Classic SF novel review: “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

By | January 14, 2019

I hope you’ll forgive me for posting about something not related to Japan or Japanese, especially because this article will touch on three topics that are important to me (and related to this blog in one way or another)––science fiction, translation, and publishing.

One of the perks of living in Portland, Oregon is the proximity to an Amazon Books store. While it’s relatively small, I really love the way it’s designed, and (possibly partially because of that) many of the books they have on display seem terribly interesting. One of those was “Roadside Picnic”, an SF novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that happened to be translated from Russian by Olena Bormashenko.

Despite having translated and published several books myself, and being a big supporter of translated literature, I noticed that over time I have not really read that many translated novels. The big exception to that was Japanese, especially before I became fluent enough to read the original Japanese versions. Thinking back, the last time I read something translated that was not from Japanese might have been a compilation by Jorge Louis Borges that contained the amazing short story “The Library of Babel”. (Update: I remembered a classic SF novel I read in the last few years that was translated from Russian: “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin)

Perhaps one of the reasons I hesitated to read translated novels is because I was worried that the translation would somehow be wrong. Alternately, it may have just been the fact that translated fiction is such a small percent of novels at most bookstores.

In any case, even though I saw this novel was translated I decided to give it a chance; after reading only a few pages I was really into it, and ended up buying it a few weeks later. I think the reason that some of my concerns about translation were assuaged is that this was actually a “new translation”–– meaning there was already a published translation, but at some point a publisher deemed there was enough mistakes or other issues warranting publishing a new translation. So I had high confidence the translation would be good quality.

Anyway, to talk about the book itself a little, “Roadside Picnic” is a novel first written in 1972 about the aftermath of aliens visiting Earth. One of the main characters is a “Stalker” whose job is to sneak into the mysterious areas where the aliens had been (“The Zone”) and steal some of the incomprehensible, seemingly magic artifacts in order to sell them and make some money. It turns out this novel was popular enough to be made into a movie Stalker in 1979, and also a series of video games (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.).

The way “The Zone” was described strongly reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, which involves a similarly mysterious zone where aliens had previously been. As I read “Roadside Picnic”, I was sure that it was inspiration for VanderMeer’s set of novels. However, according to this thread, it was not a direct inspiration.

The book has a bunch of things that make it interesting, one of which being the premise that humans are not able to understand aliens from outer space. While surely there are other examples of this (2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind), perhaps it is more common for stories to involve humans actually interacting with aliens, and––at least to a certain extent––understanding them.

Another characteristic of “Roadside Picnic”  is how, rather than showing fantastic journeys and beautiful vistas of other worlds, as are often seen in science fiction novels, things are presented in a very everyday, matter-of-fact style. For example, when amazing artifacts are found that seem to break the known rules of physics, these are treated as treasures and sold to the highest bidder in order to make money instead of focusing too much on their technical details.

Possibly because of the way things were presented in such a down-to-earth fashion, around the middle of the book I started losing interest, though I think that coincided with a perspective change in one of the later chapters (which I still feel is a minor weakness of the book). But I’m very glad to have read the book to the last page; the ending, while not exactly full of closure, was philosophically significant and rose my impression of the book significantly.

In terms of the translation, I don’t know more than a word or two of Russian (nor do I have the original book in front of me) so I can’t make any judgments about its accuracy. However, I will say it was a very readable translation, especially given some of the long, complex sentences and paragraphs that are quite frequent in the text (which, at times, reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading”). The translator obviously has a very strong grasp of the English language, and a great vocabulary to boot.

Nowadays I can’t help reading with my editor hat on, and, to be honest, this book was very well edited––I didn’t find a single obvious mistake. Having said that, there was at least three or four places that felt a little awkward. For example, on pg. 73, “Pour me a cup of coffee? I’ll shower in a bit,” the question mark just really felt out of place. Another was the repeated use of the word “mug” in a few scenes. While clearly this word can be used in English to refer to a person’s face in a negative way, I felt that repeated use of it was a little unusual, and am guessing in Russian there was some similar word that is used more freely. But I don’t mean to criticize the translator; on the contrary, reading this translation made me want to buy the Russian novel, learn a little Russian, and see what the text was originally. Not because things were unnatural, but rather the opposite––Did the translator adopt more of a literal style? Or make a lot of tweaks so that the English sounds as natural as it does? I was also curious to compare the original translation and see how the tone and content differed.

It turns out Olena Bormashenko, the translator of this newer edition, initially wanted to share Roadside Picnic with an English-speaking friend. But she felt that the original English translation was lacking, so as a hobby she started to retranslate the book on her own, trying to be more faithful to the original Russian version. It took her several years to complete, but this newer translation eventually got published. I think Olena is a great role model to motivate all of us who want to get into the translation industry, especially those who don’t have a formal background; she is a mathematician by profession but moved from Russia to Canada at an early age, and doesn’t appear to have any formal training in translation. You can read more about her in this interview.

The version I read, published in 2012, contained a forward by the famous SF author Urusula K. Le Guin, and an afterward by Boris Strugatsky.

While the forward was very well written and contained interesting insight, I was astonished by how much it revealed about the book (like one of the key lines from the end of the story). If you are the type of person that doesn’t like spoilers, definitely read this last.

The afterward, while also somewhat short, was extremely impactful to me, nearly as much as the novel itself. In particular, I enjoyed the discussion about how long it took to publish the book (8 years) and all of the correspondence required to facilitate that. Boris gave a few quotes of the many comments that editors had made in order to reduce violence and other things they felt were immoral and would have a bad effect on Soviet youth at the time. Fortunately, the 2012 edition was translated from the authors’ original version, not the heavily edited one that was originally published in 1972.

This story went on to be the Strugatsky brothers’ most famous novel (at least outside of Russia), made into over 50 different versions in over 20 countries, not to mention the movie and video games. All of this is not just because of their hard work in writing the novel, but in pushing hard to get it published. Definitely a lesson for authors and translators!

In closing, I highly recommend this book to science fiction lovers, especially those that enjoy stories about mysterious alien invasions with a unique twist.

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