- November 1, 2012
Online references to his book lead Peter Mountford to baffled Russian reader – at work on illegal ebook version
It was when debut novelist Peter Mountford spotted a rogue Russian translator deciding that the characters in said novel were drinking melted shoe polish, rather than getting high from sniffing it, that he first thought about stepping in. So began a bizarre and bewildering correspondence between Mountford and the man illegally translating his novel for a Russian publisher, which has seen the novelist advise the user known as AlexanderIII on everything from the meaning of “the party line” to “a sea of bullshit”.
Mountford’s debut, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, telling of a hedge fund analyst who is sent to Bolivia to investigate the controversial president-elect, was published last April. Earlier this year, Mountford began noticing references to his book pop up on a translator’s forum, WordReference.com. He was intrigued to see one “AlexanderIII” asking for help in translating terms such as “white liberal guilt” – did it signify guilt over snorting cocaine? – and phrases such as “grubby shoeshine boys zooted on shoe polish”.
“I am not sure how to interpret the words in bold,” wrote AlexanderIII. “1) Shoeshine boys were smoking marijuana while working. 2) While working they got excited as if they were smoking marijuana.” Both are unlikely, he was told; instead, he was advised that “Shoe polish can be melted to provide a drink”. AlexanderIII decided to go with this until another member stepped in: “Drinking melted shoe polish??? This seems absolutely incomprehensible. Sniffing it is far more likely, as the volatile chemicals are far more easily (and effectively) ingested through the nose.”
At first, as Mountford recounts in a piece for the Atlantic, he was delighted, figuring he must have sold the Russian rights to his novel. Then he realised that no Russian publisher had bought the book, and that AlexanderIII must be working for a book-pirating outfit.
Instead of reporting the translator, however, Mountford – whose first degree was in International Relations – took the unusual step of contacting him and offering his help. “Upon realising what was under way, I felt a bewildering combination of pride and frustration. I could certainly use the $1,000 or whatever that I’d probably get if I’d sold the Russian rights. But, frankly, I didn’t sell them. The book had been out for a year so they’d had plenty of time to consider it,” he told the Guardian. “I understand that part of the reason that no one made an offer was probably precisely because of the emergence of this robust black market for ebooks in Russia. Still, I was thrilled that the book was going to have a readership in Russia. It’s sort of the sad fact of being a writer – we want to be read and we hope someone will pay us, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
Mountford revealed some examples of the myriad questions with which AlexanderIII has bombarded him. The translator was confused over the sentence: “The thing you’ve got to realise is that this is just a sea of bullshit — I’m bullshit, you’re bullshit, and even she’s bullshit — we’re all full of bullshit and we’re all swimming in bullshit.”
“It’s clear that the word means something in between shit and nonsense. There is no suitable Russian word for it but as Fiona mentions a sea of bullshit (a disgusting liquid) and says they are swimming in it, I think I should translate it as shit. Would you agree?” he asked Mountford.
Mountford – who dashed off his responses in seconds, mindful that he wasn’t being paid for them – responded: “Um… definitely mainly means lies and nonsense, so I’m not sure if there’s a harsh explicit Russian word for a lie, or a deception.”
The description “vivid chin” also proved problematic. “Could you please give a synonym to vivid? Actually I have no idea what it can mean here. Mobile, active, movable, variable? All of these seem improbable,” worried AlexanderIII. “Sharply defined chin,” responded Mountford. He does not believe AlexanderIII is a professional translator, although the two have never discussed whether or not he’s being paid for his work: “too awkward”, said Mountford. “But I presume he’s being paid. He’s a biologist, this translating thing is something he does on the side to make money. Or that’s what I understand from our emails.”
AlexanderIII has just finished his translation, sending the author the last batch of questions around the time The Atlantic piece was published. Russian rights are still unsold, although Mountford is semi-hopeful that if the pirated edition does well, a Russian publisher might come calling.
“If the pirated version becomes a best-seller in Russia – seems unlikely, but if it happens – maybe one of the official publishers will make an offer, too. Maybe I’ll sell Chinese rights?” he said. And he believes his situation is only the tip of the iceberg – just looking at AlexanderIII’s posts on WordReference, the translator has also been working extensively on Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. What could “I am fucking down with that, brother” mean, he asks.
“Russia has a remarkably mature black market for ebooks,” said Mountford. “Rospechat, the Russian state agency that regulates mass media, says 90%of ebook downloads are illegal. These pirate sales amount to several billion rubles a year.
“Because ebooks are growing so quickly in Russia — twice as many ebooks sold in 2011 than 2010, the pirate market is expected to continue to gobble market share from legal book sellers. It’s not only that the black market books are cheaper, Rospechat estimates that there are more than 100,000 pirated titles available, whereas legitimate sellers only offer about 60,000 titles. Not surprisingly, the lawful Russian publishers are being crushed by the illicit market.”