I just finished reading Kilmartin and Cox's translation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, and one particular passage stood out to me. I'm hesitant to ask a question about the Kilmartin and Cox translation, because I found out after reading it that (1) it's a very poor translation, most likely due to the fact that (2) it's not a direct translation, it's a translation of a French translation of the Polish text. The passage occurs on page 30 of my translation, where one character is referred to as a "Negress" and described using racially coded language:

Suddenly, looming up in the opening which led to the communal bathroom, a tall silhouette appeared, barely distinguishable in the surrounding gloom. I stood stock still, frozen to the spot. A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs. Less than a yard separated us as she passed me, but she did not give me so much as a glance. She went on her way, her grass skirt swinging rhythmically, resembling one of the steatopygous statues in anthropological museums. She opened Gibarian's door and on the threshold her silhouette stood out distinctly against the bright light from inside the room.

On one hand, I feel like I'm missing some things in translation here: the word "Negress" seems weird to me, and I'm not sure if this is due to Kilmartin and Cox's translation. On the other hand, the passage appeals to several racial stereotypes, such as the reference to the "grass skirt," and the "statues in anthropological museums."

I have three interrelated questions. How much was this passage altered in translation? How would the language have been understood by Polish readers? And why did Lem code this particular character as black?

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    I am still wondering, is this question about "Why author decided to picture the woman as dark-skinned" or "why is the word negress used instead of black"
    – Yasskier
    Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 0:55
  • @Yasskier Sadly, a clarification which can never be made now that the OP has deleted his account. My guess is that it's both: the last sentence matches your first option, but the penultimate paragraph is closer to your second option.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 14:36

4 Answers 4


Native speaker here. The most important part that was lost in translation was the rhythm of the prose. Lem's texts at all times have a quality similar to that of a blank verse. Sadly, I think it would require much better writer than Lem to save the meaning and give a similar quality to English translation.

Also a number of passage's literal details got lost. Reading this I see an image of Venus of Willendorf (except the arms and clothes), which was well known at the time.

Venus of Willendorf

The parts omitted/wrong I would translate/correct as: a duck-like walk ("kaczkowatym chodem"), a black woman ("murzynka"), arms equal to normal man's thighs ("ramiona dorównywały udom normalnego człowieka"), passed by without even a glance in my direction ("nie spojrzawszy nawet w moją stronę"), swinging her elephant-like withers ("kołysząc słoniowatymi kłębami"), steatopygous sculptures from paleolith ("steatopygicznych rzeźb z epoki kamienia łupanego").

I've tried to be as accurate here as I could, zero improvisation on my part.

The word "murzynka" alone was at the time, and still is, simply the most common Polish word for "a black woman", maybe not elegant like modern "afro-amerykanin" ("Afro-american"), but also not derogatory. (Don't mistake with adjective "murzyński" which presently is derogatory). But "Negress" isn't a totally inappropriate translation, as the passage as a whole clearly aims to scare you. Simple as that, I don't see anything deeper. Lem gathered as many small unexpected disturbing details as he could that would scare in the context, but without putting Gibarian out of character (the author of said ghost) or sacrificing reality.

I think a race was just one of these small details for Lem: slightly disturbing (for a Polish contemporary reader, who was unlikely to see a black person in entire life!) but not alluding to anything significant.

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    Witamy w Literature SE! :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 23:50
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    I feel better about this answer than the other answer. The reference to Venus of Willendorf is well argued. I disagree with the sentence "I think a race was just one of these small details for Lem: slightly disturbing... but not alluding to anything significant", given how many of these other references are also references to race. And I disagree with the "as the passage as a whole clearly aims to scare you. Simple as that, I don't see anything deeper", given that a major theme of the book is interacting with people and things different from oneself (including the planet itself).
    – user111
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 2:01
  • Basically, I'm indecisive about this answer. But it's a decent answer, especially for someone who has never posted here before. Welcome to the site!
    – user111
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 2:03
  • @Hamlet I was explicitly subjective, because I really doubt my interpretation skills myself. So basically you shouldn't trust my opinion :) Thanks anyway, just trying to help.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 8:44

Here's the original Polish text of this passage (plus half a sentence as the sentence breaks are different in the translation). I highlighted the sentence that was translated as “A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait.”

Zbliżyłem się do okrągłej komory, z której rozchodziły się korytarze na kształt szprych koła, kiedy mijając jakieś ciasne, boczne przejście wiodące, zdaje się, do łazienek, zobaczyłem wielką, niewyraźną, prawie zlewającą się z półmrokiem postać.

Zatrzymałem się jak wryty. Z głębi owego odgałęzienia szła niespiesznym, kaczkowatym chodem ogromna Murzynka. Zobaczyłem błysk jej białek i prawie równocześnie usłyszałem miękkie, bose plaśnięcia jej stóp. Nie nosiła nic oprócz błyszczącej żółtawo, jakby ze słomy uplecionej spódniczki; miała olbrzymie, obwisłe piersi, a czarne ramiona dorównywały udom normalnego człowieka; minęła mnie, nie spojrzawszy nawet w moją stronę - w odległości metra - i poszła, kołysząc słoniowatymi kłębami, podobna do owych steatopygicznych rzeźb z epoki kamienia łupanego, jakie widuje się czasem w muzeach antropologicznych. Tam gdzie korytarz zakręcał, zwróciła się w bok i zniknęła w drzwiach kabiny Gibariana. Kiedy je otwierała, przez mgnienie stanęła w mocniejszym świetle, które paliło się w pokoju.

The French translation by Jean-Michel Jasienko that this English translation is derived from is:

Une femme géante, de type négroïde, s’avançait tranquillement, en se dandinant.

The word Murzynka is translated as “[femme] de type négroïde” in French and “Negress” in English. According to Wikipedia (note that I don't speak Polish so I cannot confirm this from personal experience), this word is neutral in Polish, or at least was at the time Lem wrote, so it would be closer to “Black” in contemporary English. See the Wikipedia page for a discussion of the connotations of this word, especially in the context of translations.

Translating Murzynka as Negress does seem slightly out of place, given that the translation dates from 1970. But only slightly. Do keep in mind that Negro and Negress haven't always been offensive. Until the Civil Rights movement, it was a neutral term in the US. The only way in which it was potentially offensive is that it was often used to imply that there was a difference between Negros and non-Negros, even though such differences were generally not relevant except when viewed from a racist perspective. The same goes for the French translation, by the way: it avoids the noun “Nègre” which I think was already offensive at the time (but, like Negro, had been neutral earlier), and instead uses the expression “de type négroïde” which is purely descriptive. There is clearly no intent, either from Lem or from the French or English translators, to use offensive language here; perceiving the word Murzynka or Negress as offensive would be an anachronism.

“Grass skirt” seems to be an invention of the English translators. The French translation has a straw (“paille”) skirt both times, and as far as I can make it out it's the Polish text only mentions straw (słoma, “ze słomy” means “of straw”), but the skirt only looks like (jabky ze słomy) straw (more precisely, it's straw-colored).

The imagery of “steatopygous statues in anthropological museums” is a pretty direct translation of the original (“owych steatopygicznych rzeźb z epoki kamienia łupanego, jakie widuje się czasem w muzeach antropologicznych”).

It is clear that the woman is meant to evoke a primitive appearance, with a reference to very old African art. The woman is connected to primitive man, and, perhaps, to primitive man's fears — a little later she is compared to Aphrodite. That and the way she is described as distant in this passage make her a possible goddess, a formidable one rather than a gentle one.

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    The last paragraph is what caused me to downvote this answer. Why is the fact that the woman is black enough to mean that "The woman is connected to primitive man, and, perhaps, to primitive man's fears"? I actually think that the last paragraph is somewhat correct, but you need to support it with a lot more evidence, and you need to explain why the fact that this woman is black creates the effect in a (let's be honest, white) audience.
    – user111
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 1:03
  • 4
    @Hamlet The association of primitive art with the idea of primitiveness is not specifically white. The fact that the woman is black is not ‘enough to mean that “The woman is connected to primitive man …”’, that's not at all what I wrote. Please do try to read what people wrote in an objective way, rather than assuming that we share the prejudices that you try to root out. Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 1:07
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    This is the last comment I'm going to leave here, but to clarify: My comments about the word primitive were not about your use of the word primitive. My comments are about the role concepts like "primitive" and "anthropological museums" play in that particular scene. While your answer makes an argument that those concepts are important, your answer does not address the racial nature of those concepts, and how the character's race changes the meaning of those words.
    – user111
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 1:59
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    @Hamlet why would you think that it was her race that made her look primitive? Remove all mention of race from the text and leave only the combination of a grass skirt and bare breasts, and that is immediately evocative of ancient tribes and, to my mind at least, African tribes. Had the author not mentioned skin color, I would have nevertheless imagined a black woman since that kind of dress is evocative of African tribes for me. I don't understand why you are putting so much importance to the woman's race when her clothes are enough to suggest "primitive" tribes.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 13:51
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    @Hamlet because they were. I don't really see how you could object to it. Yes, there are all sorts of issues with the word primitive, but the simple fact remains that what is described was the height of fashion around 50-100 thousand years ago (pulling numbers out of my head). They were primitive not because they were behind everyone else (in fact, at the time, they were the only ones around so they couldn't possibly be "behind", they were the trailblazers), but because they were the first humans so, by definition, more "primitive" than "modern" humans.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 15:28

"You are black? [...] In my country everyone had white skin, so we had to use the shades. My hair were dark so I've been called black"

The paraphrased quote above is from "American Gods", but I believe it brings the essence of what people trying to say: in Polish, calling someone "black" might mean something different than in English: When on Google photos I've tried to search "czarna dziewczyna" (black girl) I came with this pictures on top:

Female model with black skin tone and black hair. Female model with white skin tone and black hair.

In Polish they both would be described as "black" because of their hair colour rather than skin one.

That's why the word "murzyn","murzynka" were not treated as racial slur but rather as a way to avoid confusion; even more, calling someone "black" to their face have might be taken offensively. Probably the most neutral way (and I believe most common today) would be saying "ciemnoskóry" or "czarnoskóry" - literally "dark" or "black skinned" - in example here you have gallery of "black skinned Oscar winners" ("Czarnoskórzy zdobywcy Oskara") one one of the gossip portals.

Bit more info about the word "murzyn" can be found in this whitepaper written by Marek Łaziński from the Warsaw University (translated by myself):

Let’s first follow the origins and changes of the word "Murzyn", "czarny" and other substitutes in European languages: "Murzyn" comes from ancient, almost pre-Slavic "murin" or latin "maurus" meaning "black", that was used in ancient Rome for denizens of north Africa. In other languages it has evolved into German "Mohr" or English "Moor", Russian "mavr" and meant someone with skin darker than those of Greek or Italian origin, without differentiating between Arabs/Berbers or very dark skinned Africans from central and southern Africa. There was no need for the difference, since for the whole middle ages Europe was dealing mainly with Arabs.

In XVI century in the English language the word "negro" (from Latin "niger" - "shining black") arrives to describe people living south from "Moors", but up to XVIII century those words are often used interchangeably [...].
Neither English "Moor", German "Mohr" or Polish "Murzyn" had in the pre-colonial era negative connotations - while "Murzyn" for European was a stranger, it wasn't always a slave - often it was an enemy worth of respect both in combat and as a prisoner of war. The best example is Othello, "the noble Moor whom our full senate call all in all sufficient" [...] or Mulley Hassan from Schiller's "Fiesco", prisoner from Tunis, who not finding any gratitude for his service says "The Moor has done his work, the Moor can go" [...]
Only during the exploitation of Africa and mass slave-trading time English "Negro" and German "Neger" completely replaced "Moor" and "Mohr". "Negro" brings an image of a slave that has no rights whatsoever, treated as a working animal rather than prisoner of war. While Polish "Murzyn" also similarly has connotations with American slaves, it also brings back all history of dealing with dark-skinned people, not limited to the last few centuries of colonialism and industrial-grade slavery. So history gives the word "Murzyn" more chance for staying neutral than English "Negro"

Today, words "Murzyn" and "Czarny"/"Czarnoskóry" have almost the same connotation, although the latter one lacks the meaning "slave"* and it’s not used as a vulgar graduation of darkness, it is somehow more related to definitive racial slur "czarnuch".

Neither history of language or modern text connotations don't show any differences in the value of words "Czarny" and "Murzyn" ** ; whats more the word "czarny" as a personal description is homonymic with someone with dark complexion, a dark haired man or woman.

Marek Łaziński, "Murzyn zrobił swoje, czy Murzyn musi odejsć? Historia i przyszłość słowa 'Murzyn' w polszczyźnie", http://www.afrykanistyka.uw.edu.pl/pliki/files/PDF/%C5%81azi%C5%84ski-Murzyn-2007.pdf

Now, let's again follow up the information from @Giles' answer, which provides that the original "Murzynka" has been translated into

Une femme géante, de type négroïde, s’avançait tranquillement, en se dandinant.

In French there is a word "négresse", (as "female-negro"), but it hasn't been used here, instead we have the usage of forensic anthropological term "Negroid".

So in summary: the translation is simply incorrect and for English speaking reader it should be replaced by either "black woman" or (if we follow the French anthropological path) "negroidal woman". In any case neither Lem nor the French translator were trying to provide any negative connotation to the description.

* -"biały murzyn" would mean "white slave" for example
** although press avoids to use the word "Murzyn" when writing negatively about someone


Literature, at least in one important sense, is holding up a mirror to human nature. And Stanislaw Lem in Solaris is holding up literally a mirror to European society, just as another Polish writer, Joseph Conrad - a writer Lem both admired and was influenced by - did in Heart of Darkness . But whereas Conrad was tackling European imperialism, Lem was tackling technological rationality. The passage in question is similar in intent to one Conrad wrote in his book:

A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.

It's worth pointing out here that Solaris is a planet where dream worlds manifest themselves physically. Another passage that is important and follows the same theme is:

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to your self that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.

This picture of men and women as 'they howled, leapt, spun and made horrid faces' is pretty common in rock concerts and raves - and one might think, where did they get that idea from? But given the settings of the novel, at the time, this so called 'primitive vigour' appeared to be alien, different, other and shocking to the narrator, Charles Marlow as a representative of European civilisation but Conrad's understanding that there was a 'meaning' has been borne out in the way that it invigorated both the music and visual arts of the West - Picasso's work would have been unthinkable without it as well as surrealism and in music, the delta blues and everything that sprung from there.

Just as Conrad was skewering the prejudices of the West, so was Lem. This is confirmed in the Liverpool Companion to Science Fiction film:

It is a little known fact that Polish-Jewish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem first protagonist was an African-American Soviet pilot named Robert Smith. After all, Lems scientifically, anti-racist novel The Astronauts brings humanity together not only as a multi-cultural crew ...

You also ask:

How would the language have been understood by Polish readers?

Given that I don't read Polish it's difficult for me to say how Lem's specific use of language would have been received. Nevertheless his thematics of anti-racism most likely developed because of the broader issues at stake, both in the West in general, Europe in particular and Poland specifically - especially when we note the recent scares of racism in Poland together with the rise of authoritarianism, post-truth and 'alternative' facts and interpretations - another theme that Lem felt very strongly about and heavily critiqued in his work.


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