What happens when the translation of a book comes out before the original text?
That’s what happened earlier this month with Prince Harry’s memoir — albeit, inadvertently so. The Spanish translation of his book Spare went on sale nearly a week before its official release date on Jan. 10, prompting some premature media coverage of the book’s contents in the Anglosphere.
This isn’t the first time a translation has hit shelves before the original text (accidentally or otherwise), but it is a unique case, given the fact that the book’s release was already marred by what the New York Times called a “chaotic” rollout.
In a piece for The Conversation, translation and transcultural studies specialist Caroline Summers noted that back-translations into English from the Spanish version of the memoir also played a role in the confusing media coverage of the various anecdotes discussed memoir in the days leading up to the book’s publication.
“The book’s tagline is ‘His Words. His Story.’ and part of the coverage centered around why it was important that these were Prince Harry’s own words,” Summers writes. “Yet what those words actually were, depended on where you read them.”
The Spanish-language title of the book, En la sombra, literally means “in the shadow,” making it all the more ironic to see how back-translations of the Spanish version quite literally overshadowed Prince Harry’s own English words.
For example, Summers points to the fact that The Times quotes Prince Harry as saying “So my number is 25. It’s not a number that fills me with satisfaction, but nor does it embarrass me,” where the original English reads “So, my number: twenty-five. It wasn’t a number that gave me any satisfaction. But neither was it a number that made me feel ashamed.” It should also be noted that The Times never references the fact that these quotes aren’t actually sourced from the original text.
Prince Harry’s not alone in having a translated version of his work overshadow the original version of his work, though it’s certainly unfortunate how things folded out in his case. A more intentional instance of this is the work of US-born John Morressy, who was prolific in his native English, but more popular in the Czech Republic. Although he wrote in English, some of his works were translated into Czech before ever being published in English (that is, if they were even published in English at all).
Still, as Summers argues, the story remains Prince Harry’s — even if they aren’t exactly his words.
“The marketing for Spare and media appearances surrounding its publication have leaned heavily on a bid to ‘tell my own story’ and resist ‘words being taken out of context,’” Summers writes. “The realities of translation show how difficult this is.”