Monday 21 May 2018

The Shereshevsky Gambit

I've been entertained, and a little puzzled, by a sideshow in the world of chess book publishing that's been taking place this month, following the appearance of this very striking review, by John Hartmann, which apparently also appears (though not in an identical version) in Chess Life.

It concerns the English edition, and hence translation, of Mikhail Shereshesky's The Shereshevsky Method To Improve In Chess: From Club Player to Master published earlier this year by New In Chess. (At least it is in part, and that is the part that I'm interested in here.)

As you can see from its Amazon page, it's been well-reviewed in other sources, but Hartmann spotted some oddities that other reviewers have not, and remarkable oddities they are too. I recommend you read his review before proceeding with my piece: when you do, you'll understand why he writes that
I was astounded by what I found in The Shereshevsky Method.
What astounded Hartmann so? In the first place, the fact that large sections of other people's books are used in the text, far beyond anything we would normally associate with legitimate quotation under the principle of fair use.

How large? Larger than anything I've ever seen before. For instance, the section quoted from John Nunn's well-known book Secrets of Practical Chess begins on page 245 of The Shereshevsky Method and continues through to page 251. That's a quotation six pages long. It's well over half the chapter (which, as Hartmann notes, is ironically entitled "Laziness").

Shereshevsky makes no bones about this. He says very clearly that this is from Secrets of Practical Chess, even gives the page number where you should start and adds
I decided to present Nunn's own version and not waste time looking for material in other similar sources.
Another way to put this would be "I decided not to waste time writing my own book when I could just import pages and pages of somebody else's".

If that's not strange enough (and chunks of other books are similarly lifted) there's a second oddity, which Hartmann puts like so:
There is more. Instead of referring to the original English language texts in these extensive quotations, and against standard practice, the translator re-translated the (already once-translated) Russian back into English. Nunn’s words are no longer Nunn’s words.
So apparently, when you're reading Nunn in Shereshevsky, what you're reading isn't Nunn, but a version of Nunn apparently obtained by taking the Russian translation of Nunn and translating it back into English.

How does this work? Let's have a look at a portion of Secrets of Practical Chess

(my own copy, published by Gambit in 1998)

where the following segment is appears on two columns of page 73.

In Shereshevsky you'll find it on page 247 (across two columns rather than my rather inept presentation).

Whatever you make of this, it's a long way from standard practice. If it's all right to quote huge chunks of somebody else's text, it's all right to quote them. So why not just quote them? Why not just use the original English?

But in fact you can't quote half-a-dozen pages of somebody else's text with neither permission nor exceptional circumstances, and if you get permission you can simply quote the original. So what are the exceptional circumstances?

But you don't achieve anything, you don't get out of anything, by changing round the wording. It's absurd.

All this does rather bring into question the legitimacy of the copyright notice at the start of the book

and it's hard to dissent from Hartmann's conclusion:
I cannot for the life of me understand how this passed editorial muster.
He continues:
I have never seen anything like it from a major publishing house, chess or otherwise.
Me neither, John.

At this point, enter Jacob Aagaard, publisher and co-author of one of the books misued by Shereshevsky and his publishers. According to Jacob
We contacted New in Chess with our concerns. They were terribly apologetic
but reports that he, at least, has granted the previously unsought permission "after the fact" and that he accepts that "the apology from New in Chess on this matter was sincere" and that it was "an honest mistake".

Fair enough, and seeing as it's Jacob's work, copyright and income that are affected, his opinion is the important one here.

But, there's still one thing that puzzles me, before the whole thing is wrapped up. I quoted John Hartmann as saying:
the translator re-translated the (already once-translated) Russian back into English. 
Did they though?

My Russian doesn't extend much beyond the word "kometa" but I do know a little about translation and it's perhaps surprising, if it was a retranslation of the Russian rather than a reworking of the English, to see some of the phrases from the original English appear entirely (or almost entirely) the same in the version apparently obtained by going from one language to the other and then back again.

And as Jacob remarks:
the translator is aware of the original book, as can be seen by him taking passages out of it.
Given that NiC knew what texts were being quoted, it's hard to imagine that they didn't look at the originals when working on the Shereshevsky book (and to be fair, nobody has said they didn't). I've no problem with them doing that - it's the fact that they rewrote the English, rather than the precise route they took to do it, that continues to baffle me. It's not so much the ethics, iffy though they are. It's the weirdness of it all.

So I'd genuinely like to know: why? What did they think they were achieving thereby? They must have realised that the differences would be noticed, as indeed they were, by the first reviewer to do the job with any thoroughness. So what were they thinking of?


Anonymous said...

Perhaps New in Chess editors don't bother reading their publications before they bring them out.

There were many Short magazine columns with offensive material unedited, and New in Chess' Browne biography contained a dozen or more errors of fact which were published without even a footnote.

David Weman said...

I would guess the translator wanted to get paid in full for the quoted sections, but not do unnecessary work, so they altered the text a little for the sake of ass covering.

Jon said...

I think David might be right, especially given who the translator is with his notorious support for the world's greatest ever plagiariser...

ejh said...

David - maybe, but it's my view that the translator here is working under somebody else's supervision and doesn't therefore bear the greatest responsibility for the policy.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the English -> Russian -> English translation an issue with the first of the Kasparov Predecessors books? In the later books, they took care to restore the original quotations. Particularly when quoting Fischer, readers would have been familiar with the style.

Quoting several pages of John Nunn's demolition of an earlier book on the Latvian might have been valid in a Russian edition where readers might not have been familiar with the original. In an English edition shouldn't it have been heavily paraphrased rather than marginally re-expressed?


ejh said...

Quoting several pages of John Nunn's demolition of an earlier book on the Latvian might have been valid in a Russian edition where readers might not have been familiar with the original

I think it'd still fall foul of copyright requirements though, not that anybody would have chased it up.

Wasn't the English -> Russian -> English translation an issue with the first of the Kasparov Predecessors books?

Oh that's an interesting question. All that stuff used to be somewhere on the internet, but I don't know where and I don't suppose it is any more.

Anonymous said...

There are a few things you seem to gloss over I thought:
1/ it is “positional decision making in chess” by Gelfand Aagaard is talking about. I’m guessing you don’t have that book.

2/ You can see the name of the translator above, but given he is an old friend of the old blog surprised he is not mentioned;

3/ are you yourself not taking out huge chunks of the books, and beyond acceptable use?


ejh said...

Well I have lost a bet with myself since when writing the post I imagined it would take rathed fewer comments for someone to confuse "displaying extracts of text for comparison purpises" with "employing text rather than write your own". Standards are slipping.

Anonymous said...

All that stuff used to be somewhere on the internet, but I don't know where and I don't suppose it is any more.

Edward Winter has it, along with gratuitous snide remarks about Matthew Sadler.


ejh said...

I think I had in mind the Forster article mentioned at the end.

adamponting said...

I'm reading Forster's article now; it's available at (maybe there's a later-updated version available)

mydextra said...

Vist please