.
Various themes appear in the stories, among them the blindness of love, the follies of greed and pride, the insidiousness of bureaucracy, and the stupidity of blind suspicion. In all, the stories are reminiscent of Aesop’s fables, as the title suggests. The stories as a whole equate the condition of all conscious things, machine and flesh, and suggest that a conscious effort to improve the existence of others creates more grief than doing nothing.
Stanisaw Lem’s characters are all tools he uses to illustrate some point. Kings are inevitably poor rulers, through either cruelty or lack of interest. When political systems other than monarchies are described, however, they are shown to be worse because they were intended to work a greater good. Cruelty is usually associated with stupidity in these stories. Lem suggests that the cruelest of all are those who would rearrange a culture to improve the lot of its people. A cybernetic Karl Marx is put to death with the approval of Trurl not because he tried to improve the lot of his people with revolutionary socio-political ideas but because he did not desist after his initial failure. The implication is that only individual, not societal, happiness can be increased through one’s actions.
One would be mistaken to state, however, that the collection appears either philosophical or gloomy. The fable format and clever humorous devices ensure that, depending on personal tastes, the reader will find the stories either humorous and whimsical or ponderous and belabored. The philosophical issues appear only after consideration, a necessity for any Polish author who hoped to avoid political entanglements in the 1960’s.
Translator Michael Kandel was nominated for an award for translating The Cyberiad. Lem has said that Kandel is probably the best translator his work will ever have. Because Polish shares few linguistic or cultural roots with English, Kandel resorted to using an analogous form of translation in which an untranslatable feature (for example, a pun) is replaced with a compensatory feature of a similar sense in English at a different, but logical, insertion place in the text. This approach has great dangers associated with it. It demands that the translator be nearly as skillful, or even more so, than the author and have as good a literary sense as the author. Because Lem has been accused by some Polish critics of having created his own language from Polish in The Cyberiad, and because it is in a format that is easily deadened by translation, the demands on a translator of this work are exceptional. Fortunately, Kandel was up to the task, and his translation carries both the meaning and the sense of Lem’s prose and poetry.
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