PRINTING HOUSE’S GHOSTS

In Victorian times, when you wanted to publish a book you had to make sure it was printed in a ghost-free printing house, otherwise you ran the risk of the first editions being printed in an unintelligible language. Or even worse: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a flop when it was first published in 1851 because a printer’s ghost had been amusing himself removing from the text all allusions to whales, thus making the narrative totally incomprehensible. The removed types went to the first edition of the English translation of the complete works of Emile Zola, which is why until recently British readers knew Zola by the nickname “the whaler.” But perhaps those who suffered the most from the mischief of printer’s ghosts were the poets. When Elisabeth Barret-Browning published her ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, she found that the poems had been translated into Portuguese, forcing her to translate them back into English. This brings to mind the following anecdote attributed to W. M. Tackeray -or so I think. When asked what his latest book was about, he replied: “I don’t know. I’m waiting for it to come off the printing house to find out.” This was a general concern among writers in the Victorian era.

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