A Sequestered Travelogue

Notice: this is a bit off-topic, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining.

Like most people in our region I’m stuck at home sheltering from Covid-19 and wildfire smoke. Yet I seem to be scattered around the world today.

Twenty-some years ago a large number of us were teaching a two-semester sequence of courses on world civilizations at Washington State University, at that time required for most freshmen. Several of us decided that the various textbook readers available commercially were unsatisfactory. I in particular wanted to use more literary texts from the cultures we discussed. So ten of us joined forces to create a custom-published anthology of readings. 

But it turned out that big-time publishers like Penguin and Indiana University Press wanted huge fees to allow us to reprint their translations even for a small press run (Pico della Mirandola may be in the public domain in Italian, but a satisfactory modern English version costs plenty). So we set ourselves to translating as many texts as we could from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Chinese, Urdu, Sanskrit and more, hoping to eliminate royalty fees and reduce the cost to our students.

The result was a pretty fantastic reader, titled Reading About the World, in two volumes. 

But our money-saving scheme failed because commercial publishers that produced custom textbooks weren’t interested in saving their customers money and kept the retail prices high.

We decided to put our translations up online for all to share for nonprofit purposes and a small fee for commercial publication. Copyrights were retained by the translators.

Vol. I    Vol. 2 

One of several translations I contributed was an excerpt from the 16th century Descrittione dell’Africa (Description of Africa) by Leo Africanus. Born El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in the Moorish city of Granada in 1485, he was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. 

Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez, and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa and and to the Sub-Saharan kingdom of Ghana. Still a young man, he was captured by Christian pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo X, who freed him, baptized him under the name “Johannis Leo de Medici,” and commissioned him to write in Italian the detailed survey of Africa which provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries. 

The section we needed was a famous description of the city of Timbuktu.  Penguin was charging a fortune for reprint rights, so I decided to take it on.

At the time Leo visited the Ghanaian city of Timbuktu, it was somewhat past its peak, but still a thriving Islamic city famous for its learning. “Timbuktu” was to become a byword in Europe as the most inaccessible of cities, but at the time he visited, it was the center of a busy trade in African products and in books. Leo is said to have died in 1554 in Tunis, having reconverted to Islam.

Over the years my translation has been widely reprinted in course packs and in American and British textbooks. 

Back in February I was approached by the South African branch of a major international textbook firm for the right to reprint a brief excerpt in a forthcoming textbook. Since I had dealt with their British branch in the past with no problems, I agreed to allow them to use it for my usual nominal fee.

Then they handed me off to their permissions department—in India. It turned out that a vast amount of paperwork including some information I was reluctant to give out would be required in order to reimburse me. I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and risk involved; so I declined, explaining that other publishers required much less. I wondered if all this was some sort of scam to get my info.

I didn’t hear anything back until last week, when I was contacted by one of their South African coordinators saying that they still wanted the translation, and that perhaps something simpler could be worked out. Could we discuss it online?

We had a terrible time connecting, partly because of the 11-hour time difference and partly because she had taken her laptop to the United Arab Emirates on a trip and had forgotten that while she was thinking in South African time, her laptop was thinking UAE time. She also wasn’t seeing the emails I was sending her, trying to connect.

But after a couple of hours of frustration we eventually got together on Zoom. I offered to just give them permission to reprint the item for free in their forthcoming middle school textbook, but it turned out doing it for free was almost as complicated as being paid. South Africa has very strong laws to prevent scammers from selling the work of others as their own, and barring the illicit use of copyrighted material—hence the need for all the invasive documentation.

I explained my much simpler experiences with the London branch and asked whether the UK office could buy the rights for them. No luck.

However she thought their Indian agent would help her work out something reasonable. 

But the Indian agent is on vacation.

After a quick text exchange they agreed to try to work something out via Zoom next week.

So here I am, stuck in the house, with my brain zinging all over the globe.

I think I’ll go put my feet up.


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