It is no secret that international versions of books differ slightly from their original incarnations. Often publishers alter covers either because of licensing issues or to ensure the images better suit the aesthetic sensibilities of a given market. In other cases, the translation process requires subtle language adjustments. But occasionally foreign rights holders take it upon themselves to make larger to changes to books. That’s what just happened to author Victoria “V.E.” Schwab.
Schwab is probably best known for her Shades of Magic series in which people with magic are able to travel through four parallel versions of London. The books are full of politics, murder, and romance, and have been translated for Brazilian, German, Bulgarian, Czech, and other audiences. In most cases, these translations have done their job of capturing the original story, but the Russian version did not. In a recent post on Twitter, Schwab mentioned that the Russian publisher had cut out an entire romance between two male characters: Prince Rhy Maresh and pirate captain Alucard Emery.
Schwab did not authorize the changes and was horrified to discover that they had occurred, so horrified in fact that she is cancelling the entire contract with that publisher and hoping that another one adopts the book. Typically foreign rights contracts stipulate the translations remain true to the original content. It is unclear why changes happened in this case, but it is likely that Russian censorship laws and anti-LGBT sentiment played a role. Schwab indicated that the publisher could have chosen to keep the plotline in the story, but they would have had to label the Russian version as being for people 18+. (For the record, the series is aimed at young adults, and the romances that appear in it are not explicit.)
This kind of censorship is a nightmare for authors. Not only does it alter the meaning of a novel, but it also can cause a writer to distrust translations of their work. Foreign rights are based on faith: faith that translators will capture the spirit of the book, faith that nothing too extensive will change. Without that confidence, publishing can be a fraught process.
With the current political climate, I’m not sure that a new Russian publisher will pick up Schwab’s work, but for the sake of her readers, I hope they do.