The Internet, as we all know, is the great machine that brings people together across all manner of divides: Social, geographical, and if Tron is to be believed, even physical. It’s also something that brought one writer together with a man pirating his work and translating it into another language… but instead of stopping the illegal bootleg, novelist Peter Mountford ended up helping the pirate understand intricacies in the original version’s mother tongue.
Mountford wrote about his experience for The Atlantic, explaining that it was a simple Google Alert that introduced him to the fact that his novel A Young man’s Guide to Late Capitalism was being illegally translated into Russian by someone known only as AlexanderIII. Although, as Mountford admits, he didn’t initially realize that it was, in fact, an illegal translation. Finding AlexanderIII’s requests for help understanding particular phrases on a message board – “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,'” Mountford explains – the author believed that his work was going international through more traditional channels. “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,” he explained, before coming to a different, and yet equally incorrect conclusion when AlexanderIII wrote online that he was translating it for a publisher. “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.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Mountford didn’t immediately act to stop AlexanderIII’s work. Explaining that “like many novelists I know, I’m just happy to have people reading my work whether they’re paying me or not,” he decided to keep tabs on the translation efforts, describing himself as becoming “a voyeur to my own book’s abduction and, confusingly, [finding] myself rooting for the abductor.” Things got even stranger when Mountford realized that, despite having trouble with the details of the language of the original, AlexanderIII was nonetheless understanding the emotional core of the book. “Though sompletely off base, he was drilling toward the character’s psychological core. I loved that,” Mountford writes, adding that AlexanderIII “misread the text, but he was wrestling with the sentences, much as I had wrestled with them originally.” Eventually, he couldn’t stop himself, and he contacted AlexanderIII, offering help that he was “uniquely qualified” to provide, revealing that he was in fact the author of the book.
The result of Mountford’s message? “No answer. He immediately stopped posting on the board,” he wrote. “Then, a couple weeks later, to my surprise, AlexanderIII e-mailed me.” Now, the two have what the writer calls “a tenuous partnership” to translate the book, even though Mountford has no idea who he’s working for. There’s something wonderful about that, speaking to his desire for people to experience his work, as opposed to worries about money or copyright. Of course, we’ll see how he feels if the finished version doesn’t meet with his approval…