Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Undeserted Island

One of the most optimistic sci-fi novels by the famous Russian duo Arkady and Boris Strugatsky has the title "Обитаемый остров", literally the Inhabited Island.

Max Kammerer, a member of the future Earth's space probing 'Free Search Group' is stranded on a planet which strikingly resembles today's Earth. He quickly realises that things have to be changed on the planet, his Desert Island, and with some help of the local resistance stages a revolution there. Not realising that an undercover agent of the Earth's Committee of Galactic Security (KGB) had been already working for years there to ensure a more painless transition from a totalitarian society to the utopian Earth-like democracy.

The English translation of the book, the first in a trilogy, is called Prisoners of Power. 

The title is different because of the untranslatable Russian pun – обитаемый-inhabited vs необитаемый-desert (island).

The difficulty in the pun is that a 'desert island' invokes desolation, being stranded, while 'uninhabited' or 'inhabited' is simply a geographical note, though in Robinson Crusoe's original title it was just that – 'un-inhabited island'. Max is stranded like Crusoe, except that his island is a planet. In Russian a 'desert island' is 'neobitayemy ostrov', so the title 'Obitayemy Ostrov' (inhabited, non-desert or undeserted) is immediately recognisable as the opposite of 'desert island', practically as an oxymoron, while the English 'inhabited island' is not.

Thanks to Languagehat for the original discussion of Strugatskys and to commenters Mockba and AJP Crown for additional probing on the subject.

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