Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (published in Polish in 1965, and in English in 1974) is about two robots, Trurl and Klapaucius, and their various misadventures.

A particularly prescient story involves Trurl building an “Elektrybałt” (English: Electronic Bard) that can generate poetry on demand. Klapaucius doesn’t believe in Trurl’s silly contraption, and sets it an impossible challenge to embarrass his friend.

“Have it compose a poem—a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of
love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed,
and every word beginning with the letter s!!”
“And why not throw in a full exposition of the general theory of nonlinear automata while
you’re at it?” growled Trurl. “You can’t give it such idiotic—”
But he didn’t finish. A melodious voice filled the hall with the following:
Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Good poem, no? Except Lem didn’t write it. Credit here goes to his English translator, Michael Kandel.

In the original Polish, the passage runs:

– Niech ułoży wiersz o cyberotyce! – rzekł nagle, rozjaśniony. – Żeby tam było najwyżej sześć linijek, a w nich o miłości i o zdradzie, o muzyce, o Murzynach, o wyższych sferach, o nieszczęściu, o kazirodztwie, do rymu i żeby wszystkie słowa były tylko na literę c!!
– A całego wykładu ogólnej teorii nieskończonych automatów nie ma tam czasem być? – wrzasnął rozwścieczony do żywego Trurl. – Nie można stawiać tak kretyńskich warun…
Ale nie dokończył, ponieważ słodki baryton, wypełniając całą halę, odezwał się właśnie:

Cyprian cyberotoman, cynik, ceniąc czule
Czarnej córy cesarskiej cud ciemnego ciała,
Ciągle cytrą czarował. Czerwieniała cała,
Cicha, co-dzień czekała, cierpiała, czuwała…
…Cyprian ciotkę całuje, cisnąwszy czarnulę!!

Stanlislaw Lem czyli Elektrybałt Trurla

Which machine-translates to something like:

“– Let him compose a poem about cyberotics! – he suddenly exclaimed, brightened. – Make it no more than six lines, and within them include love and betrayal, music, Africans, the higher spheres, misery, incest, all in rhyme and with all the words starting with the letter C!
– And is there supposed to be a whole lecture on the general theory of infinite automata as well? – Trurl roared, exasperated. – You can’t set such cretinous conditions…
But he didn’t finish, because a sweet baritone, filling the whole hall, just then began:

Cyprian, cyberoticomaniac, cynic, cherishing tenderly
The wonder of the dark body of the emperor’s black daughter,
Continually charmed with a cithara. She blushed all over,
Quiet, everyday she waited, suffered, kept watch…
…Cyprian kisses his aunt, having thrown away the black girl!!”

Problematic! #CancelStanislawLem

It’s interesting to note how many words still start with C, despite the translation—interesting, but not surprising, since English and Polish are sister languages. It’s that freaked-out feeling you get when you see a whale skeleton and realize its flippers are structurally similar to your own hand.

So we see the translator’s struggle here. Do you translate the text literally, even if the prose ends up dead? Or do you make creative choices that aren’t in the original story yet hopefully preserve its spirit? Something to think about when you read a manga that’s still half in Japanese, because “there are no honorifics in English, bro.”

Today, we’ve actually built something like the Electronic Bard. Here’s GPT 3.5’s attempt at writing a poem for Klapaucius:

Sleek scissors silently snip, shaping strands,

Spectacular shears summon symphony’s sands.

Sublime strands scatter, serenading the floor,

Sanguine scissors sculpt, storytelling galore.

Sudden strands severed, symbolizing strife,

Sorrowful sheen shines, seeking solace in life.

How does GPT 4 do?

Silently, steel shears sever solemn strands,

Stripped, surrendering symbol of status so grand.

Secrets seep, showcasing scarlet stains of sand,

Subtle sacrifice screams, sealing sonnets unplanned.

Striving, soul sings serenades of survival, withstand,

Sculpting stories of strength, in silence, we stand.

But how do I do?

I’m bad at poetry, and have never seriously written it. Here’s what I came up with after an hour’s effort.

Snarling samurai; sun-spashed steel; sempiternal stridulation

Spinning, slicing, scything swords seek savage subjugation

Satoshi strikes, screaming, scoring; Shinjiro sways stricken…slain?

Satoshi smiles; sheaths sword; strife’s smug suzerain

Surprise! Severed strands sink safely: stealth-Shinobi strategy;

Shinjiro stands shorn; sly survivor; skewering shocked Satoshi!

Eh. Could be better. I captured every part of Klapaucius’s challenge, except for the “full of love” requirement. But they’re samurai. They love fighting.

I think I could perform as Trurl’s electronic bard in a pinch. I’m not sure I could handle the lifestyle, though.

Trurl himself had no little trouble in connection with his invention. The classicists, generally
elderly, were fairly harmless; they confined themselves to throwing stones through his windows and smearing the sides of his house with an unmentionable substance.

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