Author Explains The Joy Of Helping Russian 'Pirate' Translate His Book
from the want-to-be-read dept
It was about five years ago that we first wrote about best selling author Paulo Coelho revealing that he was eagerly helping create pirate foreign translations of his books, and noting that sales of legitimate copies always seemed to increase whenever he did this — initially pretending to be someone else, under the username “pirate coelho.” The first time this happened was in Russia, where the Russian translation resulted in his books — which had almost no market previously — suddenly shot up into huge sales (from less than 1,000 to over 100,000). While he’s seen similar success stories elsewhere, it really seems like the Russian ebook market is an interesting one to observe.
A bunch of you sent in a more recent story, written by author Peter Mountford, who published his first novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, in the spring of 2011. Not surprisingly, he had set up a Google alert about the book to see what people were saying about it. Eventually it led him to an online forum where a person in Russia kept asking for help translating key words and phrases — sometimes with comic attempts to decipher idioms:
At one point, he indicated that he was struggling with “white-liberal guilt.” (Me too!, I wanted to chime in.) He postulated that white liberal guilt meant: “the guilt for consuming white substance (cocaine).”
At at first he assumed that it was a Russian speaker trying to understand the book, but when another forum member suggested the Russian guy (going by the name AlexanderIII) just enjoy the book without trying to understand every last word, AlexanderIII admitted that he was working for a publisher doing a translation. Mountford went through a range of emotions:
Holy crap, I thought, my book is going to be published in Russia! Then I remembered that no Russian publisher had acquired the rights, and realized that AlexanderIII must be translating it for some kind of book-pirating outfit.
In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem. But Russia, I learned, has a remarkably mature black market for literature—particularly for ebooks, no doubt in part because the overhead is so low. Pirated books reportedly compose up to 90 percent of Russian ebook downloads. According to Rospechat, the state agency that regulates mass media, Russians have access to more than 100,000 pirated titles and just 60,000 legitimate titles, with illegal downloads costing legitimate vendors several billion rubles a year.
Of course, I wish one of Russia’s two major ebook publishers had given me a couple thousand dollars for the rights, but neither did. Like many novelists I know, I’m just happy to have people reading my work, whether they’re paying me for it or not. I’m also heartened that Russians care enough about reading to sustain a robust literary black market. In the U.S., you get the feeling that hardly anyone is creating pirated ebooks because—well, who’d buy such a thing?
He then became a voyeur of the translation attempt, debating whether or not to chime in on particularly bizarre guesses, though he’s impressed that the rest of the community seemed to do a pretty good job. He actually expresses disappointment that AlexanderIII — well before finishing the book — moved on to another book:
In late March, a couple weeks into his work, AlexanderIII unceremoniously dropped my novel and began translating Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. (A sample query: “Could you please help me out with a difficulty … ‘you are on fucking angel dust.’ ”) I was shattered. Even my pirate translator had lost interest in my book. But in early July, Google Alerts informed me that AlexanderIII had dropped Lehane and returned to the good stuff.
Eventually he did reach out to AlexanderIII and offered help wherever needed. At first, as Mountford feared, AlexanderIII disappeared, but he did eventually email. It’s unclear if Mountford then did assist AlexanderIII very much, but what’s fascinating is that Mountford seems equally interested in understanding AlexanderIII’s experience of puzzling his way through the book:
At one point in the novel, I describe my protagonist’s mother as having “a sentiment born of her cloying, overly maternal side.” AlexanderIII hypothesized that I had meant “a sentiment born of her memory about hardships of solitary life.” Though completely off base, he was drilling toward the character’s psychological core. I loved that. He misread the text, but he was wrestling with the sentences, much as I had wrestled with them originally.
The whole story is interesting, and it’ll be worth seeing if Mountford follows it up with additional reporting on AlexanderIII or other translations in other countries.