Half a century ago I was reading a book by Isaac Asimov. I don’t remember what book, but I know it wasn’t I, Robot because I looked last night and it wasn’t in that book. But in the book, whichever one it was, Dr. Asimov wrote about the origin of the word “robot”; a story by Karel Capek titled R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots.
I searched every library I had access to, looking for this story, for years. I finally gave up.
Then a few weeks ago I thought of the story again. I have no idea what triggered that thought, but it occurred to me that there was no internet back then, and since the book was so old, it would probably be at Gutenberg.org.
It was! I downloaded it, and to my dismay it was written in Czech. So I fed it to Google Translate.
Thirty five years ago when I was first learning how computers work and how to program them, I read of a program the US government had written to translate Russian to English and back. To test it, they fed it the English phrase “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Then they fed the Russian translation back in. The re-conversion to English read “The wine is good, but the meat is spoiled.”
I figured that in the decades since their first efforts at machine translation, it would do a better job.
I figured wrong. What came out of Google Translate was gibberish. It does a good job of translating single words; paper dictionaries have done this well for centuries. But for large blocks of text, it was worthless.
When I first saw the Czech version I could see that it was, in fact, not a novel, but a stage play. I kept looking, and found an English language version translated by an Australian. It’s licensed under the Creative Commons, so I may add it to my online library.
Wikipedia informed me that the play was written in 1920, and a man named Paul Selver translated it into English in 1923. So I searched Gutenberg for “Paul Selver” and there it was! However, it was in PDF form. Right now I’m at the tail end of converting it to HTML.
After reading it I realized that this story was the basis for every robot story written in the twentieth century, and its robots aren’t even robots as we know robots today. Rather, they were like the “replicants” in the movie Blade Runner—flesh and blood artificial people. That movie, taken from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would have actually been a sequel to R.U.R., had R.U.R. ended differently.
The Terminator was R.U.R. with intelligent mechanical robots instead of artificial life. Their aim, as the “robots” in Kapek’s story, is to destroy all humans.
Asimov said that his robots were an answer to Frankenstein and R.U.R. He thought the very idea was ridiculous, so he made his own robots inorganic and mechanical rather than organic, and added his “three laws of robotics”. His laws weren’t physical laws like the inability of anything to travel faster than light, but legislation; similar to Blade Runner, where the artificial people weren’t allowed on Earth. In a few of his books, like The Caves of Steel, robot use on Earth is strictly limited and controlled and people hate them.
I thought Asimov had the first mechanical, non-magical robots, but I was wrong. There were fictional mechanical robots before Asimov was born. The first US science fiction dime novel was Edward S. Ellis’ 1865 The Steam Man of the Prairies, with a giant steam powered robot.
One thing that put me off about this play (besides the fact that it’s a play, which is far better watched than read) was that the original story was written in a language I don’t understand. That’s why I don’t read Jules Verne; his stories were written in French, and I don’t speak that language, either.
I dislike translations because I used to speak Spanish well, according to South American tourists, and a smattering of Thai. And I’m a reader. It’s more than just the story, it’s how it’s written. There are word plays and idioms that are impossible to translate. For instance, a beautiful English phrase that uses alliteration would lose its beauty in any translation. And, there are no boring stories, only boring storytellers. I suspect that Kapek may have been an excellent writer, but Selver wasn’t, to my mind. Little of the dialog seemed believable to me.
But in the case of this story, even the poor translation (Wikipedia informs me it’s abridged) is worth reading, just for the context it places all other robot stories in.
It will be at mcgrewbooks.com soon.