November 17, 2012

Plagiarism, Perevody and Propaganda

Plagiarism, Perevody and Propaganda

Two stories out of Russia this weekend reinforced the stereotype that Russian entities (a) don't respect copyrights, yet (b) do value propaganda. Let's review... 

First, there was the interesting story of a British writer who stumbled upon a work in progress - namely his novel being ripped off, translated by a feckless Russian translator, to be sold (one assumes) to some pulp magnate interested in making a few extra bucks by cheating an artist out of their fair share.

Peter Mountford's story showed that life is more interesting than fiction, especially when it is about fiction. After publishing his book, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, last April, sales and reviews plodded along, then began, as is their wont, to trail off. And then Mountford noticed something strange going on. He had set up a Google Alert, which sends the user notification when a particular word or phrase pops up anywhere on the web. It turns out the name of Mountford's novel was popping up in a forum, where a user was asking detailed questions about meanings of words and phrases (in a way that quickly made apparent the asking individual's ineptitude in English). 

After skulking in the shadows for a bit, watching the proceedings, Mountford eventually came out into the light and sent the translator (the individual asking all the detailed questions) a note. Silence. Then a few weeks later, Feckless Translator replies and before you know it, Mountford is aiding and abetting the fellow with his D-minus translation. What will come of it, time will only tell. Yet this anecdotal incident of plagiarism did have the benefit for Mountford of gaining him some publicity for his book and an article in the prestigious Atlantic.

Russian publishers have long played fast and loose with both western and Russian copyrights, the establishment of a government body last year (to smooth WTO admission) notwithstanding. Most any book published in Russian is soon available for free download on the net, if you know where to look. And the same goes for movies and music.

So, from this, you might conclude that Russians don't place any intrinsic value on words.

You'd be wrong.

Which brings us to our second story. In it, we find that the US lobbying firm Ketchum was caught shamelessly planting thinly-veiled propaganda pieces (written by non-Russians, all of whom seem to have strangely unrealistic sounding names like Kingsmill Bond and Adrian Pabst) in western media outlets like Huffington Post and CNBC. 

No big deal, right? I mean PR firms are constantly trying to plant stories in media outlets. That's their job.


Public relations firms constantly peddle op-eds on behalf of politicians, corporations, and governments. Rarely if ever do publications disclose the role of a PR firm in placing an op-ed, so it's unusual to get a glimpse behind the scenes and see how an op-ed was generated.

What readers of the CNBC and Huffington Post pieces did not know — but Justice Department foreign agent registration filings by Ketchum show — is that the columns were placed by the public-relations firm working on a contract with the Russian government to, among other things, promote the country "as a place favorable for foreign investments."

Now, one could argue (if one's name was, say, Piston Michelob) that the Russians had no idea that this sort of "unethical" PR work was being done on their behalf. But that would be as hard to swallow as a plate of salo. After all, Russia paid Ketchum $23 million (Gazprom kicked in another $17 mn) for its services. You don't pay that kind of money and expect the agency to just blindly blast out press releases. The Kremlin got what it paid for and surely got plenty of progress reports.

But of course the real culprits here - let's call them the Feckless Editors - are the folks at CNBC and Huffington who took these editorials on board and did not suss out what was going on, who these folks were. Well, and of course the writers who should have disclosed the piper that had paid them. But editors are a harried bunch, and sometimes when vetted, well-written, khalyava content comes in over the transom, it can be easier to drop it in the blog so you can get off to lunch, rather than spend an hour trying to get the author on the phone and see what's really going on.

But back to where we started: on the one hand we have Russian entities who show no value for ideas or the written word, and on the other hand you have Russian entities willing to pay handsomely to get their ideas into foreign minds. While on the face of it this may seem to be something of a disconnect, they are actually two sides of the same coin. A coin, incidentally, we Americans saw in wide circulation during our recent election.

Words and ideas are fast becoming orphaned commodities to be hawked to whomever is willing to buy them. In our increasingly shallow and barren media, the true meaning and provenance of words and ideas (and photos and music and movies) are meaningless. The point is their effect, the eyeballs they grab - whether the end is to sell more pirated books or more cooked-up ideas about oneself or ones company/campaign/country.

It doesn't matter if your record is one of endless opposition to issue A, just dump enough words into the trough and you can have people believing you invented the letter A. Got a problem with corruption? No problem, just pay off some objective sounding shill to write about how you are a tireless general in the war on corruption. Need to fill out your fall fiction line with something new and fresh from "over there"? Nyet problem, just find an underemployed biologist with 5th grade English to deliver a hackneyed translation. What you save on author's royalties and quality translations you can spend on building a higher fence for your dacha.

The only problem is that there are still people out there who seem to care about hypocrisy, who keep turning over those slimy stones and asking uncomfortable questions.

Surely they must have a price?

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