BOB GARFIELD: In Russia, book pirating is rampant. In fact, Russians have access to more than 100,000 pirated e-books and just 60,000 legitimate ones. For many authors and publishers, that is simply infuriating. And that often leads to lawyers getting involved.
But when Peter Mountford, author of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, realized his book was being translated for a pirate Russian publisher, he did not hire a lawyer. No, he decided to take matters into his own hands, and that, he did. He located the illicit translator online and helped him translate the novel, which is premised on a young man who’s taken a job at a rapacious hedge fund.
PETER MOUNTFORD: And he goes to Bolivia at the time of the election of Evo Morales, and his task is to see if he can parlay the election into something that the hedge fund can make money on.
BOB GARFIELD: Which is funny, in the first instance, because Evo Morales is a socialist Hugo Chavez-wannabe, right?
PETER MOUNTFORD: Exactly. In the process, he has a love affair with Evo Morales’ press liaison, and hijinks ensue.
BOB GARFIELD: I haven’t read it, but I'm sure it is delightful. And at least one Russian thought so too. Tell me about the first hint you had that your book was in play in an unlawful way.
PETER MOUNTFORD: I had had a Google Alert on the title of the book, and I started to get a lot of hits from this Russian guy, on a word reference form online, who was asking many, many questions about what I meant in all sorts of sentences in the opening of the book. I thought he was just a very eager Russian reader.
BOB GARFIELD: For example, you used the term “cucumber walls” to describe a pale green color but this threw him. [LAUGHS]
PETER MOUNTFORD: He was really baffled, and he thought I might have meant that the walls were the texture of cucumber or possibly, sort of inexplicably, he thought it might mean that the walls were paisley, which is really, really strange. And he asked this question on –
BOB GARFIELD: Well, cucumber-shaped. [LAUGHS]
PETER MOUNTFORD: [LAUGHS] Yes, exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: I can see why he might have guessed “paisley.”
PETER MOUNTFORD: I said a person was not toeing the party line, and he thought that meant the person wasn’t enjoying an actual party.
I said somebody was suffering from white liberal guilt, and he said, “Does that mean the guilt that a person feels from doing cocaine?” And then he said to somebody, “I’m translating it for a Russian publisher.” And that’s when it occurred to me that he was a Russian pirate translator.
BOB GARFIELD: And then you started going back and forth with him? I mean, isn’t that like driving up to your house and seeing a burglar trying to jimmy your windows and then grabbing your tire iron to help him? What, uh, uh, I don’t get it.
PETER MOUNTFORD: [LAUGHS] The book had been out for a year, so the official Russian publishers had had opportunities to acquire the rights, and they had not made a move to do so. And so, I was faced with the option of either having it pirated and published and I wouldn't make any money on it but at least people would read the book in Russian, or I could try and sort of put up a fight and stop the pirate translation, and then I would not only not make money but nobody would read the book in Russian.
And I thought that if the translation was gonna be good, I might need to intervene. And so, I sent him an email and said, “Hi, as the author of the book, I think I’m uniquely qualified to help you with this.”
And then, after two weeks, to my surprise and delight, he wrote to me and said, “Thank you for contacting me, I would love to have your help,” and then he had this just barrage of questions. I've had hundreds of questions from him. And my wife was very stern with me and said, you cannot spend a lot of time on this, you’re not getting paid for it. And so, I've been dashing off my responses.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me an example of the exchanges?
PETER MOUNTFORD: At one point, I described a character as being – you know, I said, “Reportedly a lethal diplomatic sniper, he was instead armed with a blunderbuss.” And Alexander was totally baffled. He said, “Reportedly, he was a brilliant diplomatic sniper, using his charm to hit from the first go and win people's hearts, other people whose cooperation he needed but actually” and then it goes on and on and on, “unsuitable for sharp shooting.
He had a harbiscus, harbicus!
BOB GARFIELD: You call him Alexander, you know, as opposed to whatever his last name is or “that guy” or worse.
PETER MOUNTFORD: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: What is your relationship with him? Are you friends, are you colleagues, are you adversaries?
PETER MOUNTFORD: Definitely colleagues. It’s been cordial all along. We’ve never talked, I mean, almost never talked about the business aspect of it. We just talk about the text, although when I published this piece in The Atlantic, there was an article in the Guardian and, as a result, he finally got wind of it and he wrote me a very awkward email saying, “I am not a thief.” I, I basically said, evidence seems to indicate that you are, but I've enjoyed working with you. And, and we have since then, after he sent me this awkward email, we’ve continued to correspond about the translation.
He’s never asked me anything whatsoever about my life. It did come up, for some reason, that he is actually a biologist and he moonlights as a translator. At one point, he put the translation on hold because he had to take a very long train ride somewhere, I don't remember where. But he said, “I’m gonna be on the train for the next couple of days, so no work.”
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you one final thing, Peter. You referred earlier to choices you had, whether to protect your intellectual property or to see that your work reaches ever-wider audiences, and you suggested that it was an either/or proposition. Many have argued that piracy, actually, in addition to increasing your audience of freeloaders, also increases your audience of paid buyers. We’ve learned this from the music industry, that some percentage of people who become aware of your work will actually pony up at a legitimate retailer.
PETER MOUNTFORD: I’ve heard Neil Gaiman say that exact point, where he has his book published legitimately and pirated in Russia, and he feels that the pirated version bolsters the sales of the legitimate version. I hope that that is true.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you done with each other? Is this it between Alexander and you?
PETER MOUNTFORD: I hope that we’re not done [LAUGHS] with each other. I hope that he works on my next novel, [LAUGHS] which will be published in 2014. I would love to have an official Russian translation, and maybe he can help make that happen by getting my name out in Russia.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Peter, thank you very much.
PETER MOUNTFORD: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: We spoke to author Peter Mountford last November.