"Giving the Fig"
I’m no marketing guru, but there is one rule of advertising that I think everyone should follow: if you dominate a market, never draw attention to your (smaller) competition. This is why Apple attacks Microsoft so directly in ads—for
better or worse, Microsoft has a market share the size of a Chicagoan’s shoulders and Apple wants to bite that. Thus the direct, negative advertising.
So when Russian Life brought out a new translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf (or rather, The Little Golden Calf in Anne O. Fisher’s translation) at the exact same moment that we did, I totally ignored it. Sure, based on our contract it’s a violation of copyright, but shit, we all know how Russians deal with copyright issues (“the more the merrier!”), and really? Russian Life‘s entire distribution system seems to consist of their website and Amazon.com. Fine, cool, whatever. Open Letter’s not afraid of a little competition—the new translation we commissioned from Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich is brilliant, and has received outstanding praise from places like the L.A. Times and PRI’s World Books. I know it’s great. And if more people end up reading Ilf & Petrov’s hysterical masterpiece because there are two brand-new translations, then so much the better. The point is getting people to pick this up; no one’s going to make an Koreiko-like fortune off of the sales of this book. At least not for a hundred or so years.
So we didn’t send the cease and desist letter to Russian Life that we could have. And I never even bitched up a storm here on the blog. Why draw attention? There’s maybe a thousand people in the country who realize that two versions of this book even exist, and the rest of the people familiar with The Golden Calf are probably reading our edition.
But then . . . yesterday happened. And this page on the Russian Life website was sent out to—at minimum—the SEELANGS (Slavic & East European Languages) listserv and Nicole Rudick, who reviewed our edition of The Golden Calf in the L.A. Times.
In case you don’t feel like clicking through—though trust me, this shit is hilarious—this page is a list of ten reasons why the Russian Life edition of The Little Golden Calf is superior to our version, ranging from the “Translator” to the “Cover Design”. Seriously? Propaganda is where you turn first in trying to jack our sales? (Before going any further, I want to point out what a stupid, stupid game this is . . .)
I’m not going to defend our book, or go through their list point by point rebutting each of their claims—it’s clear that Russian Life is bitter and jealous about the reviews we’ve been getting and this is their cry for attention—but in addition to having the collective back of our translators/editors/designers, I just can’t help myself . . . Some of the stuff on the Russian Life site is too much fun not to share with all of you.
First off, their criticism of the title. According to Russian Life‘s unattributed post (and by the way, in case anyone is wondering, this is Chad writing—all these opinions are mine and don’t reflect the views and opinions of anyone else affiliated with Rochester, Open Letter, Three Percent, or Russia. So if any of what follows pisses off anyone at Russian Life, e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org):
Ilf and Petrov did not actually use “zolotoy telets,” the set Biblical phrase for “the Golden Calf.” Instead, they called their book Zolotoy telyonok, using the everyday, normal word for “calf” to deliberately lower the register of the Biblical image. We feel that a translation that misses Ilf and Petrov’s sly, intentional desacralization of the image of the Golden Calf misses the whole point of the title; the care we took in conveying this intention of the original title is emblematic of the care we took throughout the edition.
In other words, “The Little Golden Calf” is >>>>> “The Golden Calf.” Well, this confusion of accuracy for quality (a motif that runs throughout the Russian Life post) is pretty silly. Sure, telyonok is “little,” but as someone else pointed out, the “desacralization” just doesn’t come across in English via “little.” This is problem in translating most diminutives, which is why we went with the straight “Golden Calf.”
And their “first complete translation” posturing is beyond insane. We’re all agreed that the previous translations are flawed, incomplete. And I’m willing to let pass the fact that our edition contains additional material that theirs doesn’t. Why? Because I know that Russian Life is placing the emphasis on first and not on complete. That they believe that they deserve special recognition since their edition supposedly came out a month-and-a-half before ours. Oddly, both of our pub dates were December 1st, but—again with the confusion—since the book was reviewed on January 15th, they assumed that was when copies became available. (We’ve had this in house and for sale since early-November. All real publishers know that pub dates are an artificial load of crap.) (Again, this is all so stupid.)
But sticking with the subject of reviews and confusion, there’s another page in which Russian Life breaks down a single passage, comparing the two variations, and finding that their edition is much superior, ‘natch. I’m not one to bash a translator, but I’m not above sucker punching a publisher, so let’s take a closer look at how they frame this “comparison.” First off, here’s the quote they use from our edition:
“Investigating Koreiko’s case might take a long time,” the character announces. “God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows. We are in a terrible bind. It might be a month, it might be a year. Either way, we need some legal standing. We need to blend in with the cheery masses of office workers. That’s what the bureau is all about. I have long been interested in  administration. I am a bureaucrat and a mis-manager at heart. We will be collecting  something very funny, for example, teaspoons, dog tags, or bells and whistles. Or horns and hoofs. That’s perfect! Horns and hoofs.  How about that?  Besides, I already have some excellent blank forms that are suitable for any occasion and a round rubber stamp  in my bag.”
Now, I’m not going to stoop to picking apart the Fisher/Russian Life version (although “We need to blend in with the office workers’ energetic masses” sounds icky), but I will point out two things: 1) the interjection “the character announces” is from the L.A. Times review. So rather than quote the passage in our edition, Russian Life quotes the review quoting the passage in our edition. It’s all the same right?—as careless as the rest of their diatribe. And 2) what the fuck is up with this footnote numbering system? I have no problem with them picking out lines to compare and pick apart, just do it in some sort of logical order.
I’m going to let their typeface bit just go, ‘cause really? WTF is this, high school? You’re bragging about your font choice? Ain’t nothing quite like judging a book by its Courier.
And the cover design? I’m hoping there’s some tongue-in-cheek that I’m just missing here:
Our cover was designed by the wonderful Ufa-based illustrator Julia Valeeva, who perfectly captured Bender’s iconic features (Bender’s cap and scarf) as well as other symbolic images from the novel (the suitcase of money, the little plate with a sky-blue rim, the Koreyko file, etc.). This makes our edition immediately recognizable to Russians who grew up on a diet of re-runs of one of the four television or movie versions of the Bender novels, ranging from the classic 1968 The Little Golden Calf to the 2005 version, where Bender was played by Russian superstar Oleg Menshikov.
First of all, the use of bold is simply unhinged. It’s like unnecessary quote sort of tactless. But if you’re looking to sell your book to Russians who already are stuffed on Bender, why didn’t you publish it in Russian? The whole point of translation is to introduce a book to a new audience that may not be familiar with the original. Who isn’t aware of Bender’s quintessential features. And although I hate to do this in a public place, I’m going to take a second here to explain a bit of elementary marketing. First, from the Russian Life website:
The edition as a whole was conceived as a way to introduce the English-speaking reader to Ostap Bender as he is understood in Russian culture, that is, as a household name whose quips and comebacks are still used in everyday Russian speech to this day. Thus our edition includes:
- an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, herself a respected scholar of Ilf and Petrov’s works;
- a translator’s foreword;
- a bibliography of scholarship on Ilf and Petrov available in English;
- the notes;
- an appendix deciphering characters’ names, which are “speaking names” in the tradition of Dickens and Gogol;
- a bilingual appendix of popular phrases from the novel.
First off, you know who’s a household name? Lady Gaga. Notes, bibliographies, appendices, and introductions a household name do not make. Sorry folks, but the above list appeals to academics only. For an author/book to reach a level of popularity, to even delusionally pretend to be on the “household name” level, it needs to reach an enormous general audience. A general audience that just fell asleep reading the words “bilingual” and “appendix.” No offense, Russian Life, but the Mel Brooks movie of The Twelve Chairs did more for Ostap Bender in the U.S. marketplace than ten million footnotes.
But while we’re on the footnotes, check this shit out:
9. “Giving the fig” in Russia is a mildly obscene gesture in which the thumb, positioned in that it sticks out between the first and second fingers, is brandished in someone’s direction; it means something like “take that!” or “you’ll get nothing from me!”
That’s one of their footnotes. Can someone explain to me what benefit the reader derives from ramming eyes-first into the phrase “giving a fig” and then having to flip to the back of the book and suffer through that dreadfully clinical description to get the gist of the passage they just read? This is why I hate footnotes—it makes for lazy translations that demand extra work from the reader. Which, FYI and back to Marketing Lesson 101, doesn’t help with reaching the whole “household name” goal.
OK, OK, everything above is a bit batshit, I know, I know, and I get what they’re trying to pull and where they’re coming from. And I really shouldn’t be making fun, or trying to bash a tiny publisher, but there’s a real sense of bitterness in these complaints that’s hard to ignore. Such as the bit where we’re criticized for using the edition edited by Alexandra Ilf (the same Alexandra Ilf who signed a contract with us for the rights to the book), whereas her preface is the GREATEST THING EVER.
But so be it. I can let that all go.
But not this. Seriously, even if none of the above was irritating or funny, I would’ve written this whole piece just to include this:
9. SIZE. Our edition is over 35% longer than the 315-page Open Letter edition. In order to include the Additional Materials noted above, our edition is 448 pages long, yet remains compact and lightweight.
10. PRICE. Our edition sells for $20, Open Letter’s edition sells for $15.95. But, as the Russia proverb goes, Skupoy platit dvazhdy (A miser pays twice.)
This is a joke right? Ignore the whole page-count/word-count fallacy and focus on the primary message: “35% more paper at a 20% higher price!” Is this the five-year plan of book publishing? Our book is better because it has more pages. Ever hear of page margins and the impact layout has on length? Or better yet, how about fact checking: our edition, which I have in front of me, is 336 pages . . .
OK, Russian Life, you win. I paid attention to you.
And now on with normal business.