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Unnamed does not exist | Interview with Prof. Jolanta Tambor

16.03.2021 - 15:46 update 26.03.2021 - 13:52
Editors: OO
Tags: Stanisław Lem

The year 2021 was declared the Year of Stanisław Lem. An interview with Prof. Jolanta Tambor from the Institute of Linguistics at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Silesia, a linguist, Director of the School of Polish Language and Culture of the University of Silesia, author of publications on the language of Stanisław Lem.

Maria Sztuka: The one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the most renowned figure in Polish science fiction is an occasion to recall his fascinating novels, short stories and essays, but there still seems to be enormous interest in the writer’s works…

Prof. Jolanta Tambor: Let me interject, because I do not agree with this statement. Unfortunately, the fascination is fading away. For the last ten, maybe eight years, the number of fans of Lem’s fiction has been decreasing. I have observed this mainly during classes at the summer school of Polish language, literature and culture, which we organise for foreigners. In the last decade of the 20th century, Lem became fashionable. Sometimes, Stanisław Lem was the only Polish writer known to students coming here from different parts of the world, everyone was reading Lem. That is why, from the very beginning of the school’s existence, that is from 1991, for 15 years (until the writer’s death in 2006) we would regularly go to Kraków with a group of students to meet Lem at his home.

M.S.: Quite the astronomical idea. How long did you have to persuade him?

J.T.: It may be hard to believe, but in fact not long at all. The programme of our first summer school included a trip to Kraków. So I thought that since there was such a huge interest in Lem and I had previously written some scientific and popular texts about the prose of the author of Solaris, maybe it would be worth trying to organise a meeting with the writer himself. I called him and he agreed immediately. Lem was an incredible person, warm and welcoming. He refused any payment for his lectures and claimed that meetings with students were one of his greatest joys in life. Not only did he never take a penny from us, but each student always had a bottle of water waiting for them, together with plates of various cookies prepared by the writer’s wife. Some students would secretly wrap them in napkins and hide them, saying that they would keep this gift from Stanisław Lem for the rest of their lives.

M.S.: The first meeting…

J.T.: It was August of 1991. Stanisław Lem greeted us on the doorstep and asked if there was anyone here from Ukraine. Andrzej Porytko stepped forward and Lem told him that he would return to a different country than the one he had left, he would return to Ukraine that is free and independent. Back then, information did not circulate so quickly, there were no mobile phones, no Internet. Andrzej was extremely moved, for him this visit was a great experience, he had been fascinated by Stanisław Lem’s works for years and was going to ask the writer for permission to translate Highcastle. Lem not only gave him permission to do so, but also consented to the free use of his works. Andrei Porytko, now a well-known translator of Lem’s works in Ukraine, often recalls this remarkable moment. For the next 15 years, always in August, we visited the writer’s house at 66 Narwik street. There were always a lot of people wanting to go on these trips, at least twice as many as the living room could accommodate. Although Lem asked for the groups not to exceed twenty people, it was almost impossible to keep to this limit. Nobody wanted to miss such an opportunity and there were never less than forty of us at a time. So the students sat wherever they could, including the floor. Years later, Lem said that he could no longer imagine August without meetings with foreign students.

M.S.: Aside from the worldwide decline in reading, why is it that young people reach for Stanisław Lem’s works less often now?

J.T.: It seems that the desire to read the kind of science fiction literature that Lem used to write is gradually disappearing. Today’s readers are more inclined to read fantasy works, and not only literary works of this genre are in demand, but also cinematography tends to favour them. Moreover, Lem’s language is very demanding, which may be why the younger Polish generation reads him less and less. We understood Lem’s texts because we could reconstruct for ourselves the meaning of his neologisms on the basis of the context, and there weren’t so many of them that they would have distorted our reception of the work. The difficulty also lies in Lem’s use of archaic sentence structures, for example in Fables for Robots, or in Tales of Pirx the Pilot. The abundance of synonyms (often archaic or rare) is also a barrier to entry. And synonyms tend to fade away. We used to have a huge range of words to choose from when agreeing: tak, oczywiście, jak najbardziej, jasne, ma się rozumieć, słusznie, rzecz jasna (yes, of course, spot on, absolutely, my thoughts exactly, that’s right etc.) Nowadays young people tend to replace them with a single word: dokładnie (exactly). Instead of our charming Polish diminutive suffixes, such as piękniusi (beautiful), piękniutki, piękniuchny,  we have just one word for everything – super, which is also being replaced by another key word – mega. The impoverishment of language, the use of monosyllables, makes it difficult for readers to get the message in the works of the author of The Cyberiad, which is why I am very pleased that the Year of Lem has been announced. His works need to be shown anew, not only around the world, but also in Poland.

M.S.: Lem was not a philologist, and yet his use of the Polish language shows a profound understanding and ability to harness its potential. Where did he derive this knowledge from?

J.T.: He was guided primarily by his exceptional linguistic intuition, which he supported with careful observation. He listened to linguists’ discussions, read all kinds of linguistic advice, and by the end of the last century, linguistic culture was present in all media. Outstanding linguists were invited to participate in public interviews, among others Katarzyna Kłosińska, who is the current President of the Council for the Polish Language, Andrzej Markowski, Jan Miodek, Jerzy Bralczyk, linguistic questions were clarified by Antonina Grybosiowa from our University, and many eminent philologists published their texts in various popular magazines. Lem was listening and remembering.

M.S.: What word-forming techniques did he use most often?

J.T.: Polish language is a highly morphologised one. Researchers have proven that Slavic languages, including Polish, contain over 70 percent of vocabulary that refers to another, simpler word, which is how, for example, names for persons performing certain activities or professions are formed. Even if we borrow some words from English, we very quickly adapt them to the linguistic rules of Polish. For example, words ending in -ing – parking, trening, kemping, immediately gave birth to names of activities with a Polish suffix: parkowanie, trenowanie, and in turn, the released -ing began to support a whole series of humorous, ephemeral neologisms: plażing (resting on a beach), patrzing (resing and looking), drzewing (planting trees), kocing (resing on a blanket), trawing (resting on grass) and… łomżing (resting and drinking Łomża beer). Lem was aware of word formation series and, by flawlessly following the rules, made plausible the existence of lectons, nolars, nightzebs, nallyrakers, neotremes, and thus the fictitious world became alive and real. He was able to use suffixes, prefixes and endings in such a way as to build new words from something that already exists in the Polish language, or from something that has been borrowed from other languages. Since there are astrologists, it seems natural that symmetriads orbiting Solaris had to be studied by symmetriadologists; since there are cosmodromes in reality, transgalactodromes were created in Lem’s world. Using repetitive segments, he let his imagination run wild and equipped new worlds with aeromobiles, televisits, a teletrans, or a teleport. Though these names sound familiar, they were created at the beginning of the 1960s and can found in the novels Solaris (1961) and Invincible (1964). He used virtually all known methods of enriching vocabulary: creating word-forming neologisms, building phrasemes, and borrowing from other languages. I believe that he was an excellent amateur linguist, his linguistic talent is not limited only to creating new vocabulary, since it covers also higher i.e. syntactic-semantical and textual levels of language. Lem had an excellent understanding of the potentials of language, the possibility to play verbal games thanks to the use of ambiguity, polysemy, but also syntactic and textual transformations.

M.S.: Neologisms evoke the strongest emotions.

J.T.: Especially those from grotesque and fairytale texts. A series of celestial bodies, such as nędzioły, nurkownice, nałuszki, gryzmaki, rymundy, trzepce, graszaki, plukwy, filidrony, zamry, are mostly words surprising in their novelty. They are not constructed on the basis of a clear, easily identifiable core, but we can find and hear something peculiar in them, maybe they have something in common with grumbling, fluttering, diving… Certainly we can see familiar suffixes in them: gryzm-ak i grasz-ak like liz-ak and maz-aknurkow-nica like lutow-nica, nędzi-oły like bazgr-oły etc. But some are probably impossible to decipher, such is Lem’s imagination. For what purpose did Lem create new terminology? I think that he assumed the principle that the unnamed does not exist. A human being needs names to talk or even think about the surrounding reality. The new worlds had to have a new terminology, nothing could be the same as in real (by the way, the word real is also an abbreviation coined by Stanisław Lem, and this synonym for the real world appears already in Return from the Stars written in 1961, although with a slightly different meaning). Lexicons seemed too poor, so he supplemented them with his own vocabulary, masterfully juggling with cores, prefixes, and suffixes.

M.S.: How do translators approach such neologisms?

J.T.: In the course of more than 30 years of working at the School of Polish Language and Culture, we had many interactions with translators of Lem, including our friend from the Beijing University of Foreign Languages Prof. Zhao Gang, Prof. Milica Mirkulowska from North Macedonia or the previously mentioned Andrzej Porytka. While in the case of Slavic languages, English or German, translators find the right forms in their lexicons, in the case of Chinese the challenges are much greater, because the language has virtually no word-formation as we understand it. The translation of Lem’s neologisms is done by means of creating new character groupings. It is tedious, but possible, as Prof. Zhao Gang has proven with his Chinese translation of “Solaris”. It has to be a method that works in a given language. Lem requires very good translators, whose task is not only to render the plot, but also the way of thinking, the philosophical concept of the world and the use of language.

M.S.: How can you teach foreigners Polish using Lem’s prose?

J.S.: Of course, we do not, especially in the case of beginner students, turn to texts full to the brim of neologisms. But the more adept at Polish they are, the easier it is to show, using these neologisms as an example, that the Polish language is morphologically structured, and that we Poles like to play with words, we are creative and witty. Students must be prepared that not all the words they hear exist permanently in our lexicon. However, if they want to read literature, poetry, or even understand commercials broadcast on Polish television, they must learn to play with language themselves. They have to understand what łomżing is, which in the commercial is defined as kocing na trawingu (analogous to jachting or surfing). Poles understand, and foreign students are shown that reading Lem, understanding Lem and learning how language can be used, will help them understand even the poetry of Miron Białoszewski. Students like that very much.

M.S.: You use the writer’s unique language in glottodidactics. The publication entitled Stanisław Lem: Jak ocalał świat, Maszyna Trurla, Wyprawa pierwsza A, czyli Elektrybałt Trurla is a teaching aid for teaching Polish as a foreign language.

J.T.: Fables for Robots is an excellent material thanks to which many linguistic complexities can be explained. Lem does it in a logical, clear and easy to understand way. In order to explain to students, especially the English-speaking ones, the grammatical construction of the so-called double negation in Polish, I referred to the story entitled How the World Was Saved. The machine built by Trurl performs actions that begin with the letter “N”. Klapaucius comes to check it and gives orders: Machine! Do Nothing! When the machine does not perform any actions, an argument arises. Klapaucius insists that, in Polish, doing nothing and doing Nothing (i.e. something) does not mean the same. Lem clearly explains the difference through the mouths of his characters. The protagonists, who are fiercely arguing about the meaning of sentence with double and single negation, nearly miss their opportunity stop the machine, which understood the command literally and wanted to turn everything into nothing. After this exercise, there are no more problems, the students no longer argue about the double negative and they understand why the sentence in Polish: Nie możesz przyjąć żadnego dokumentu (lit. you cannot accept any document) is correct, and the proposed: Możesz przyjąć żaden dokument (lit. you can accept no document) is incorrect, and also that Nie możesz przyjąć każdego dokumentu (lit. you cannot accept every document) means something completely different.

M.S.: People said that Lem was predicting the future. Many of his fantasies have already come true, such as e-books or audiobooks, which he predicted already in 1961 in Return from the Stars. So maybe the information and translation pill will one day replace teachers?

J.T.: Each meeting with Lem was devoted to a different issue, but at all of them he always and continuously repeated that people are the most important and technology will never replace them.

M.S.: Thank you very much for the interview.

The article entitled „Unnamed does not exist” was published in the February issue of „Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” (University of Silesia Magazine) no. 5 (285)

Prof. dr hab. Jolanta Tambor
Prof. Jolanta Tambor | Photo by Agnieszka Sikora


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