aulo von Randow Júnior, a Brazilian professional translator, had a disturbing experience.
Sometime in mid 2007, Saulo was engaging in one of his favorite exercises: comparing a translation against the original as a means to hone his own technique. On that particular day, he was comparing an old translation of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe done by Brenno Silveira, affectionately known as "Brenno" among Brazilian litterati. There was nothing wrong with the translation, but Saulo wondered at the fact that there was also nothing new, nothing that he could learn from.
The flea behind his ear warned him something was amiss, because the late Brenno Silveira was well known for his brilliant solutions to translation problems. The flea also told him he should have a look at another translation of the same book, signed by Roberto Nunes Whitaker. Whitaker's translation was more recent, but Saulo had bought it before he found Brenno Silveira's work in a second-hand bookshop.
The fire is spreading: the number of press stories about copycat translations is in the increase.
The two translations were identical to the last iota. Obviously, Whitaker's translation had been lifted word for word from Brenno's. But who was Roberto Nunes Whitaker, after all? Saulo was curious and wrote the publisher, who claimed the related documents had been lost and nobody remembered the story, so there was nothing they could do.
Saulo was not happy with the answer and posted a very cautious note to a Brazilian translators' forum. After a short exchange of messages, the news made its way to our blog, on August 23, 2007.
The post attracted four comments; two of them were signed by Denise Bottmann.
Enter Denise Bottmann
Also a professional translator, although her academic background is in History, Denise has a lot of fight in her. In addition, she does not use capitals in her correspondence or blog posts, a practice many people find particularly infuriating. But that is the way she is, and you'd better get used to her ways, because it is around this extraordinary woman that most of the rest of this story turns.
She was indignant and, in November 2007, stirred things up a discussion list of Brazilian literary translators where a small band of equally indignant translators formed around her. The fact was that Saulo's discovery was far from an exceptional case of administrative carelessness. There were many, far too many, cases of plagiarized translations. And the cases involved some big publishers.
It was agreed that something had to be done, but there was no agreement as to what and how. Denise advocated strong actions most of the other translators were not prepared to take and the group disbanded, leaving Denise alone with Saulo's occasional help.
She created a blog called Não gosto de plágio (I don't like plagiarism), where she lambasts all publishers guilty of plagiarism and quite a few other people for good measure. Unfortunately, she has found no lack of materials for her vitriolic invectives.
Enter Martin Claret
Martin Claret is a publisher of cheap paperbacks, many of them works in the public domain. The translations are cribbed verbatim from older editions published by other companies and credited to nonexistent translators. One of their most active fakes, Pietro Nassetti, is credited with translations from Marx, Descartes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Weber, Shakespeare, Kafka, Plato, Maupassant, Dostoyevsky, Goethe and Sun-Tzu, and probably half a dozen other people as well.
Pietro Nassetti's greatest feat however was translating into Portuguese several novels that were originally written in Portuguese. If Jorge Luis Borges were alive he might want to write a sequel to his Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote to deal with the differences between Quincas Borba, as written by Machado de Assis and published by Garnier in 1891, and as translated by Pietro Nassetti and published by Martin Claret more than a century later. The information made its way to the Brazilian ISBN catalog, where it was duly found by Denise, who duly raised hell and duly had the situation corrected.
Curiously, there seems to be a real Pietro Nassetti, a dentist innocent of translatorial crimes other than letting his name be grossly misused.
Eça was Bored
Taking a ride in somebody else's car saves the bus fare, so to say, and making use of somebody else's translation saves translator's fees. But there are many translations in the public domain and it does not make much sense to republish them under the name of a fictitious translator. A case in point is the translation of Sir Henry Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, by José Maria de Eça de Queirós, arguably the most important Portuguese writer of the nineteenth century. Both the original and the translation itself have been in the public domain for a long time.
The story goes that Eça found Ridder Haggard's work boring and took it upon himself to improve it (a practice wherewith we do not concur, but that is another story altogether), and it is widely held in lusophone circles that the translation is a lot better than the originalwhich it may be or not, but that, again, is another story.
Eça promotes sales and all previous editions make a big show of his name on the book cover, together with the author's nameand not on the title page, as usual. But Martin Claret publishes it as the work of Jean Melville, a nonperson. Where did anyone get the idea that Jean Melville would sell more than Eça? Did they get so used to faking translator's names that they forgot Eça's work had been in the public domain for years?
Dig, Denise, Dig Deeper and Deeper!
Historians are armchair diggers by nature and Denise is no exception. She unearthed a scholarly dissertation on the Illiad where the author compares the Greek original with some translations, including one published by Martin Claret and credited to Alex Marins. The "Marins" translation, however, is a verbatim copy of the work done by Manoel Odorico Mendes (1799 - 1864), the first person to translate the Illiad into Portuguese. Nobody seemed to recognize the Odorico Mendes job, nobody seemed to notice (or care) that the language of the "Marins" text was a bit dated for something allegedly written in the late 20th century and the author of the dissertation was awarded a degree of Master of Arts for his efforts. Kudos!
Martin Claret is responsible for some of the funniest cases Denise dug up, and the three stories told above are just a tiny sample of the situation. The mess is so great that a Spanish group interested in buying the company gave up the idea.
Unfortunately, it is not the only publisher engaged in copycatting.
Nova Cultural, one of the most important publishing houses in Brazil, has also published over 40 pirated translations, a fact that has caused them no end of embarrassment and problems. Other publishers have sued them for damages, including Editora Globo, of the powerful Roberto Marinho Group, which controls the most important Brazilian TV network. They have also been sued by at least one translator and settled out of court.
In a specific case, the translation of Dante's Divine Comedy by Hernâni Donato, they printed a special edition, with the correct credit, presented to the public during a cocktail party attended by the family that controls the company.
Nova Cultural has a very high profile and is controlled by a member of one of the most important family of publishers in Brazil and probably in Latin America, the famous Civita, whose patriarch made a fortune for himself publishing high-quality magazines and books. They agree that they have published pirated translations, but nobody seems to know or remember how those things ever got into their catalog.
However, under Brazilian law, companies are required to keep a record of payments made and the record must show both payee's name and tax ID. It should be easy to trace those payments both to the payee and to the officer who authorized them.
Landmark, Sapienza, Hemus, Ediouro, Rideel, Jardim dos Livros, Germinal, Pillares, Centauro...
The untiring Denise has found several pirated translations published by all of the above publishers. Rideel seems to be a special case, since the man in charge is an elected officer of Câmara Brasileira do Livro, the powerful association of the Brazilian book industry.
It is not an easy job. First, she follows her intuition and buys the translation she believes to be a crib. Then, she scours first and second-hand bookshops for other translations of the same book, until she finds the "original," if we may say so. Some titles in the public domain may have several translations done in Portugal or Brazil, over the last 100 years and she must have the historian's patience with documents.
She has no less than six different editions of a certain book she finds suspicious, but has not found the "original." However, she keeps digging, deeper and deeper, dominated by the certainty that she will strike gold and when she strikes the lode (which she certainly will), she will post her finding in her blog and start pestering the publisher with phone calls and e-mails.
And she has found far too many pirated translations to mention here.
The Loss to Brazilian Schools and Culture
Many of those translations are finding their way into Brazilian school libraries under a Federal program, meaning that taxpayer money is being used in good faith to feed our children false information. Our children are entitled to know that Odorico Mendes was a humanist and Alex Marins is a nonperson. The idea that the Government should not buy pirated editions is slowly "seeping up" and terrifies disciples of Captain Hook, because for many of them government contracts are the difference between profitable operation and bankruptcy.
Small wonder they are mad.
Shut up or we will Sue you.
And some of them are foaming mad. More than one has threatened to sue for libel and damages. It is an empty threat, just an attempt to scare Denise into shutting up, for they do not have a leg to stand on. We can imagine the amused judges, with ten pirated translations and a demand for damages before their eyes.
The threats are an old strategy: We have more money than you; we can hire half a dozen lawyers and even if we lose at the trial court, we can stretch the suit with appeals until you are exhausted and penniless. Better shut up. It has worked more than once, but we hope it does not work now.
The Fire Spreads
The fire is spreading: the number of press stories about copycat translations is in the increase. But it is not spreading where it should: among translators and their professional organizations.
Translators are notoriously unbusinesslike, and it seems that they find the idea of calling a publisher and saying "Look, man, it was me who did that translation and I want the credits for my workboth the credit on the title page and the credit to my bank account" simply abhorrent. Or, perhaps, they are scared of acting and being blacklisted as troublemakers. For those, we have a word of encouragement: if someone were to be blacklisted it would be Denise herself, and she does not seem to lack work these days.
Neither ABRATES, the Brazilian Translators' Association, nor SINTRA, the Brazilian Translators' Union, seem to have taken an interest in the matter. One would at least expect a note.
On the other hand, both federal and state prosecutors have ordered police investigations on copyright infringement and some publishers are finding themselves in very hot water.
Saulo was not the first to blow the whistle. Several people had raised the issue before and Denise Bottmann made good use of their work (with due credits); the list is too long to be quoted here, regrettably. The point is, however, that what set the ball really rolling was Denise's indignation and obstinacy. She is hell-bent on ending translation piracy and we have no doubt she will succeed.
There is no denying that one pirated translation is one too many but it would be unfair to say all Brazilian publishersor even a majority of themare engaged in piracy. It is a small group of very active publishers who resorted to piracy for several different reasons.
They thought they could get away with it. They thought nobody would notice. "C'mon, it is just the translator's name! Any name will do! Nobody will ever notice! Who cares who the translator is? Who the hell cares? " Oh, well, almost nobody would, but it so happens that two people did: Saulo von Randow Júnior and Denise Bottmann. And they cared hard enough to raise hell.
Denise is doing a great job and deserves our support. Click here to visit her blog and leave a comment, even if you do not know Portuguese well enough to understand the post. She will be glad to know that you do not like plagiarized translations either.
Danilo and Kelli will also be glad to hear from you
Danilo Nogueira firstname.lastname@example.org,
Kelli Semolini email@example.com.