I wouldn’t have known about my Russian pirate translator had I not set a Google Alert for the title of my debut novel when it was published, in April 2011. Over the following year, the alerts inevitably, depressingly became more infrequent. Worse still, they began to occasionally refer to eBay sales (“Like New!” “Unread!”). The title, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, began to seem freshly ironic, given the circumstances.
But in March, the alerts began pointing me to a message board on WordReference.com. There, a user with the handle AlexanderIII, who gave his location as Moscow, was regularly seeking help understanding my unusual word choices. He wanted to know, for example, what I had meant when I described the interior of a Bolivian hotel with 1970s decor as having “cucumber walls.” He wondered if that might mean that the walls had the texture of a cucumber, or maybe, he offered inexplicably, it meant that the walls were paisley.
Fortunately, a user with a teddy-bear avatar cleared things up:
se16teddy: I don’t associate the paisley pattern with cucumbers at all. I suppose it must be the colour: it is quite common to describe colours in terms of a familiar fruit (orange, peach, plum, apple, aubergine, …)
In another post, AlexanderIII cited a passage in which I described my protagonist waking up with his “hair askew, eyes puffy with sleep.” Did “hair askew” refer to a particular hairstyle, he wanted to know, or did the character just have bed head? A user with the handle Copyright—the irony of which I did not yet appreciate—assured him that sleep was to blame.
At first, I didn’t realize that AlexanderIII was translating the book; I thought he was just a fastidious Russian reader with a loose command of the English language. It was fun to see people debating the meanings of my thoroughly worked-over phrases.
After a few days, a member going by DocPenfro encouraged AlexanderIII to simply enjoy the book and not fret over all the details. AlexanderIII responded, “I’d love to, DocPenfro, but I’m translating it for a publisher so I must be sure.”
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?
I considered contacting AlexanderIII to offer translation help, but I sensed that if I wrote to him, he might vanish. He might even stop translating the book. So I became a voyeur to my own book’s abduction and, confusingly, found myself rooting for the abductor.
Though I was impressed by AlexanderIII’s dedication, his numerous message-board queries did not inspire much confidence in his translation abilities. 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).”
This post sparked a string of responses from fluent English speakers who for some reason were haunting the message board. In this case, a user with the handle Gwan rushed to explain that white liberal guilt indicated “that they are white (of European descent) men/women in a country colonised by Europeans.”
The rest of AlexanderIII’s posts were likewise met with a barrage of advice from jovial English speakers who would invoke the Oxford English Dictionary or conjecture about what I really meant when, say, I described Bolivian street kids “zooted on shoe polish.” AlexanderIII wondered: Did this mean the kids had smoked marijuana before shining shoes?
PaulQ: As you can see from the context, it is highly unlikely that the shoeshine boys would be smoking marijuana on boot polish. From Urbandictionary.com = Zooted: “being so f*cking high/drunk the only words you can say are nigga im zooted.”
Shoe polish can be melted to provide a drink (?) that will have strongly intoxicating effects. It is usually drunk by severe alcoholics or others too poor to afford proprietary alcohol, beer/wine/spirits/etc. (Do not try this at home.)
AlexanderIII: I see. Thank you very much, PaulQ. I’ve checked Urbandictionary but somehow have not found about drinking the melted shoe polish. This seems to suit best.
At that point, I very nearly intervened, to prevent any of my Russian readers from inviting severe injury or death. Lustrabotas, or Bolivian shoe-shine kids, get high from huffing polish, not drinking it. Before I could burst in, cyberpedant came to the rescue:
cyberpedant: 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. But, “whatever rings your chimes.”
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.
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.
And so, in early July, I finally sent a private message to AlexanderIII:
I’ve noticed that you have many questions about the book for the Russian translation that you’re working on. As the author … I am uniquely qualified to help you with these questions. Would you like my help?
No answer. He immediately stopped posting on the board. Then, a couple weeks later, to my surprise, AlexanderIII e-mailed me. It’s crazy to help someone steal my work, I know, but I couldn’t resist striking up a tenuous partnership with him. I still don’t know who he’s working for—no one has sought the Russian rights to the novel. Even so, I wish I could understand his translation: I’d love to read the book he read.