Post-post-truth How the Russian translation of Harari bestseller ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ took out a chapter on Putin’s lies and put in a chapter on Trump’s instead
On June 21, the Russian publisher Sindbad released a new translation of the latest book by popular Israeli writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is the third book in a series that began with the runaway bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) and continued with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015). As Harari writes in the introduction to his most recent book, 21 Lessons fits between its predecessors: rather than describing the past or the future, it concentrates on the present.
The book’s publication in the U.S., Canada, and a number of European countries the fall of 2018 was a significant event in the book world and in popular culture more broadly: The New York Times review of the book was written by Bill Gates.
Shortly before the book’s Russian-language release in a translation by Yury Goldberg, Sindbad shared excerpts of 21 Lessons with several Russian-language news outlets. Meduza was one of them: we summarized Harari’s chapter on raising children in the contemporary world in a sponsored post. Meanwhile, Afisha published an excerpt from Chapter 17 of the book, which is titled “Post-Truth.”
A few weeks after 21 Lessons for the 21st Century came out in Russian in full, readers began speaking out about significant discrepancies between the English-and Russian-language versions of the book, particularly in the “Post-Truth” chapter. On July 16, a LiveJournal blogger writing under the username de_leser noted that in the chapter’s English version, Harari illustrates the concept of fake news with an announcement by Vladimir Putin about Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. In the Russian-language version of the chapter, however, there is no mention of Putin or Crimea. Instead, a speech by Donald Trump serves as a contemporary example of fake news. On July 20, Ukrainian Facebook user Andrey Chernikov posted about the change, and the Russian critic, poet, and translator Dmitry Kuzmin followed suit on July 21.
What does 21 Lessons for the 21st Century say in Russian?
In Sindbad’s Russian-language edition of the book, the chapter on post-truth begins with a discussion of rhetoric and persuasion: Contemporary life, it argues, is often said to be full of lies and fiction. In a back translation from the Russian, the book asserts, “According to The Washington Post, President Trump has made more than 6,000 false claims publicly since his inauguration. In one speech he gave in May of 2018, 76 percent of Trump’s 98 assertions were false, misleading, or entirely unfounded. In response [to statistics like those], Trump and his supporters constantly call journalists from The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and other media sources ‘liars’ and accuse them of spreading ‘fake news’ in order to discredit the Trump administration.”
However, the Russian edition of Harari’s book notes, the hysteria surrounding fake news is overblown: “In reality, it plays into the hands of tyrants and dictators. If people don’t want to believe in anything because ‘all news is fake,’ then a free and open public discussion becomes impossible. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that our situation today is no worse than it has been in the past.”
What does 21 Lessons for the 21st Century say in other languages?
The English-language version of the “Post-Truth” chapter shares only an opening sentence with its Russian-language counterpart: “We are repeatedly told these days that we are living in a new and frightening era of ‘post-truth,’ and that lies and fictions are all around us.” Beginning in the following sentence, however, Harari launches into an entirely different story, describing how Vladimir Putin publicly denied that Russian troops were present in Crimea in 2014.
“The Russian government and President Vladimir Putin in person repeatedly denied that these were Russian troops, and described them as spontaneous ‘self-defense groups’ that may have acquired Russian-looking equipment from local shops. As they voiced this rather preposterous claim, Putin and his aides knew perfectly well that they were lying,” Harari writes. Excerpts from the chapter were published in English in OPEN Magazine and The Guardian.
The historian continues, “For many Russian nationalists, the idea that Ukraine is a separate nation from Russia constitutes a far bigger lie than anything uttered by President Putin.” Meanwhile, he says, Ukrainian nationalists believe the real “fake countries” are the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.
Meduza found that the German-, French- and Hebrew-language editions of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century match the English-language version almost word for word.
It wasn’t just the post-truth chapter that changed in Russian.
Ukrainian blogger Andrey Chernikov found yet another significant edit in the Russian edition of 21 Lessons. In Chapter 11, titled “War,” a subsection called “The View from the Kremlin” calls the Russian annexation of Crimea “the only successful invasion conducted by a great power in the 21st century.” The text continues to assert that Russia itself “does not consider the annexation of Crimea to be an invasion into another country”; it also notes that Russian troops “encountered practically no resistance either from the local population or from the Ukrainian army.”
In the Ukrainian-, English-, German-, and French-language versions, there is no mention of the idea that Russia does not consider the Crimean annexation to have been an invasion into another country. However, those versions do note with slight translation-induced variations that Russia “struck fear into the hearts of its neighbors.” They also assert that the success of Russia’s conquest actually stemmed from a set of coincidental circumstances: neither the local population nor the Ukrainian army resisted the invasion, and other countries in the international community did not interfere in the takeover either.
Yuval Harari wrote that he gave permission for changes to be made to the Russian edition.
Meduza sent Sindbad a series of questions about why the Russian-language version of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century differs from its counterparts in other languages. We also asked whether the changes were approved by Harari himself. Anastasia Khanina, a representative for the publisher, promised to answer our questions after discussing them “with Harari’s office.”
Later that same day, the Russian-language Israeli website NEWSru.co.il published a statement from Harari himself on the changes to his book. “My goal is to allow the main ideas of the book about the dangers of dictatorship, extremism, and intolerance to reach as broad an audience as possible,” the statement reads in Russian. “That includes audiences living in countries with non-democratic regimes. Some of the examples in the book could deter those audiences or spur censorship on the part of certain regimes. For that reason, on rare occasions, I allow for adaptation in my books and permit changes to individual examples in my work — but never to its main ideas.”
NEWSru.co.il emphasized that Harari’s representatives did not answer their questions about who wrote the sections in the Russian edition of 21 Lessons that do not coincide with their English and Hebrew originals. However, the beginning of the Russian-language section on post-truth is almost identical to the beginning of an opinion column Harari wrote in December of 2018 for the popular Israeli news site Ynet (which, along with its print edition Yediot Achronot, is one of the largest and most influential news sources in the country). In that column, Harari also mentions Russia, calling its government “tyrannical” and mentioning that it has faced accusations of “spreading fake news worldwide.” Those two assertions did not make it into the Russian-language edition of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
Translation by Hilah Kohen