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.

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Comments on “Author Explains The Joy Of Helping Russian 'Pirate' Translate His Book”

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out_of_the_blue says:

"In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem."

I’m always intrigued that you dash right past key points like that, to claiming that helping piracy is wise.

Look, I admit every non-totally-greedy author wants his works read in every language. Now, as with your wish for the “fire in crowded theater” meme to never again be used, can you move on to telling us exactly the connection between pirated translations and increased sales? That “correlation isn’t causation” cuts both ways, ya know.

Zakida Paul says:

Re: "In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem."

And it is amazing that you always gloss over key points like this –

“helping create pirate foreign translations of his books, and noting that sales of legitimate copies always seemed to increase whenever he did this”

The author is not ‘helping piracy’, the author is helping more people who speak different languages enjoy his work. Something the publishers seem incapable or unwilling to do.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: "In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem."

“That “correlation isn’t causation” cuts both ways”

There is a lot of evidence of a correlation, but you are correct, no “pirate translation = more sales” causal relationship (yet).

There is also no “pirate translation = less sales” causal relationship established, and the correlation we just spoke about strongly suggests that it is more likely that you will see increased sales in markets that have been expanded by pirate translations.

What we can be sure of is that people that only read Russian are much more likely to read your book if it is available in Russian. So, why not allow it to be provided in that language for free if you cannot sell it in that language? In addition, if someone does the translation work for you for free, you now have something you can sell to them. Letting someone take your product and make it into something you can sell in a market you previously could not seems to make a lot more sense than it does to complain about it. Even if you never make money off of the ‘pirate translated’ book, you end up with free market research for your next book that can help you decide if you want to pursue an official translation.

surfer (profile) says:

Re: "In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem."

it’s amazing how you gloss over the fact of ‘anything NOT distributed by the legacy dinosaurs’ is bad, mmmkay.

let’s just look at the figures.
1) his own publisher won’t make a Russian version available.
2) only 90% of eBooks are file-shared.

So, out of 141,930,000 russians whom would NEVER even have access to the eBook, potentially 14,193,000 (10%) would buy it. At 4.99$/eBook, that’s almost 71 million in revenue he never would have seen.

so, now that I have blown your stupid comment out of the water, what other idiocy are you going to fall back on?

but, but, but piracy!

You sir, should not be allowed to breed.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: "In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem."

That’s a bit simplistic. Some of the 141,930,000 Russians speak languages that the book is available in. And some people outside of Russia speak Russian and may decide to take the free Russian translation rather than purchasing it in their language.

All that aside, it seems like making your book available for an additional 100 million people that could not have read it – and doing so at no cost to you – is a pretty smart business decision.

The biggest risk in my mind is the translation being terrible and people not liking the author because of a bad translation, but since this internet thing was created, people have managed to use it to let people know that there is a problem, what it is, and (often) how to fix it. I suppose an author with a couple million Russians complaining that they cannot get a decent translation of a book could be seen as a possible business opportunity.

surfer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: "In the U.S., book piracy is a growing problem."

true, I was simply using the idiots own statements to make him look like a fool, even if 1% purchased a translated version, that is still 7 million he would never have seen BECAUSE of his Publisher.

it’s simple, file-sharing is here to stay, period, adapt your business model or gtfo.

Lord Binky says:

I can’t believe these foolish translators. They are stealing money from themselves. There is no way they are getting paid the hundreds of thousands that it costs to translate, especially books. Yet, here they are just doing it for some pittance or even worse.. free.

We have to get rid of these rogue translators, they are costing the translation industry billions with every under paid translation they make!

Rogue translators are costing us millions of jobs, don’t you care?!

Anonymous Coward says:

“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..”

Doesn’t match the headline. The author was merely watching the rogue translator struggle. He doesn’t mention how he helped the guy, or if at all he did, leave alone “explaining the joy.” Misstep, Mike. That’s what you wished the author had done, but that isn’t what he actually did.

Oblate (profile) says:

No way he should actually help

I don’t think the author is helping himself by doing a good translation of his book. My first guess as to how this works is:

1) Book is translated into Russian (or other language), horribly.
2) People download e-book, get hooked on the story, get frustrated by the horrible translation.
3) People buy legit copy of book to find out what is actually going on.

The author may want to help with translations early in the book, but they should quickly devolve to the level of Monty Pythons Hungarian Phrasebook.

Sorry for the late post- I didn’t see this story until the black-market translation was released.

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