Pirates of Publishing

Not long ago, I received a kind email from a reader in Pakistan, telling me how much he enjoyed reading my first book, which he had read in its Urdu translation. An “excellent work,” he called it, and he wanted to know whether I was working on something new. This is very flattering, of course, and I was touched by the compliment, but I confess my first thought was: what Urdu translation? My collection of short stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in a bunch of different foreign languages, but I was pretty sure Urdu wasn’t one of them. I asked this gentle reader if he wouldn’t mind sending me a copy. He said yes, and about four weeks later, I received a book wrapped only in a white band (which I imagine made it easier for customs officials to check the package). So here it is, a pirated translation of my book.

Now, I don’t speak Urdu, but, as it happens, this language uses an Arabic-like script, so I’m at least able to decipher a few words. I could read my name, and I could decipher a title, and I could even make out the name of the translator. It seemed vaguely familiar. Hmm, where had I heard it before? A quick search through my email showed that this gentleman had gotten in touch with me in the fall of 2006, to ask how he could spell my name in Arabic. I gave him the information, but when I asked why he needed it, I didn’t hear from him until early 2007, when he wrote to inform me that he had translated Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits into Urdu. And, he added, he was doing this sort of work for the greater good and he hoped I could find it in my heart to do the same.

After I got over my shock, I forwarded the message to my publisher, who wrote him directly to say that he needed to secure copyright permission if he wanted to publish his translation. “I was thinking of publishing the translation eventually,” the translator replied, although “no publisher commissioned me for [it].” And, well, why don’t I just quote the rest of the email:

As I wrote to Ms. Lalami, literature doesn’t sell well with Urdu readership. What does sell is mostly travel writing, women’s digests, bittersweet romances, and religious books. No mainstream publisher would even touch novels, etc. in the hope of making money Those who print this kind of literature are people like me, I mean people whose main source of income is a profession other than publishing or writing. I was not exaggerating when I said that the ordinary print run for novels is only a few hundred copies. Of these, twenty copies will come to me, if I’m fortunate enough to find a publisher, about 40 to 50 will go as complimentary copies to other writer friends, and the remaining copies will take a few years to sell. There is no question of a reprint. (I might also add here that the price of a book of about 200 pages would be between 2 to 3 US dollars.)

Pretty bleak picture, wouldn’t you say? But that is the fact. What some of us wrongheaded people do makes no sense in this country. But we do it anyway, wrongheaded or not. After all, one of our poets says to his beloved: “Come one day … if only not to come.” Paradox?! Whatever. But we instinctively know what all it means.

No, I didn’t clear the copyright issue with you. But this is just as good a time as any. I’d be personally grateful if you would consider granting it. Of course, I can’t pay for it. In recognition of the favor, and as a gesture of thankfulness, I’d be happy to share some of my copies, assuming we will get to that stage, with you and Ms. Lalami. And, of course, I’ll make sure that your permission is acknowledged on the translation, in a wording of your choice. If this isn’t what you were expecting, I’m very sorry.

The person in charge of copyright clearance at Algonquin Books replied that permissions were normally granted to publishing houses, not to freelance translators, and that he should have his publisher contact us directly. We never heard back, and I thought that was it. Until a few weeks ago, when this gentle Pakistani reader wrote to tell me about the translation he had bought in a Karachi bookstore.

Part of me feels like, hey, how cool is it that my work is pirated? How edgy. And the other part of me is outraged that someone, a professor at a major American university no less, would simply translate and publish a work of literature abroad without proper copyright permission. I’m not into writing for the money, God knows, but these translations are illegal, there is no guarantee that they are faithful to the original, and they punish other publishing houses and translators, those who do sign the proper agreements. And that’s neither cool nor edgy. That’s destructive. How do you translate that in Urdu?