The Long, Fraught History of Outlaw Translation

Rogue translators have bedeviled authors from Ben Franklin to Dan Brown

Silhouette of a person looking at words on a blackboard
Photo by Jr Korpa

Two hundred meters beneath a chateau in the Italian countryside, eight people stand trembling in a bunker, backs against the concrete wall. Apart from expressions of panic, they’re wearing only underwear, having been stripped down as part of a search. This eclectic group, assembled from all corners of the globe, selected for their complementary skills, had been enticed by a special mission. But over the course of the operation the project unraveled. Now two guards train guns on them while a man in a designer suit, seething with quiet rage, warns, “I know it was one of you.” Something precious to him has been stolen, something he values a great deal more than the lives of the men and women in front of him. 

This scene is the climax of director Régis Roinsard’s latest film, a thriller released to French theaters in January of this year. Though it features familiar tropes, the film is surprising for a couple reasons. First, the casual American filmgoer’s vision of French cinema entails more languid cigarette smoking and tasteful nudity than it does bunker capers. Second, the target of this heist lies not in a hardened vault, as the genre might lead us to expect, but between the soft covers of a manuscript. These scantily-clad hostages are translators, brought together by a publisher intent on a global release of the next installment of a best-selling series. As pages of the manuscript begin slowly leaking onto the internet, along with demand for payment, they become the prime suspects for the increasingly unhinged publisher. 

Though seemingly far-fetched, this tale is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction. In 2013 Roinsard had to look no further than the pages of his daily paper for inspiration for his film, Les Traducteurs (The Translators). There, he would have read about two rather prolific French translators, Dominique Defert and Carole Delporte, and their recent working conditions in Italy while translating Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno. The translators described being confined to a basement conference room for a month and a half, without phones or internet, with even their bathroom breaks logged by armed security guards. Though their experience wasn’t quite as high-stakes as the film’s plot (spoiler: there was no blackmail and they kept their clothes on), Roinsard remains faithful to the setting details, using them as a jumping-off point for his thriller. 

Dan Brown’s manuscript, along with the drafts of the translations, never ventured outside the underground bunker or the watchful eyes of armed guards.

What Defert and Delporte describe is one publishing house’s attempt to solve an age-old problem. For as long as our modern notions of copyright have existed, publishers have attempted to slay the multi-headed beast of leaks and outlaw translations, which can be financially disastrous for highly-anticipated new releases. Brown’s Italian publisher, Mondadori, devised an intricate solution entailing collaboration with the American publisher Doubleday to fix a global release date with simultaneous publications in English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Catalan. Eleven translators, under strict confidentiality, worked long hours over the course of two months in an underground bunker in Milan. Brown’s manuscript, along with the drafts of the translations, never ventured outside the room or the watchful eyes of the armed guards. Comings and goings were recorded diligently and access to the internet was restricted to a single computer provided for double checking vocabulary. The translators were advised to keep a low profile when outside and to have an alibi for being in Italy, as journalists were reportedly attempting to track down scoops on the novel. These harsh conditions proved successful for the publishers who, in May 2013, released the book simultaneously in dozens of national markets. 

Were such tyrannical measures really necessary against such an unassuming group? If we asked, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, perhaps with the help of a time machine or ouija board, the answer would be an emphatic yes. Franklin first began working on his autobiography while sojourned in England in 1771. The book was ostensibly meant to relate the story of his life to his son and future descendants—“Dear Son,” it begins. Hectic decades of scientific discovery, nation-building, and generally being a man about town left long gaps in the composition of the four parts of his autobiography, leaving him in a rush towards the end of his life to complete the work, probably dictating aloud the final pages to his grandson, to whom he would leave the rights to the manuscript. Upon his death, newspapers from Philadelphia to Vermont began publishing excerpts of the book, gleaned from drafts circulating among Franklin’s friends, in an attempt by publishers to satisfy demand for the complete story of the famed patriot. 

In 1793, frustrated publishers in England published an English translation of the French translation of the autobiography.

But the American reading public wouldn’t get their hands on the whole book until well after Franklin’s other biggest fans: the French. Franklin’s fame extended to Europe, where he was mostly celebrated as a man of science—and in 1791, just a year after Franklin’s death, a shady outlaw translation meant that France had the first opportunity to read what was believed to be his full autobiography. “I will not go into detail, surely of little use for my readers, on the manner in which the manuscript copy of this memoir, which is in English, landed in my hands,” wrote the publisher, slyly, in his preface to the edition. A lack of rigorous intellectual property law—a bit of an anachronism in the 18th century anyway, and complicated even further by the upheaval of the French Revolution—meant that booksellers, authors, and publishers often found themselves in a bit of a free-for-all. As Franklin’s grandson took his time to correct and polish the manuscript, it leaked—no, gushed—throughout the newly-formed United States and across the Atlantic. Based on the French translation, German and Swedish editions were quickly printed. In 1793, frustrated publishers in England, still without an authorized edition and following the lead of their peers, went forward with the publication of an English translation of the French translation of the autobiography. Americans would have to wait another quarter century before they could read Franklin’s original words, and still then it would be incomplete. In 1828 French publishers would again beat American presses to the punch by publishing the complete edition of his text, again in translation. 

The history of Ben Franklin’s autobiography, the story of a story, is hardly unique. As long as written words have circulated, we have copied, translated, parodied, and shared them—often with little regard for whose chisel, pen, or keyboard they may have come out of. It is not until rather recently, considering the long view of writing, that we have become caught up with who owns which words; or perhaps even more precisely, who owns which words in which order. Further complicating things is that in the case of translation, we are concerned not with who owns the words but rather who owns their meanings. Claims are staked not on the surface but in the essence, a notoriously slippery creature. The history of translation attests to the possibility of words finding their afterlives in a new language, but as we see in the case of Franklin’s autobiography, occasionally it’s the ghost who shows up first.   

In the case of translation, we are concerned not with who owns the words but rather who owns their meanings.

Owing to the massive and almost instantaneous reach of the internet, publishers have nowadays become increasingly more careful to protect their manuscripts from leaks, which can result in outlaw translations. More than 200 years after Franklin’s time, but again in France, a similar rogue translation caused a stir. It was 2007, and millions of fans were eagerly waiting for the July release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The publisher, Bloomsbury, was jealously guarding the manuscript, careful to avoid any leaks or Franklin-like blunders. There were even reports that GCHQ, one of Britain’s surveillance and intelligence services, was keeping a digital eye open for any errant pages. All this protection paid off handsomely as when the novel hit stores it shattered records: over 10 million copies sold in the U.S. and U.K. in just the first 24 hours.

But the sword Bloomsbury used to guard the manuscript turned out to be double-edged. Keeping the circle as tight as possible meant that no translator had even a peek at Rowling’s novel before millions of Anglophone readers were spending a sleepless night buried under their Gryffindor comforter set with a flashlight. To the chagrin of French fans, the release date for the translation was set three months later. Then a hero, or villain depending on your perspective, emerged in the form of a 16-year-old in the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence. Within days of the book’s release, the teen feverishly translated all 759 pages and posted it on a popular French internet forum. The French publisher, Gallimard, quickly alerted authorities, who jumped into action, arresting and jailing the teen overnight—but not before the translation had been viewed and downloaded thousands of times. This prodigious creation, not without a certain magic of its own, even elicited positive reaction from the French law enforcement, who were quoted as qualifying it as “quasi-professional.” No financial motives were found and in the end no charges were filed. Perhaps the publishers recognized that suing a teen might cast a damaging spell on the franchise’s reputation. 

What these examples of outlaw translation show is that the scene of translating deserves our attention.

Stories, seemingly by their own volition, resist containment. As Les Traducteurs shows, publishers’ most recent effort to think outside the box resulted in putting translators literally inside a box—but no box is completely impermeable. And what these examples of outlaw translation show, and what the film dramatizes, is that the scene of translating deserves our attention. This is despite the fact that the translator’s profession is, almost as a point of pride for some, largely invisible. Scholar and translator Norman Shapiro analogizes translation to a pane of glass: “You only notice that it’s there when there are little imperfections— scratches, bubbles. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. It should never call attention to itself.” A film like Les Traducteurs attempts to focus its gaze on this pane of glass between viewer and story: a pane like that through which we first read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, or like the one hastily constructed by a French teenager to look into a magical realm. Roinsard’s film brings our attention to stories like these, the stories of the telling, all born of the same desire: to share with the reader something that mattered to the translator. 

Despite the intensified focus on protecting copyright and controlling the dissemination of intellectual property, these vagabond translations are almost certainly here to stay. Vouloir, c’est pouvoir: where there’s a will, there’s a way. But the point of bringing together Benjamin Franklin, Harry Potter, and Les Traducteurs is not to argue against the importance of copyright law or to hammer a Barthesian nail in the coffin of the author. Instead it is to help us to appreciate the glass, how it was made, and to understand that the story of translation itself is often just as interesting and exciting as the translated story. 

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