Monday, November 10, 2008

First Post: Multiple Translations

It is time, I suppose, for me to get swept into the blogoshpere. I have long posted comments about copyright on various websites and my project page, but now it is time to make it a more regular event and to collect everything in a convenient place. I thought I should start on a positive note -- which upon the subject of copyright is difficult at best. So, without further ado, here goes:

I have been doing something recently which has given me a great amount of pleasure but will not be repeated frequently -- or perhaps ever -- because of copyright. When the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth came out, I thought I should go to the trouble of reading the book (I saw the older movie a long time ago and therefore am familiar with the story). Jules Verne is without a doubt an interesting author. He was one of the founders of western science fiction and a singularly imaginative person. His books have enough suspense and unexpected, even miraculous, events that all but the most die hard action junkies should be entertained. If that were not enough, his books are also an excellent source of information about how the world appeared through the eyes of a 19th Century western scientist.

Hollywood rarely, if ever, depicts faithfully an author's original story, so reading the book would also give me the only complete picture of this seminal bedrock of modern culture. I could not read the original, though, because I do not read French. Thereupon, I turned my search to Project Gutenberg to find the English translation of this famous work. This would be the closest I could get to the original without years of study in a language for which I have no interest.

This is where Project Gutenberg surprised me.

There was not one translation of the work. . . There were two! Project Gutenberg frequently has multiple editions or scans of works with cosmetic differences. But multiple translations of the same work? And these two translations had separate titles: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and A Journey to the Interior of the Earth.

At first, I thought I should choose one, so I decided to read the first chapter or two of each and discover which I liked best. I quickly noticed quite a great deal of discrepancy between the two. In fact, it existed to a shocking degree. Even the narrator's uncle, second only to the narrator in importance, had two different names. He was Professor Hardwigg in one and Professor Lidenbrock in the other. One would think a central character of a narrative would have only one, easily copiable, name in the original work (it is not as if the book were written in a non-Latin character set).

This massive gulf, not merely the result of simple word choices, led me to become hooked on both versions. I was captured by a new form of suspense: How well did each author appear to translate the story, and which did I think was the more faithful translation (I had no idea, of course, but speculation is always fun ;-). I began to read both books concurrently, reading a chapter of one and then the other -- trying my best to keep them matched up (the translators even separated the chapters in different places).

The resulting adventure has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had with literature, and it taught me not a little about the art of translation and its power to alter the ideas in a work. There is no longer a doubt in my mind that a translation is an original work, a shadow approximating the shape of the original but powerless to represent the fine, multitudinous details of the irradiated body. Each translator had distinct styles, and I continually had to assess which version seemed more faithful. I have read other translations of Verne's works, so I already had an impression of his "voice", but this gave me two versions of each statement to analyze. It was an expedition every bit as trying as the story itself. I quite thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.

Yet, alas, I am unlikely to have this experience again. One might ask why, of course, but the answer should already be completely obvious. I, true to form as always, must blame this (correctly, I should add) upon the crooked shoulders of that rancid body of law called copyright.

In any country that falls under the influence of the Berne Convention -- and that is most these days with spectres like WIPO around to make all of our lives miserable and dark -- translations are now firmly within the bounds of "derivative works". This means translations can be controlled by the author of the original story. Very few, if any, authors are going to "authorize" multiple translations of their works. The financial incentives are against it, and even if they were not, the author of the first translation, who is certain to be in a financial relationship with the author or his publisher, will resist losing his monopoly to any sort of competiton (it is that nasty Free Market the monoplist publishers hate again).

There will be no alternate translations. One might go to the time and effort to translate a work free of charge, but who would do so in order to get sued? Who would pay the author for the privilege? This rules out wiki style translations as well.

For Public Domain works, this is not the case. The 道德經 Dao De Jing may have been translated more than 100 times into English. Nearly all the Greek classics have been translated into English. There are probably endless examples of ancient works with multiple translations. Copyright has virtually eliminated this for new works, however, and Disney and its cabal of wicked publishers and their lobbyists are close to damming up the remaining trickle into the Public Domain. Great works of the last 50 years have official translations and nothing else. Opinions on what an author might have meant are limited to one per work, one interpretation, one point of view. This is truly a great loss.

This inhibits cross-cultural understanding, deprives students of valuable information, and constrains the growth and depth of world culture. By making "derivative works" into extensions of a copyright holder's privilege over information, the authors of the Berne Convention have taken something from everybody, and every legal system and law maker that endorses this theft of speech, this censorship of potential ideas is culpable.

I honestly hope that some day, I can live in a world where speech is Free, and no one has to ask the author of a work before providing the service of translation to everybody. I want everybody to be able to have the kind of experience I am enjoying so thoroughly. The words in books, the speech recorded, should be Free of restrictions, charge being only one, for everybody to use and learn from and -- very significantly -- add to.

When speaking to friends and relatives, no one thinks of putting a price on their speech or restricting who repeated it. In fact, most people feel rather proud when their statements are repeated by others -- especially others who they esteem. But when the same speech is recorded, the game suddenly changes. Speech suddenly gets hijacked into the realm of personal property. Many people would claim to "own" their speech even after they have sold it to others.

Copyright, therefore, has become a from of privatized censorship, a system by which Free Speech is limited without the government taking responsibility.

I believe that this is not only immoral, but criminal, and in the United States, certainly unconstitutional. Free Speech is the foundation of Freedom and Free Societies. Free Speech in western culture has been under constant assault since the Constitution of the United States so completely altered it and toppled the majority of European monarchies. One method of attack has been to restrict speech not by censorship, but by ownership. Tying speech to monetary value restricts the dissemination of ideas and places the power of information distribution in the hands of wealthy parties.

Because of this, I am going to entitle this collection of my speech Stealing Speech: A Commentary on the Long History of Publishers' Attempts to Restrict Free Speech. It is my sincere wish everyone who happens upon this collection of speech is entertained as well as enlightened (it is also my sincere wish that I actually have something enlightening to say ;-), and if you are reading this I hope you will regularly contribute your opinions.