- Shaw in Translation: Part I
When Bernard Shaw serialized four of his novels in London journals in 1884–88 and issued two of them as books in 1886–87, he became prey to literary pirates. British copyright law, under the Literary Copyright Act of 1842, guaranteed him exclusive rights to his work for the remainder of his life plus seven years, or forty-two years from publication if longer. Beyond this there was virtually no protection. In 1838 Britain had passed an International Copyright Act, which proved impotent as a hindrance to American entrepreneurial spoilers who published, for their sole profit, hundreds of thousands of unauthorized copies of novels by Dickens, Trollope, and Eliot, and offered, equally profitably, thousands of unauthorized performances of the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and the previous season’s London theater successes.
The first significant effort toward international copyright protection was provided, in 1886, by the Berne Convention, which invited membership in a union of nations that guaranteed to foreign nationals either the literary and moral rights granted to them in their own countries, or the same rights as those of the natives of the treaty countries involved. Although the Berne covenant, ratified by Great Britain on 5 September 1887, and by Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, among major nations, offered Shaw a modicum of protection for his novels through a ten-year translation privilege from date of publication, the Americans (whose government [End Page 177] spurned the Convention) continued to delve profitably into his stockpile of early writings.
Shaw seemed undisturbed by the circumstance, rejecting offers of remuneration, as in the remarkable statement in 1902 to a Danish educator and philosopher Oscar Hansen, written eighteen months before Denmark ratified the Convention: “As Denmark has no copyright treaty with Eng-
land, I have no consent to give and no rights to sell. . . . I am bound in honor not to accept payment for rights that do not exist. . . . [A]s far as I am concerned, Denmark is heartily welcome to my works; and you need have no hesitation in taking the fullest advantage of the existing state of the law” (CL 2: 258–9).
Although he could have availed himself of the several other European markets that had opened to him, Shaw did not do so. Instead, he became even more indifferent to his derelict works—in excess of a million unclaimed words—when Great Britain, in 1893, signed the Austria-Hungary Convention with the Austrian Reichsrath, Bohemia, and Hungary, in which the ten-year translation privilege was sustained.
One doesn’t have to search far for a motivation for Shaw’s attitude. Virtually every page in his diaries from 1885 to 1897 exposes graphically the enormous pressures of journalistic, political, and dramatic commitments with which his days and nights were crammed. For nearly a dozen years he employed all the delaying tactics he could conjure up to counter the mounting appeals from France, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Norway, and Sweden for license to translate. At the heart of this was a tormenting fear that translation would make demands on him that he could not afford. In the time it required to revise the work of his translators, he frequently reminded correspondents, he could devise a dozen more plays of his own.
Why, then, did he precipitately succumb in 1902 to the blandishments of the young Austrian, Siegfried Trebitsch (1868–1956)?
Well, for one thing, he was not immune to flattery. To the contrary, he was acutely in need of it, for, beneath the arrogant self-created public image that disconcerted and sometimes infuriated auditors and readers, there was deeply ingrained insecurity and self-doubt, to such an extent that for some eighteen months he had built a fortifying card file of some two dozen Shavian “disciples.” To be informed by a dashing, effervescent, thirty-three year old similitude of Sergius Saranoff (with the added touch of the requisite Teutonic saber scar) that it was his intention to be Shaw’s “interpreter and apostle in Central Europe” must have been stimulating to the ego. A quarter of a century later, in Shaw’s translator’s note for the play...