Michael Kandel is best known for his translations of Stanislaw Lem's novels and short fiction; his English renderings of Lem's wide-ranging philosophical fictions have met with wide acclaim. While he's been most visible as a science-fictional voice, he's also translated Andrej Stasiuk's travelogues and the difficult-to-classify work of novelist (and former Solidarity press officer) Pawel Huelle from the Polish.
Beyond his work as a translator, he has been an advocate for science fiction as a particularly insightful editor, introducing readers to important works by Ursula K. LeGuin, Jonathan Lethem, and James Morrow, among others, during his years at Harcourt. Along the way he's also written four SF novels of his own.
Currently working as an editor at the Modern Language Association, he has concentrated most recently on bringing the work of some of Poland's leading contemporary science fiction and fantasy writers to English-language readers. His collection, A Polish Book of Monsters, features short stories by Jacek Dukaj, Andrzej Sapkowski, Tomasz Kolodziejczak, Andrzej Zimniak, and Marek S. Huberath — whose award-winning novel, Nest of Worlds, has just been published by Restless Books.
MICHAEL BERK: Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with Polish science fiction, or they may associate the entire national literature with just one name—Stanislaw Lem, who you've translated extensively. Can you put Marek S. Huberath's work in context for us?
KANDEL: Well, first off I'm not sure I see him as working in the science fiction tradition at all. For me, the writer that he calls to mind is Solzhenitsyn, in terms of his moral imagination, his concern with humanity, with what happens to humans reduced by suffering to the very worst of circumstances. That's really what's at the center of his work.
In any case, I suppose that when we think writing is good, we call it "literary"—and when we don't, we call it by its genre.
The metafictional conceit of Nest of Worlds points to a Reader-with-a-capital-R, who is also an Author-with-a-capital-A, who is immortal and possibly fills the entire universe. I've seen Huberath referred to as a religious writer, and there's certainly something to that effect at work in this book.
Yes, the capitalized "He" and "Reader" are present, though at one point as I was working on the translation and discussing it with him, I had used the word "God"; he told me in no uncertain terms "I don't want God in here," and no, God doesn't appear.
You've mentioned chivalry as a recurring theme for Huberath, and there's something of a quest motif in his work.
The knight goes on the quest—that's Don Quixote—setting forth to make the world a better place, even when everyone's laughing at him.
You've also spoken of Huberath's particular protectiveness towards his women characters; his chivalry in that sense. There's Ra Mahleiné in Nest of Worlds, who gives up everything—she's a strong character, and in a way the moral center of the book, but Gavein's struggle to save her is what drives the plot.
There's a story of his, "Trzy kobiety Dona" (Don's Three Women), a short story of a future Ice Age. The main character, who's been the protector of these women, he's basically a knight, a chivalrous guy, who worked against these forces of savagery. And he eventually is killed, and then he's buried in the snow along with a house cat.
Now, there's a sexist element to all of this that's very much part of Polish culture, which seems rather silly to us. But I've seen Huberath act that way himself. He's very chivalrous, personally.
Nest of Worlds makes me think a bit of Lem's Fiasco, because it begins from a similar position of inevitability—humanity is unable to proceed in any way but the most destructive and obvious. I think also of the point at which Dave/Gavein appeals directly to the reader, making us complicit in the actions that lead to the death of one of the main characters. Is this a sensibility that's post-Communist, or something particular to Polish literature?
Well, historically and culturally there is a legacy of Polish defeat that many of these writers are dealing with...and maybe the stoic cynicism comes from that tradition.
That gets me thinking of your anthology, A Polish Book of Monsters, much of which would be what we would call fantasy, though "Yoo Retoont"—the most "science fiction" piece among them—fits in because of this shared quest motif. Is that something you had in mind when selecting the stories?
I don't think so—I was thinking in terms of monsters!
Nest of Worlds has no monster, though—the only monster, I guess, is humanity, seen at its worst.
Well, it's interesting, I think, that the protagonist is Death. Whoever he talks to, whoever he has anything to do with, is going to die. So there's something kind of monstrous about that.
But he's the most likable character in the book! Haifan, the character who murders his housemates and son out of the blue, sits quietly chatting while he waits for the police. Is that—like the street numbers—a parody of American culture?
There's a parody of newspapers here, tabloid stories—serial murders, this horrible thing happens, that horrible thing happens—though not necessarily just a parody of American culture (though I'd read it that way). [Huberath] lived in North America for a while—he was a student in Toronto at one point—and I have to imagine that as an observer he used that for fuel for launching bigger criticisms.
I'm curious about the process of translation when it comes to science fiction. I was talking to our copyeditor, who had pointed out the number of technical and slang terms that went undefined. Now for me as a reader of SF, I take that for granted, and even expect to be confused at the beginning of the book, understanding that later on it'll all make sense. I even think of poorly written SF as defining its terms too early. As a translator of science fiction, what do you see as the challenges of genre work in translation?
Well, if you know that this happens in science fiction, then it's not so strange and you don't have a problem with it at all—in fact, it's almost easier to make up words because you know how to do that, to come up with something that corresponds to what the author's made up.
The first book I read in Polish that was SF was Lem's The Invincible, and I really had a hard time getting through it. I thought it was a great book, but I spent a lot of time looking through the dictionary, and later someone told me, those words aren't in any Polish dictionary!
So, you know, if you know where you are, this is not a problem. You know this or that word is specific to this world, and that's how you understand it.
So that depends on a certain relationship to the reader—is it the reader who defines the genre?
The hard thing, for a translator, is the cultural gap between literatures. Things that might be alive and interesting in one culture...even if you work really hard on the language, in another culture they're just uninteresting. They're flat. There are certain things we just can't do.
Someone might write in a loud voice—they exaggerate, or they're emphatic—and it's fine in one culture. For us, who are accustomed to a New Yorker style, this might come across as childish. So what do you do with that? That's really hard. People focus on the linguistic problems, but the linguistic problems, by and large, are solvable. But the cultural differences, those can be a killer.
So how do you get around that?
I don't think you can. I think sometimes things work and sometimes they don't, and it's out of your power to do anything about it.
Translators...are going to fail. No matter what you do, you're not going to succeed. People may like what you do, but they like something else that isn't exactly what you really set out to do.