What’s the best Solaris translation?

So you want to read Solaris, the best-known science-fiction book by the world’s most widely read science-fiction author, and you don’t read Polish.

Good news! Some of his works have been available in English for some time, and others are being translated or re-translated for new audiences. Solaris is now available in two translations, one from French and one directly from Polish.

Translation History

Solaris was first published in Polish in 1961. It has been translated into English twice.

  1. 1970 – Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox
  2. 2011 – Bill Johnston

See below for more information on the translations. There are extracts so that you can do a comparison of the language style.

About Stanisław Lem

Lem was born in 1921 and died in 2006; this year the world celebrates his 100th birth anniversary.

He wrote novels, short stories, and essays on his philosophy of science. He was famously annoyed that other science-fiction writers weren’t really writing about science, got himself kicked out of the and tried his best to push the boundaries of imagination while writing in top literary style. His works are a deeper, more reflective kind of science fiction.

Official author site in English: https://english.lem.pl/

More about Stanislaw Lem:

The Guardian: “Stanislaw Lem (Obituary)” by Christopher Priest

The New York Times: “Stanislaw Lem, Author of Science Fiction Classics, Is Dead at 84” by Ben Sisario

LA Review of Books: “The World According to Stanislaw Lem” by Ezra Glinter

Culture.pl: “Stanislaw Lem”

 
1970 · Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox · Solaris

Who are Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox?

Joanna Wendy Margaret Kilmartin, aka Joanna Pearce, was a British translator of works in French.

The Times: “Joanna Kilmartin (Obituary)”
She completed the translations of Proust’s letters begun by Terrence Kilmartin. She worked for The Observer.

The work of Steve Cox is not well documented online. In particular, there are several people named Steve Cox who have done translation.

About the Kilmartin / Cox translation of Solaris

  • Kilmartin and Cox translated the novel into English from the French translation.
  • Lem, who was fluent in English (and French), was reportedly not happy with the result.

Extract from the Kilmartin / Cox translation of Solaris

Get the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Mariner Kilmartin / Cox translation of Solaris

Translated from the French.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780156027601, 224 pages).

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Get the Faber & Faber Kilmartin / Cox translation of Solaris

Translated from the French.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780571311576, 218 pages).

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2011 · Bill Johnston · Solaris

Who is Bill Johnston?

Bill Johnston is an American professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University and an award-winning translator of works in Polish.

About the Johnston translation of Solaris

  • The literary community seems generally happy that there is now a direct translation.
  • Lem’s wife and son are happy with the result.

The Guardian: “First ever direct English translation of Solaris published” by Alison Flood
“ ‘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.’ ”

The Pod Delusion: “Bill Johnston on Translating Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris” by Salim Fadhley
“And your own work as a professional translator and a teacher of translation, do you find any irony in having just helped translate a book whose main thesis is utter pessimism about mankind’s ability to meaningfully relate to just about anybody?”

Extract from the Johnston translation of Solaris

Get the Wydawnictwo Literackie (Literary Publishing House) Johnston translation of Solaris

First English translation from the original Polish. Cover art by Przemek Dębowski.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9788363471415, 179 pages).

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Adaptations and Discussion

Adaptations of Solaris

There have been two movies, an audiobook, and a BBC radio drama.

Steven Soderbergh movie starring George Clooney: Solaris (2002)

Lem criticized the love-story plot.

Lem Official Site: Solaris by Soderbergh

Watch on Amazon

Johnston audiobook

This is an unabridged audiobook made using Bill Johnston’s English translation from the original Polish. It is narrated by Alessandro Juliani.

Duration: 7 hours and 42 minutes

Listen with Audible

BBC radio drama

Read by: A full cast, including Joanne Froggatt and Ron Cook. The play has an exciting soundtrack by composer Alice Trueman.

Duration: 113 minutes

Listen with Audible

For Discussion

Which movies have you seen, Tarkovsky, Soderbergh, or both? What did you think?

Which translation have you read, Kilmartin and Cox, Johnston, or both?

Have you read any other books by Stanislaw Lem?

Let me know in the comments!