I Wish I May, I Wish I Might, Find Someone Who'll Translate This Right

by Arthur B

Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish might just be awful. Or it might be the victim of a rotten translation job. It's actually difficult to say.
It's been mentioned before on FerretBrain that not enough non-Anglophone genre fiction gets translated into English, but Andrzej Sapkowski has hit on the perfect solution: get your major fantasy series adapted into a much-anticipated and widely-discussed CRPG by the biggest videogame company in your country, and the world is your oyster. How simple! And it only took 18 years since the books first came out!

The Witcher series debuted in 1990 with the short story collection The Witcher, the bulk of which was reprinted in 1993, with a few extra tales and a framing story, as The Last Wish. The Witcher himself is Geralt, a member of a guild of bounty hunters who are systematically warped by magic and eldritch science from a young age to battle the monsters that haunt the land. Witchers, we learn, are as much a dying breed as the creatures they hunt, not least because they themselves are, to a certain extent, inhuman; those children who are destined to become Witchers are marked from birth, and come to the organisation willingly, despite the ordeals they must suffer to become like Geralt, and when they come out the end they have a nigh-superhuman capability for violence which inspires fear and revulsion in normal folk.

The stories in The Last Wish are intended to introduce us to Geralt and his world. As a means of kicking off a fantasy series, it's not a terrible idea; Jack Vance's first Dying Earth volume and Tanith Lee's Night's Master are both excellent examples of how one can do such a thing whilst still maintaining sufficiently true to a central theme that the collection makes sense, as a whole. Although I'd enjoy any of the tales in either volume by themselves, it seems far more natural to read them together, because of the many and varied strands that connect them. Sapkowski's inclusion of a framing story interspersed between the individual stories is a fairly strong indication that he doesn't intend for them to be read alone either, and there definitely seem to be sufficient common elements between the tales to regard The Last Wish almost as an episodic novel. It's just that some of those elements seem a bit creepy.

To be specific, there are three threads which weave their way throughout The Last Wish. The first thread is a streak of dark comedy running throughout the proceedings; many of the stories are thinly-veiled, inverted reimaginings of classic fairy tales. (For example, the very first one, The Witcher, is a take on Sleeping Beauty wherein the beauty in question sleeps in her tomb during the day and arises at night thirsting for human flesh.) It took me a little while to realise that much of The Last Wish was meant to be comedic, though, because the translation just isn't that good.

Or rather, I'm assuming it isn't good. I don't actually speak Polish so I can't check. But the prose style of The Last Wish seems somewhat flat and monotonous, lacking the sort of cues which would normally prompt me to giggle along with the author at a funny bit or gasp at a horrifying part. It comes across, in fact, as though the translator has managed to convey literal meaning of Sapkowski's words but hasn't managed to quite strike the same tone, with the result being that I was never quite sure how Sapkowski intended the tales to come across.

The inadequacy of the translation is especially apparent whenever characters attempt to have a conversation that has even the mildest element of subtlety to it. I encountered several points in the book where characters would utter a fragment of a sentence and then trail off, and it was clear from the context that they were meant to be referring to something without actually mentioning it. But the words chosen for the sentence fragments were not words I'd choose to suggest what Sapkowski is trying to suggest, and in fact in many of those cases I had to stop and think a bit to work out what they were actually saying - and not in a cool way, like with mysterious conversations held in smoke-filled rooms, but in an irritating way. The nicest thing I can say about the translation is that it proves just how lucky Angelica Gorodischer was to have a writer as talented as Ursula LeGuin translate her work.

The second thread is Geralt's position as a social outsider, a man with more than a whiff of the occult about him, a relic of an age that is just beginning to fade into legend, a sinister and brooding albino known as the White Wolf. This is pretty much ripped wholesale from Michael Moorcock's stories of Elric of Melnibone, right down to the nickname, and though in many respects Geralt is a rather different figure from Elric, he's just similar enough in terms of his personality and outlook that all the other little borrowings are especially noticeable. (Geralt's jovial companion for some of the stories, Dandelion, seems slightly too similar to Moonglum in the Elric stories for my liking, for that matter.) Despite this, Sapkowski does manage to come up with a reasonably original take on the old "mysterious outsider" motif, especially when it becomes clear that Geralt's superhuman fighting abilities don't look cool and kick-ass to onlookers - they look gruesome and horrifying, and they make people want to keep as far away from him as possible.

The third strand linking the stories together is, for me, the most objectionable one, which is something of a problem, because it appears to be the overarching theme of the book. It's Geralt's bizarre interactions with women. In pretty much every story in The Last Wish, female characters are usually not just close to the heart of the dark mysteries Geralt is called on to investigate, but are in fact the crux of the matter. Either their essential natures prove to be the cause of all the goings-on, or their actions are the cause of the events at hand. This is either overt, as in The Witcher, or by way of a plot twist, as in A Grain of Truth, Sapkowski's take on Beauty and the Beast where the beauty also turns out to be a beast.

The stories in The Last Wish are not presented in chronological order, but nonetheless in the order they are presented they do seem to suggest a progression of sorts. In the framing device Geralt is lounging about in a rural temple whilst his wounds heal and reminiscing about his past adventures, so perhaps the order the stories are presented in are a way of showing how Geralt is thinking things over and trying to reach some conclusion about himself. In fact, let me give you a brief rundown of the stories and the women at the heart of them. This is going to be a bit spoilery, so you may want to skip it if you just want to jump to my conclusions.

The Witcher: Geralt is locked in deadly battle with a young girl who happens to be a bloodsucking demon, a voiceless, howling monster who simply cannot be reasoned with. She does her best to kill him, he does his best to either save what's left of her humanity or kill her for good. The battle is bitter and wince-inducingly visceral.

A Grain of Truth: Geralt ends up locked in deadly battle with a young woman who happens to be a bloodsucking demon who has duped a deformed but otherwise benign young man into taking care of her, and has come to love him in the process. The woman is a voiceless, howling monster who simply cannot be reasoned with. She dies. The young man she had bewitched is redeemed by her sacrifice.

The Lesser Evil: Ages ago, a bunch of twisted old wizards divined that certain young girls, born to the nobility, were inherently evil and would cause the end of the world if left to their own devices. Geralt finds himself facing one of these women, who might be a primordial force of evil in human guise, or might simply be a jaded product of an abusive upbringing at the hands of people convinced she was evil. (There's a bit where Geralt appears to hypnotise her to get an answer, but it's very ambiguous, and the murky translation means it's really difficult to follow.) She sleeps with Geralt but the next day she goes and almost does something really vile, so Geralt has to kill her, but he feels kind of bad about it.

A Question of Price: Geralt is called on to make sure that destiny is served, in the case of a princess whose hidden psychic might could cause chaos under the wrong circumstances. Her mother is a queen precisely as powerful and manipulative and sovereign as any male monarch in the book, and is the focus of Geralt's (and the reader's) attentions until the princess upstages her. It turns out that the key to containing the princess's power and completing the queen's is for them both to get married to their twue wuvs.

The Edge of the World: For a moment I thought this would be the exception: a story where the key to the mystery isn't a woman. Then it turned out that the whole thing was about a nature goddess which gave meaning to the lives of man and elf alike.

The Last Wish: Geralt meets a naughty sorceress whose tampering with a genie almost has apocalyptic consequences. He saves the world by wishing for her to fall in love with him. Or to fuck him. It's not clear which; either way, it is apparent from textual evidence in other stories that their relationship doesn't end well.

The Voice of Reason: In the framing story, Geralt is recuperating at a temple run by all-female priests. The high priestess thinks that the temple's telepath should read his mind to tell his future or something like that. Geralt at first doesn't want to (mainly whilst he is reminiscing about the stories in which women have backstabbed him). Eventually he accepts it, after reminiscing about stories in which he appreciated the company of women.

The arc here seems mildly reminiscent of an adolescent boy trying to come to terms with how to talk to girls. Unfortunately, as is all too common, said boy's ruminations take him down a decidedly twisted path which never quite leads to "hey, maybe you should treat women like human beings, perhaps that would work". At the beginning women are hissing alien fiends who are liable to rip your face off. Around the middle, they seem perilous but also damnably tempting. At the end, they are goddesses to be placed on pedestals and worshipped. Note that at every stage the women are essentially puzzles for Geralt to solve, rather than, you know, people.

It is possible, of course, that this is entirely deliberate, and the whole volume is a character study of a ninja assassin suffering from the terminal stages of Nice Guy Syndrome, or perhaps a dissection of the misogynistic basis of most fairy tales. Or it could be that Sapkowski actually buys into this crap. And this is where, yet again, the mediocre translation makes reviewing The Last Wish horrendously difficult. I can completely believe that there are subtleties and nuances that Sapkowski intended to introduce which are simply undetectable in this version of the book. Like I said earlier, the translation job is entirely deaf to the tone the story seems to want to convey, so it's entirely possible that there's a satirical element to all this that I am just missing. Sapkowski is obviously an author of no little skill, it's just such a shame that he couldn't have been provided with a translator of similar capabilities. Then I'd be able to decide once and for all whether to praise him or damn him.

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Comments (go to latest)
Shim at 12:43 on 2010-01-19
That does sound intriguing - as in, I'd be interested to know which is the case. The stories themselves, I dunno, it'd depend a lot on the writing for me. Does anyone know how closely the game follows the books? Not that I've played it, but I think there was a bit of internet press about its approach to women.
Wardog at 13:00 on 2010-01-19
I read this at about the time I was playing the game - which, by the way, I found *awesome* and if you have a machine that can play it, I heartily recommend it. I had pretty much the same problems with the book as Arthur does. The translation is so mind-bogglingly bland that I had no idea what I was meant to be taking away from the text, which I suspect was meant to be witty, dark and Vancian but, feh, who knows, it could have just been boring, stereotypical and faintly misogynistic.

The game, equally, has a rather, err, questionable attitude to women - but in this adorably juvenile way I just couldn't find it in me to take offence. Essentially you get to bonk your way through the story - and all the women are over-sexed and undressed ... but, blah, there's something weirdly harmless about it, if that makes sense? I guess it's just that style of pulpy fantasy - and the women tend to be quite strong characters in their own right (one of them is a sorceress, one a doctor), who are having as much bonking Geralt as he is bonking them.

I kind of read it as a sexism reversal in a way - I mean, the woman of the world use and objectify Geralt, since he is hot, unattached, uninterested in attachment, immune to disease and infertile. Hell, in a dirty psuedo-Medievial society Geralt is your perfect lover...
Arthur B at 13:41 on 2010-01-19
I've been holding out for the game to come out on the 360, but then the company that CD Projekt Red licensed out the console adaptation to dropped the ball. I'm now waiting to see what happens when the second game comes out; apparently CDPR still want to see the game come out on consoles, so the speculation is that they'll handle the job themselves, once The Witcher 2 is out.
https://me.yahoo.com/ela111belo#9e7d9 at 17:50 on 2010-01-29
I am not completly sure about the Polish version of the book, however, i have read the Czech version which is far better than the English one. It really loose a lot in the translation. Not only the humor, but the over all satirical feel.I have bought The Last Wish in English and i was really suprised by how bad the translation was.
The Witcher saga takes itself far more seriosly than the short stories. I cant tell if that is for worse or for better, nonetheless, the short stories really seems to be more written for fun than for anything alse. Moreover they dont really match with the saga, one of the short stories directly contradicting it.

I havent play the game, but I have heard is reasonably close to the atmophere of the short stories. I have seen tv series (a movie was made out of it afterwards) based on the short stories done by Polish studio and that is horrible. Dont watch it.
Arthur B at 19:04 on 2010-01-29
Thanks for explaining that! If the main saga is more serious than the shorts, then perhaps the translator was chosen on that basis - they wanted to pick one person to translate the entire series (to give them a consistent voice), but they ended up choosing someone who could handle the serious stuff but was rubbish at conveying comedy.
https://me.yahoo.com/ela111belo#9e7d9 at 23:18 on 2010-01-29
Well, the saga has as well punch lines, which are important, and unfergetable. Generaly really BLACK humor. And the first two books are written in slightly lighter tone, as the proper killing starts afterwards. If the translater is not able to get across in the shorts, I dont really think it will be better in the saga. It is shame when bad translation kills a good book. Lets hope that the rest will be translated better.
Probably a long dead thread, but seeing the speculation about what it reads like in the original, I figured I'd comment. I'm American, but grew up speaking Polish, have lived there a couple times. I haven't read the English translations but a couple remarks in this piece, and other reviews I've read, indicate that there is something very wrong with the translation.

But the prose style of The Last Wish seems somewhat flat and monotonous
The original's prose style is a sardonic faux archaic voice. Think of the pre-modern novel epic tale style crossed with a pastiche of Tolkien's style crossed with a pastiche of Walter Scott to get sort of an idea of what this is like. (It's also a bit of a reference to a turn of the century Polish Nobel winner, much beloved in Poland, except by those like me who can't stand him) I'm not too fond of it, but flat and monotonous it is not. It is especially present in the dialogues. Judging by what I've read about the translation, the translator couldn't be bothered to try to render the author's language in English, and just did a literal translation into the most basic English equivalents she could think of. Depending on deadlines and her fee, I may or may not sympathize with that choice.


Arthur B at 13:56 on 2010-03-13
Googling around I find Danusia Stok, whose main speciality in translation seems to be... textbooks. Which isn't the best background for someone you want translating fiction.

Oh, and she also seems to be involved with translating crime novels by Marek Krajewski; it sounds like at least some people there think that her translation style works for those, since they seem to have a somewhat austere and terse style anyway.

It does sound more and more like they just plain picked the wrong translator for the job.

She also seems to have translated some other stuff, but as a general rule, when choosing a translator one should hire someone who is a native speaker in the target language. I'm wondering whether Ms. Stok is such a person or just a native Polish speaker with an excellent knowledge of English. Full bilingualism generally requires someone who managed to get a pre-college level education in both languages and live as a child in both countries. (E.g. I spent the second half my childhood in a French speaking country and I'm equally comfortable reading French and English, but since I was mostly in an English language school, I could not competently translate a novel into French.) Such people exist, but they're very rare - I know quite a few folks who know both Polish and English well, but only one person who would be equally comfortable translating in both directions. I know a few more who would qualify for full French-English bilingualism, but again, they're far less common than native speakers of one who are fluent in the other language.
Andy G at 12:59 on 2010-03-14
It's actually been shown that true bilingualism (i.e. being a native speaker in two languages) doesn't make you a better translator, because bilingual people don't have an awareness of correspondences between the languages in the way that someone who has learned a language as a foreign language. But certainly it would be exceptional to translate into any language other than your native language. Though especially for literary translation from language A to language B, I think the ideal case is a translator who is a native speaker of B working with a native speaker of language A.
Melissa G. at 16:33 on 2010-03-14
Speaking as someone who works as a freelance translator, I agree that it's best for the person to be a native speaker in the language they are translating into with a comprehensive knowledge of the language they are translating from. My own situation: I've been studying Japanese for years, but I'd be lost if someone asked me to translate an English book into Japanese. Ask me to translate a Japanese one into English however, and I feel extremely confident.

I've also ruminated a lot on how literal or liberal a translation can or should be, and I've decided that translators should lean more on the liberal side - especially in languages like Japanese that are so vastly different from English. And if a person is not a native speaker of English, it's hard for them to do more liberal translations, and if the translations are too literal, it doesn't sound like natural dialogue or anything else, and it can ruin the whole story.

I know I'm basically agreeing with everyone, but I wanted to throw in my two cents. :-)
because bilingual people don't have an awareness of correspondences between the languages in the way that someone who has learned a language as a foreign language.
Really? I'm surprised since that doesn't correspond with my own experience or those of people I've known. On the contrary, I've found that classes can give you the skeleton of a language, but everything else you need to learn by reading and speaking it on a frequent basis. On your second point, I'm reminded of the Pevear and Volokhnosky team which has gotten wildly varying reviews, and I've always been a bit suspicious of the fact that Pevear doesn't know Russian.
I've also ruminated a lot on how literal or liberal a translation can or should be, and I've decided that translators should lean more on the liberal side - especially in languages like Japanese that are so vastly different from English.
AFAIK Polish is not as different from English as Japanese, but between being fully inflected and the way the verbs mutate, it's far more so than French or even German. But I don't think that's the problem here - the distinctiveness of the style doesn't rely on the specificity of the language. You can just create a semi-artificial archaic version of English using the existing English equivalents. Even a full rewriting of it into normal modern English would still presumably not generate the many harsh criticisms of the translation's prose. (If you've read Bruno Schulz in English you've read a translation without any real hint of his very distinctive and deliberately complex use of language, but it's still worth reading) That would come from a sentence by sentence straight translation - i.e. a quick first draft written without much thought of what you're trying to do and then proofed for syntactical, grammar and spelling errors.
Rami at 18:07 on 2010-03-15
because bilingual people don't have an awareness of correspondences between the languages in the way that someone who has learned a language as a foreign language.
Really? I'm surprised since that doesn't correspond with my own experience or those of people I've known.
Same here, I must admit -- I'm a little bewildered by that myself. I'd be tempted to say the opposite is true, in fact, but that's probably just my personal experience.
Andy G at 18:52 on 2010-03-15
Really? I'm surprised since that doesn't correspond with my own experience or those of people I've known. On the contrary, I've found that classes can give you the skeleton of a language, but everything else you need to learn by reading and speaking it on a frequent basis.

Translating is different from being able to speak or write a language. Native speakers usually lack an external perspective on their own language, and so are less able to think about in the way that is necessary to be able to rephrase it into the terms of another language.
Craverguy at 15:30 on 2017-10-01
I know this review is old, Arthur, and you might not even have your copy of this book anymore, but I was wondering if you know the name of the translator for the edition you read.

I'm thinking of picking it up on Amazon (my local library has it, but with a months-long waiting list), but I won't bother if the translation is the same hack job you wrote about.
Arthur B at 16:42 on 2017-10-01
I believe all English versions of The Last Wish were done by Danusia Stok, though apparently from the third book in the series onwards she was replaced by someone else.
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