Peter Mountford discovered that his novel was being translated into Russian by an ill-informed and completely unauthorized party; his Atlantic account of what he found and what he did about it is interesting and very funny:

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).”

The story was also on NPR; along with an audio file, that link has a transcript, with the usual inaccuracies (“soothed” for Mountford’s “zooted”; “towing the party line”) but with some additional examples.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    A character in David Lodge’s novel “Small World” is an English novelist corresponding with a diligent but culturally uninformed Japanese translator. As here, some of the translator’s guesses are comically wide of the mark.

  2. “Imbecile, writing very bad English, was eager to translate Miss Vane’s works into Italian. Could Miss Vane inform the writer of what books she had composed? Translators were all like that—no English, no sense, no money.” —Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

  3. those are precisely the first two analogies that came to mind

  4. I didn’t know you liked David Lodge, Cat & Cos.

  5. mollymooly says

    I assumed the NPR transcription was automated, which would make “rouge” for “rogue” an interesting error. Maybe it was actually done by a moonlighting Russian biologist.

  6. narrowmargin says

    I once saw a cartoon in a magazine: two men seated at a cafe table, bottle of wine, two glasses. The man on the left, looking ragged and morose, seated sideways in his chair, arm resting on back of the chair, supporting his head, the other hand on the table, cigarette in his fingers. The man on the right, leaning forward, eager, serious, saying to the man on the left: “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?”

  7. Drinking molten shoe polish! Coming from a 40+ Russian though, it wouldn’t sound that crazy. Shoe cream would have been regarded as a source of surrogate alcohol back in the 1980s (along with various glues and polishes; by the desperados, of course). It was younger generations who started sniffing, rather than drinking glue. Conveniently, sniffing needs no processing.
    I thought Russian publishers no longer printed translations without buying rights first. It’s so early 1990s. But ebooks may be different.

  8. IMO, tow the line is getting to be just about standard these days.

  9. Not while I still have a blue pencil and green eyeshade!

  10. By all means, don’t give free reign to tow the line.

  11. “Tow the line” reminds me of a bad-taste Soviet joke about a sports competition in a mental asylum.

  12. If you don’t feel like recounting it (in Russian would be fine), could you give a link to where I can read it? I enjoy bad-taste jokes.

  13. I can’t find it and I’m not sure I remember it correctly but I’ll try.
    A doctor is making his rounds in a mental hospital. One patient has scratches on his face and hands; his clothes are dirty and torn. “What happened?”
    “We went out into the yard for some exercise. The nurse drew a chalk line on the asphalt and told us to jump over it. They all jumped over and I tried to nip under.”

  14. Thanks!

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