How One Author Helped A Translator Steal His Book

Oct 25, 2012
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Say you publish a debut novel and someone, say, in Russia wants to translate it, would you help him out? Explain your word choice and some nuances of English? That's what happened to Peter Mountford. Sort of. We're going to let Peter tell the story. Welcome, Peter.

PETER MOUNTFORD: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So in April 2011, you published a novel called "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism." And as you write in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine, you set up a Google alert for that title. And what popped up?

MOUNTFORD: Well, the first year, I mean, I - there was lots of reviews and strange blog posts. And then, I guess, as the year progressed inevitably and kind of depressingly, the number of alerts that I was getting started to decrease. And then finally about a year after it came out, I started getting a bunch of alerts from this word reference forum online where some Russian reader was asking what I was meaning by all these different words that I was using. He was really, really interested in understanding, it seemed, every single sentence that I had written and...

CORNISH: So give us an example.

MOUNTFORD: Like he asked what white liberal guilt meant, and he speculated that it meant the guilt that a person feels after doing cocaine, which was sort of...


MOUNTFORD: interesting mistake. But, fortunately, on the reference forum, there's all these lurkers, these people who just hang out in this forum - I don't know - I mean they just have a lot of time in their hands, perhaps. They leap on top of every question and pour in all these answers. And they're usually really accurate. So it was heartening to see them helping him out. But at some point somebody said why are you stressing over every detail of this book, like why don't you just read it and enjoy it? And he responded, well, I'm translating it for a Russian publisher. And at that point, I kind of paused because I knew that I had not sold the foreign rights to any Russian publisher. And so it occurred to me that the book was being pirated for the black market in Russia.

CORNISH: And so what are the other kinds of, I guess, requests he was making as you realize this is actually a translation?

MOUNTFORD: He - at one point kind of scarily, he's - I talked about how the Bolivian shoeshine kids huff shoe polish. I said they were soothed on shoe polish. And somebody said that I might have meant that they were drinking shoe polish...


MOUNTFORD: ...which is a very bad idea, like I think it will kill you if drink shoe polish. So that was what he was going to put in there, and I was kind of terrified. I thought I was going to have to intervene, but somebody corrected him and said, no, they were actually inhaling it.

CORNISH: So what was it like for you sort of hearing your book back to you all these little lines totally picked apart, you know, someone really giving it very close attention?

MOUNTFORD: I mean, it was kind of amazing to hear him struggling with the sentences in the same way that I had when writing it, and it was heartening on the other hand to realize that Russians, in a way, they care enough about literature to actually pirate books, and they have a really robust market for pirated literature. And I wondered what book he was reading ultimately because it seems like he was misinterpreting enough of what I was writing that it was almost perhaps a different book that he was reading.

CORNISH: Did you finally break down and get tempted enough to contact him?

MOUNTFORD: Yeah, I did, actually. After a while, I ended up contacting him. I send him an email and said, hey, I'm the author of this book, actually, and can I help you? And radio silence ensued. He just didn't answer, and I figured I'd scared him away. And I had felt, you know, kind of excited that at least someone was going to be reading my book in Russia even if I wasn't going to be getting any royalties from it. And I was sort of sad that I had perhaps scared him away, but after a couple of weeks, he wrote me, actually, and said, yeah, I'd love to have your help. And then ensued the last few months I've been getting just barrage after barrage of questions from him. Every day, it seems I have another 15 questions from him...

CORNISH: Fifteen? What kinds of questions?

MOUNTFORD: ...or something like that.


MOUNTFORD: I mean, he asked anything from like - at one point, he misunderstands a character gets into trouble for not towing the party line, and he thinks that it means that the guy was not enjoying an actual party, a literal party. He's not a professional translator, it's clear. He's actually a biologist. He told me at one point. And I think that he moonlights doing these kind of dodgy translations...


MOUNTFORD: ...for some rouge outfit that publishes books without permission of the authors.

CORNISH: So, Peter, what happens now that you're in contact with your rogue translator?

MOUNTFORD: I'm going to continue answering his questions. He's getting towards the end of the book. I don't know what he will do with it. He's - we haven't really discussed basically...


MOUNTFORD:'s this elephant in the room. It's extraordinary. We haven't ever really talked about what he's going to be doing with it. He's made it sound like it's going to be legitimate, but it's - I know that - I think 90 percent of the e-books that are read in Russia are pirated so - and I still haven't sold the rights to anyone in Russia. So it's pretty clear that it's not aboveboard, but I don't know. I mean, I'm just sort of pleased that there will be readers. I mean, it's sort of the sad fact of being a writer that I'm just happy that there will be people reading my work even if I'm kind of getting cut out of the money...


MOUNTFORD: ...aspect of it. I'm not making any royalties on it.

CORNISH: Peter Mountford is the author of the novel "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism" and a new article in The Atlantic called "Steal My Book! Why I'm Abetting a Rogue Translation of My Novel." Peter, thank you.

MOUNTFORD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.