Why This Poet Declared War on Her Own Book

From The Walrus:

THEY KILL THE WOMEN and the children first. This is the most cost-effective decision. The captain knows by heart the commodity value of a child, knows the women will be worth less than the men at the auction block. So he picks the obvious choices: he orders the crew to push them, the women and the children, through the cabin windows and into the Atlantic.

It’s September 1781, and having departed the Guinea Coast for a sugar port in Jamaica, the Zong is overloaded with enslaved Africans. Because the captain lacks navigational and command experience, the voyage will take eighteen weeks instead of the usual six; the ship will run low on drinking water; slaves and crew members will take ill and die; the captain will become desperate. Soon enough, he will compensate for his mediocrity with quick and murderous calculations. Over the course of ten days, to conserve resources, he and his crew will sacrifice Africans to the sea—according to some sources, it may have been as many as 150. When the ship docks in Jamaica, the captain will file an insurance claim for the loss of his “cargo.”

Here is how a massacre enters history: as a story of property destruction.

In 2008, the Toronto-based writer M. NourbeSe Philip published a dizzying, fragmented book-length poem entitled Zong!: As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, a seven-year archival project that bears witness to those atrocities and attempts, as the author says, to “defend the dead.” She composed and rearranged the text using words sourced exclusively from the two-page legal case report of the insurance claim she tracked down in the University of Toronto’s law library. In time, Zong! became a widely studied work of contemporary literature, performed dozens of times in at least nine countries and excerpted in arts galleries globally. Critics have described it as a masterpiece.

In early 2016, Philip received an enthusiastic email from a woman called Renata Morresi, a translator and poet who teaches American literature at the University of Padua in Italy. Morresi wanted to translate Zong! into Italian. Her academic research focused on, among other subjects, “slavery and its ‘unconventional’ representations,” and she had been recently awarded Italy’s national prize for translation. She thought Zong! could be valuable to Italians who were striving to make sense of their own contemporary crisis. That year alone, CNN reported, an estimated ninety migrants from North Africa and other Arab countries were drowning every week in the Mediterranean in their bid to escape violence, poverty, persecution, and war. Morresi did not, at the time, have a publisher for the translation or a contract or anything in the way of a plan, and Philip felt the emails gave the enterprise the feel of an unserious project. She advised Morresi to contact Wesleyan University Press, the book’s American publisher, which owned rights to Zong!

“I don’t know whether you speak Italian,” Morresi wrote to Philip, “but if you feel like we can discuss the drafts (it would certainly be an invaluable help for me).”

The next time Philip heard from anyone about the Italian translation of Zong! was five years later, when a small Italian publisher called Benway Series emailed the proofs with an invitation to the book’s online launch. It came as a surprise. Neither Morresi nor Wesleyan had informed her that a formal agreement was signed and subsidiary rights to her book transferred. By then, two other translators had joined the project. The translation was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, a public funder that serves Canadian artists and arts organizations, but the $13,350 it paid Benway Series had likewise changed hands without the artist’s knowledge. (Part of the CCA’s literary translation program serves international publishers.)

The lack of transparency confused her: it’s professional practice to involve the poet in any translation work. She emailed Suzanna Tamminen, the director and editor-in-chief at WUP, to confirm a contract had been signed, before congratulating the translators on their hard work. “I am honoured,” she wrote to Benway. “It is so important that this work reach European countries, many of which are the ground zero of the trauma that is ongoing.”

And then she saw what they had done to her book.

LITERARY TRANSLATION is an unforgiving balancing act. The Italian saying “traduttoretraditore”—or, “translator, traitor”—captures how any translation is destined to obfuscate the true meaning of the original, sealing the fate of what Miguel de Cervantes in the seventeenth century called a work’s “original luster.” The consequence is both reader and author are betrayed. Vladimir Nabokov famously translated his own novels into Russian to avoid seeing them “degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases.” He was deeply contemptuous of Constance Garnett, a translator who basically brought Russian literature to the English-speaking world, because by favouring readability, she often elided an author’s idiosyncrasies. If translators seem inclined to fatalism, in other words, it’s because they’re tortured by the idea that their aptitude will be measured by how invisible they can make themselves.

The translator’s presence in Zong!, though, was not quite the object of Philip’s distress; Philip is not a Nabokovian purist. Translators have worked on her books before, with her approval. The problem was of another nature. Among the myriad reasons Zong! has become such a widely studied work are its disjunctive, distinctive visual qualities—a kinetic form charged with spiritual intent. The poetry sweeps across 180 pages in the manner of vocal jazz or a disordered musical constellation. As if carried off by waves, words float away from each other, swirl around, casting off letters like articles of clothing; syllables gurgle or stutter, refuse meaning. Isolated phrases, seemingly at random, tilt into cursive or italics. Submerged at the bottom of each page are imagined African names for the drowned, whose deaths were originally recorded as “negroe man” or “negroe woman.”

It had taken Philip years to find this form. It wasn’t until after a 2006 sojourn to Ghana, the departure point of the slave ship, that the book’s organizational principle began to slowly reveal itself. That principle became associated with a figure she called Setaey Adamu Boateng, who represented the ancestral voices she believed were speaking through the pattern she was painstakingly creating on the page. “Every word or word cluster,” she wrote in the book’s closing essay, “is seeking a space directly above within which to fit itself.” Those spaces are critical for Philip, because they are intended to represent the very air the enslaved were denied as they sank. “The text is attempting to revivify and recuperate what was lost in those last breaths,” Philip told me. “That, for me, is nonnegotiable.”

When Benway Series sent her the proofs in June 2021, the first thing Philip noticed was that this nonnegotiable rule had been broken. The PDF on her computer screen felt cluttered and claustrophobic. The Italian phrases often nearly grazed the lines beneath them. The formal protocols she had painstakingly established to turn Zong! into what she called a “mourning song” had not been respected. Morresi had attempted to capture the poetry’s pictorial shape, but the translator not only missed the logic behind why the text had been arranged that way, she also failed to consider how that arrangement might need to change when adapted into a foreign language. “What I am committed to is that it’s a dynamic action,” said Philip, referring to Zong! ’s form. “The words have to be positioned in such a way that they breathe.”

When Philip raised these concerns in an email to Benway Series, she was rebuffed. Morresi, wrote the book’s editors, was “extremely skilled and multi-award-winning,” and a first draft of the translation had been anonymously peer reviewed “in very positive terms.” WUP’s head emailed to say it wasn’t part of the normal process to send authors permission updates about their books, and that, anyway, “expanding the critical discourse on the book in this way helps to ensure [it] remains on reading lists for years to come.” Morresi emailed to note that any differences between the source text and its translation were attributable to Italian’s cumbersome morphology: the words inevitably run longer, which made it difficult to adhere to Philip’s unique spacing rules. She would have reached out directly to ask questions, Morresi said, but she assumed Philip wasn’t interested, and she didn’t want to disturb her.

. . . .

After weeks of fruitless discussions, as it became obvious Philip would not consent to the translation, Benway Series went ahead with publication. In late August 2021, when Philip received word that the press was preparing to distribute the book, she demanded the publisher destroy it and scrub all mention of the title from their website. WUP’s Tamminen, now swayed by Philip’s concerns, supported the request. Benway Series refused. In an email signed by two editors, the press argued they had done everything according to the letter of the law. Philip went public on social media and drew the support of more than 1,200 people—among them, poets, editors, scholars, publishers, translators, and readers—who petitioned to have the “flawed” translation recalled and destroyed.

Benway posted a rebuttal on its website, in Italian, that described Philip’s demands as reminiscent “of authoritarian and fundamentalist regimes around the world” and said her accusations of racism were “offensive, not so much to us . . . as much as for all the victims of that gruesome violence.”

It seemed to Philip that Benway Series expected her to be grateful for their attention, that the virtuousness of a small Italian press ought to be celebrated rather than contested. But she couldn’t understand why nobody there thought to contact her about the translation. “Even if there weren’t those underpinning spiritual, historical reasons why the structure of Zong! is important,” she said, “as an artist and as a poet, surely my work must be respected.”

. . . .

Moral rights stem from the Berne Convention, the leading international copyright treaty which states that even if an artist cedes economic rights to their work, they retain the legal grounds to “object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification” done to that work. One option, therefore, might have seen Philip file a lawsuit against Benway Series in Canada and, if she won, go to an Italian court to help enforce it. Neither of these actions would have been easy to pull off.

While Italy appears to provide substantial legal protections to writers and artists, there’s very little Canadian case law on the subject, even though the Snow ruling raised the bar for moral rights infringement. “What it did was set a precedent that in order to win in a case of moral rights, you had to prove that it damaged the honour and reputation of the artist,” said Martha Rans, a Vancouver-based lawyer who specializes in copyright law. But there’s a caveat: you need a reputation big enough that any damage to it can be quantified. “It becomes very difficult to mount a case,” said Rans, “because Canada doesn’t have a lot of what might be considered high-profile artists.”

Link to the rest at The Walrus

PG notes that he was unable to find anything in the OP which indicated that Ms. Philip registered her book in any nation’s copyright office.

The publisher of the original book, Wesleyan University Press, is mentioned only in passing in the OP.

For those not familiar with the institution, Wesleyan University is a very expensive private institution located in Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan is one of a small group of similar institutions that are sometimes called the “Little Ivies.”

PG wonders if Wesleyan Press actually granted translation rights to the Italian press or not. Small university presses don’t usually have piles of money sitting around, but, if it did not grant a license for an Italian translation of the book in question, one might think that it might think about raising a fuss about the Italian translation.

Here’s a fuzzy copy of the copyright page for the book.

Observant readers will note that Ms. Philip is listed as the owner of the copyright.

Here’s a list of various organizations that helped fund the creation of Zong.

There are a lot of wealthy organizations mentioned in these acknowledgements. The OP didn’t mention whether Ms. Philip sought the help of Wesleyan University or any of her funding organizations for help in this copyright dispute.

Perhaps he missed the copyright registration sentence in the OP, but, suffice to say, as a general proposition, registering a copyright with any western nation’s copyright office increases the options for enforcing the copyright in many other western nations, most certainly including Italy.

See here for a layperson’s explanation of the benefits of registering a copyright in the United States.

UPDATE

This whole situation seemed weird, so PG dug deeper and searched the United States Copyright Office for Zong.

Here’s what he found:

Registration Number / Date:
TX0007043340 / 2008-10-09

Copyright Claimant: Wesleyan University Press, Transfer: Written Contract.

What is a “Copyright Claimant”?

The US Copyright Office helpfully provides a definition:

Please identify all known copyright claimant(s) in this work. The author may always be named as a claimant, even if the author has transferred rights in the work to another person or entity.

The claimant may also be a person or entity that has obtained ownership of the copyright in the work. But to be named as a claimant, a person or organization must own all rights in the work; ownership of only some of the rights is not sufficient. In addition, a claimant must own the copyright in all of the authorship covered by this registration.

PG then searched Canada’s online copyright records (which are, on the whole, easier to access and understand than those in the US copyright office). PG was not able to find any copyright application for Ms. Philips or her book.

Under various copyright conventions and treaties, a registration of a copyright in one signatory nation is automatically recognized on the registration date in all the other signatories to the convention and/or treaty.

Thus, a registration in the US in 2008 would effectively offer backdated protection in all the other countries bound by the convention/treaty. PG is happy to be proven wrong, but he would think that a registration for Zong by Ms. Philips in Italy would be deemed to have been filed in 2008, the date of registration in the US should she wish to push for a shutdown of the illegal translation of her book.

Circling back around to Wesleyan University Press, it appears in that organization’s copyright registration for Zong that Ms. Philips may have signed over her rights under her copyright to the book to Wesleyan University Press.

However, the copyright page of the book shows Ms. Philips as the copyright owner.

PG isn’t certain if the book’s copyright attribution of the copyright to Ms. Philips was simply recognizing her as the author, but that’s not what the copyright page says.

Wesleyan Press, on the other hand, may have screwed up the copyright filing. Small university presses are not generally known as centers of copyright knowledge.

In PG’s mind, it’s possible that somebody at Wesleyan Press who registers a copyright once every 2-3 months max, may have registered the copyright for Zong “the way we’ve always done it,” and failed to change the Presses boilerplate to register the copyright in Ms. Phillips name as is implied by the book’s copyright page.

If any visitor to TPV has actually read down to the end of this quite lengthy post and has any knowledge concerning what actually happened with Ms. Philips and Wesleyan University Press, PG would appreciate any comments to clarify this apparent mess.

5 thoughts on “Why This Poet Declared War on Her Own Book”

    • But, unfortunately, it is standard procedure in the world of small-to-medium academic presses. I actually raised my eyebrow a bit at the copyright notice, as the expectations, procedures, and standards — that the publisher will own the copyright and manage all derivative rights, and maybe (only maybe) pay the author some share that’s even less favorable than a 1950s commercial publishing contract provided — haven’t changed in three quarters of a century. In the last year, I reviewed a proposed publishing contract from [name of remarkably similar institution withheld] offered to the child of a friend of mine, for a tenure piece, that did exactly that.

      Plus, Wesleyan is in the Second Circuit, so… ok, ok, I’ll take my diatribe about the combined ignorance and arrogance of the NYC-based IP bar elsewhere. That’s where the “mere license” language comes from, and if that wasn’t “the law” in the Second Circuit in the 1970s maybe the 1976 Act would properly call most transactions “licenses” and… yeah, I promised, I failed, it’s Halloween in half an hour and therefore time to get ready for Trick-or-Subpoenaing. This year’s decorations are on the theme of Dead-Hand Control, and escaping from the seance room will require a full, complete, and clear explanation of the Rule Against Perpetuities. Bwahahahahahahahaha!

  1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_registration

    Italy same as UK : registration not required no voluntary process available.

    Canada registration optional.

    If we check author blogs I think there are cases when the Authors knew nothing until the printed translation in Croatian Italian or Chinese arrived in the mail.

    So a contract transferring all rights is possible and legal.

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