Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.VT.11.3.5 | PDF

Sell­ing a Sto­ry Malin Podlevskikh Carlström

Selling a Story: A Case Study of five Book Covers for Victor Pelevin’s Generation “P”

Malin Podlevskikh Carlström
In this arti­cle, book-cov­er design is stud­ied in rela­tion to trans­la­tion and mar­ket­ing. The dis­cus­sion is cen­tered on a case study of the Russ­ian, British, Amer­i­can, Dan­ish, and Nor­we­gian edi­tions of Vic­tor Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon in the U.K. and Homo Zapi­ens in the U.S.). The analy­sis of the book cov­ers focus­es on mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy and argues that the cov­er of a trans­la­tion affects how a nov­el is read and under­stood in the tar­get culture.
Dans cet arti­cle, la com­po­si­tion des cou­ver­tures de livre est étudiée en rela­tion avec la tra­duc­tion et le mar­ket­ing. La dis­cus­sion est cen­trée sur une étude de cas des édi­tions russe, bri­tan­nique, danoise et norvégi­en­ne de l’oeuvre de Vic­tor Pelevin, Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon au Roy­aume-Uni et Homo Zapi­ens aux Etats-Unis). L’analyse des cou­ver­tures de ce livre se con­cen­tre sur les straté­gies de mar­ket­ing et avance que la cou­ver­ture d’un livre en tra­duc­tion affecte la manière dont le roman est lu et com­pris dans la cul­ture ciblée.


Whet­her you are an avid or occa­sion­al read­er, you have cer­tain­ly at some point noticed the cov­er of a book and won­dered what that par­tic­u­lar cov­er was intend­ed to com­mu­ni­cate. Fur­ther­more, if you hap­pen to be a poly­glot and have the same book in sev­er­al trans­la­tions, you might also have reflect­ed upon the dif­fer­ences between the covers—which are sup­posed to com­mu­ni­cate and sell the very same book, although in dif­fer­ent lan­guages. This arti­cle will dis­cuss exact­ly that: cov­er design from the point of view of trans­la­tion. The aim is to ana­lyze and explain why there is a need to re-cov­er trans­la­tions. The analy­sis and dis­cus­sion will orig­i­nate from a case study of the Russ­ian (orig­i­nal), British, Amer­i­can, Dan­ish and Nor­we­gian edi­tions of Vic­tor Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon in the U.K. and Homo Zapi­ens in the U.S.) first pub­lished in Rus­sia in 1999 by Vagrius.

In Re-Cov­ered Rose (2011), Mar­co Son­zog­ni stud­ies cov­er design as inter­semi­otic trans­la­tion, and specif­i­cal­ly “how book cov­ers trans­late the ver­bal signs of the text into a (pre­dom­i­nant­ly) non-ver­bal sign-sys­tem of cul­tur­al­ly encod­ed images” (4). He claims that two dif­fer­ent links exist in cov­er design: one between text and cov­er, and anoth­er between the cov­er and the actu­al or poten­tial read­er (4). It is the first link, between the text and cov­er, Son­zog­ni ana­lyzed as an act of trans­la­tion. Here, his aim was to dis­cov­er how hon­est­ly the cov­ers reflect the text (5). In order to ana­lyze the first link in its “pure form,” Son­zog­ni announced a com­pe­ti­tion for design­ers all over the world to cre­ate a new cov­er for Umber­to Eco’s clas­sic The Name of the Rose and then based his study on these com­pet­ing entries.

The present study is dif­fer­ent, since it analy­ses the cov­er of a pub­lished nov­el and some of its trans­la­tions to draw con­clu­sions, not about the rela­tion­ship of the cov­er to the text, but rather in regard to the mar­ket­ing strate­gies behind the cov­er design. You could there­fore say that Sonzogni’s sec­ond link is of pri­ma­ry inter­est to me, that is, how a cov­er gets “tuned” to suit dif­fer­ent tar­get read­ers. In this arti­cle, the term “book-cov­er design” will refer to the book jack­et illus­tra­tion as well as the cen­tral ver­bal para­texts (Genette) avail­able on the cov­er, specif­i­cal­ly the title, the author’s name, the translator’s name (if avail­able), and the front-cov­er quotes from review­ers. To sum­ma­rize, my focus is the first-glance impres­sion a poten­tial read­er will receive when look­ing at a book, for exam­ple, when pick­ing it up in the book­shop or library. There­fore, I will be ana­lyz­ing book cov­ers not from the per­spec­tive of graph­ic design or semi­otics, but from the point of view of mar­ket­ing and translation.

A para­tex­tu­al ele­ment that often becomes trans­formed in trans­la­tion is the title. The title is of spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance as is how it stands in rela­tion to the front cov­er illus­tra­tion and nar­ra­tive. As Nicole Matthews observes in the intro­duc­tion to Judg­ing a Book by Its Cov­er, book cov­ers are an essen­tial part of how books are read, bor­rowed, sold, and become or fail to become pop­u­lar: “Nar­ra­tives are under­stood in rela­tion to para­tex­tu­al ele­ments of books, and espe­cial­ly book cov­ers” (xi-xii). Sim­i­lar­ly, in his 2012 TED talk, book-design­er Chip Kidd empha­sizes that, “all sto­ries have in com­mon that they all need to look like some­thing; that they all need a face in order to give the read­er a first impres­sion about what he or she is about to read” (02:25). This quote illus­trates the impor­tance of a cover—it is the face of the book. It does not, how­ev­er, explain why the cov­er design needs to look dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent countries—a ques­tion that will be addressed over the course of this essay.

Behind the Covers

Through­out his­to­ry, tex­tu­al mate­r­i­al has been com­posed, trans­mit­ted, and pre­served in var­i­ous ways using dif­fer­ent meth­ods and mate­ri­als. From a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, print­ing on paper is a rather new tech­nique, estab­lished in Europe in the 15th cen­tu­ry. Before the 1820s, all books left the printer’s as a bunch of loose sheets, and it was up to the buy­er or retail­er to decide whether they want­ed them bound into expen­sive leather cov­ers or not. Around 1820, cloth start­ed to replace leather as the favored cov­er mate­r­i­al. Cloth was very much cheap­er than leather, and even­tu­al­ly this led to books start­ing to reach the pub­lic already bound in cloth cov­ers. Towards the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, hand-bound books became his­to­ry, and machine-bind­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ized the book indus­try, mak­ing books more afford­able (Stein­berg 140).

Sigfrid Hen­ry Stein­berg explains that the book jack­et is a by-prod­uct of the publisher’s bind­ing; the first jack­ets appeared in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, but became com­mon only towards the end of the cen­tu­ry. The pos­si­bil­i­ties of using the jack­et and the cov­er as a mar­ket­ing tool were dis­cov­ered rather late: the first blurb appeared only in 1906 (140). Around 1930, when the pock­et book emerged, new print­ing tech­niques trans­formed the book into some­thing afford­able, and the cov­er start­ed to func­tion as an adver­tise­ment with the pur­pose of mar­ket­ing a prod­uct and attract­ing con­sumers. All ver­bal and non-ver­bal infor­ma­tion on the cov­er of a book—the title, illus­tra­tion, names of the pub­lish­er, author, etc.—belongs to the cat­e­go­ry of the para­text. This para­text is what final­ly turns a text into a book; it also has enor­mous poten­tial to influ­ence the read­ing and recep­tion of a text (Genette 1-2).

Para­texts can be either peri­texts, which are found in (or on) the same vol­ume as the text, or epi­texts, which stand in rela­tion to the text, but are placed else­where, such as reviews and inter­views (5). Genette com­pares the para­text with a threshold—a place from which the read­er can choose whether he or she wants to enter or not. The aim of the peri­text is always to get the read­er to look for­ward to read­ing the book (2). Anoth­er impor­tant aspect dis­cussed by Genette is that while the text is unchange­able for the most part—fixed in time and space—the para­text can be mod­i­fied and adapt­ed to suit dif­fer­ent groups of read­ers, for exam­ple, in marketing.

In dis­cussing mar­ket­ing strate­gies behind book pub­li­ca­tions, it is impor­tant to ana­lyze three impor­tant steps: seg­men­ta­tion, tar­get­ing, and posi­tion­ing (Phillips 19). Dur­ing the seg­men­ta­tion, the pub­lish­er decides which groups of con­sumers to tar­get. The seg­men­ta­tion can be geo­graph­ic, demo­graph­ic, psy­cho­graph­ic (cat­e­go­riz­ing con­sumers based on their inter­ests), or behav­ioral (exam­in­ing how often con­sumers buy books) (Phillips 20-21). Based on the seg­men­ta­tion, mar­ket­ing deci­sions are made in regard to such things as prod­uct for­mat (e.g., hard­cov­er or paper­back), price, place of dis­tri­b­u­tion, and method of pro­mo­tion (22). The last step, posi­tion­ing, is about posi­tion­ing the prod­uct in the mind of the con­sumer. To do this, the mar­ket­ing strate­gist tries to “imply” the nature of the expe­ri­ence that the prod­uct can offer (23).

The Metonymies of Cover Design

The exact same trans­la­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” by Andrew Brom­field was pub­lished in Britain and the U.S. by two dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ing hous­es (Faber & Faber and Pen­guin), each of which used dif­fer­ent titles and cov­er designs. How­ev­er sur­pris­ing this might seem, such a prac­tice is com­mon. Adri­an Shaugh­nessy even claims that study­ing the way dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ers around the world mod­i­fy book jack­ets might give us an insight into nation­al char­ac­ter­is­tics. As Shaugh­nessy observes, “books are cul­tur­al­ly sen­si­tive things: imagery that might have a sub­tle res­o­nance in one coun­try can appear mean­ing­less gunk in anoth­er; the one-size-fits-all approach, com­mon in glob­al design, just doesn’t seem to wash when it comes to book cov­ers” (Shaugh­nessy 18). In acknowl­edg­ing that books are cul­tur­al­ly sen­si­tive objects, it becomes rea­son­able to assume that the mar­ket­ing of a book will have to cater to the tar­get cul­ture. Fur­ther­more, the mere fact that a book is a trans­la­tion is val­ued dif­fer­ent­ly in var­i­ous parts of the world.

Accord­ing to Ita­mar Even-Zohar, trans­lat­ed literature—depending on the state of the lit­er­ary system—may hold either a periph­er­al or a cen­tral posi­tion in “the lit­er­ary poly­sys­tem” (46-47). Draw­ing on Abram de Swaan’s the­o­ry of a “world lan­guage sys­tem,” Johan Heil­bron sim­i­lar­ly con­cep­tu­al­izes what he calls a “world sys­tem of trans­la­tion” (12). Using a soci­o­log­i­cal frame­work, Heil­bron shows that this sys­tem is “hier­ar­chi­cal, and … com­pris­es cen­tral, semi-periph­er­al and periph­er­al lan­guages” (14). He con­cludes that the sys­tem is uneven­ly dis­trib­uted and dom­i­nat­ed by one “hyper-cen­tral” lan­guage: Eng­lish (14). Lawrence Venu­ti even goes so far as to accuse Anglo-Amer­i­can cul­ture of demand­ing flu­ent trans­la­tions and invis­i­ble trans­la­tors, of hav­ing a low tol­er­ance for cul­tur­al oth­er­ness, and final­ly, of being “xeno­pho­bic at home and impe­ri­al­is­tic abroad” (Venu­ti 13). With­in this frame­work, a trans­lat­ed work intend­ed for an Anglo-Amer­i­can audi­ence will down­play the cul­tur­al oth­er­ness of the orig­i­nal source text. The cov­er, for exam­ple, might empha­size a cer­tain theme over anoth­er to reach its tar­get audi­ence. I claim that this choice is of great impor­tance for how a book will be read and understood.

Maria Tymoczko’s notion of metonymies of trans­la­tion helps explain this phe­nom­e­non of para­tex­tu­al fram­ing. Accord­ing to Tymoczko, metonymy, or sub­sti­tut­ing an aspect of an enti­ty for the whole, is some­thing trans­la­tors are very often involved in: “Those spe­cial rewrit­ers called trans­la­tors grap­ple with the metonymic aspects of lit­er­a­ture all the time” (46). She fur­ther explains that trans­la­tion is “always a par­tial process,” and that trans­la­tions are essen­tial­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tions of source texts in which only “spe­cif­ic seg­ments or parts” have been high­light­ed (282). She con­tin­ues, “It is the essence of trans­la­tion to trans­pose aspects of parts of a text and a cul­ture, and that very par­tial­i­ty of trans­la­tion gives it flex­i­bil­i­ty, allow­ing it to be par­ti­san” (290). Relat­ing this con­cept to the cov­er design of trans­la­tions clar­i­fies the impor­tance of what these designs do. A cov­er that echoes one par­tic­u­lar theme of a nov­el may end up empha­siz­ing that theme over oth­ers, thus con­tribut­ing to the par­tial­i­ty of the act of trans­la­tion that Tymoczko asso­ciates with metonymy. Thus, the cov­er design­er will, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, choose an aspect of the nov­el that will be espe­cial­ly appeal­ing to the tar­get audi­ence or, at least, eas­i­er to relate to lit­er­ary sys­tem of the tar­get culture.

The Novel behind the Cover

Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” is a sto­ry about the young generation’s loss of iden­ti­ty after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. The pro­tag­o­nist, Vav­ilen Tatarsky, is a mem­ber of Gen­er­a­tion “P”—the gen­er­a­tion which, due to the Sovi­et econ­o­my, only had access to one brand of cola grow­ing up. The ques­tion broached by the nov­el is how one can mar­ket things to a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with­out rival brands or adver­tis­ing. After fail­ing to become a poet and a trans­la­tor, Tatarsky adapts to the new sit­u­a­tion by tak­ing a job in a typ­i­cal Russ­ian laryok, a kiosk, sell­ing cig­a­rettes and alco­hol, but meets an old friend who is in the adver­tis­ing busi­ness, and even­tu­al­ly ends up work­ing as a copy­writer. His job involves the posi­tion­ing of West­ern prod­ucts for the Russ­ian mar­ket. Dif­fer­ent cul­tures need dif­fer­ent advertising—just as with book covers.

How the media affects and con­trols us is anoth­er impor­tant theme in the nov­el. As the famil­iar real­i­ty dis­ap­pears, post-Sovi­et Rus­sia becomes flood­ed with end­less TV com­mer­cials and soap operas. Hav­ing con­tact­ed the spir­it of Che Gue­vara through a Oui­ja board, Tatarsky learns that by watch­ing tele­vi­sion, man becomes trans­formed into Homo Zapi­ens, the zap­ping man, who is con­stant­ly try­ing to zap between chan­nels in order to avoid com­mer­cials. In this state, the view­er becomes a remote­ly con­trolled tele­vi­sion pro­gram, ful­fill­ing the func­tion of one cell of the mam­mon, or the ORANUS, the one and only pur­pose of which is to ingest and elim­i­nate money.

In his aim to become a suc­cess­ful copy­writer, Tatarsky con­sumes fly agar­ic mush­rooms and LSD and, dur­ing the hal­lu­ci­na­tions that fol­low, scrib­bles down new adver­tis­ing ideas in his note­book. He begins to real­ize that there is some­thing going on behind the scenes of his real­i­ty, and he begins des­per­ate­ly look­ing for answers. In his hal­lu­ci­na­tions and in the real world, he dis­cov­ers cryp­tic ref­er­ences to Baby­lon­ian mythol­o­gy, and in the final part of the nov­el, he becomes a liv­ing god, the world­ly hus­band of the god­dess Ishtar.1

The Cover of the Russian Source Text

Fig­ure 1. The cov­er of the first Russ­ian edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P”. Cov­er design by A. Cholodenko.

The Russ­ian source text was pub­lished as a hard cov­er by Vagrius pub­lish­ing house in 1999, and has there­after been fol­lowed by at least thir­ty-sev­en print­ed edi­tions. On the cov­er of the first edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P”, there are many sym­bols, all of which are rep­re­sent­ed in the nar­ra­tive. Che Gue­vara holds a cen­tral posi­tion, wear­ing a mil­i­tary beret with a Nike logo instead of the usu­al red star. The back­ground has been divid­ed into three fields, with Coca Cola logos fill­ing the left part of the design and Pep­si logos the right part. The author’s name is writ­ten in two col­ors, red and blue, on a white back­ground. At the bot­tom of the cov­er, a yin and yang sym­bol is depict­ed in the same col­ors, empha­siz­ing the symbol’s resem­blance to the Pep­si logo.

If we study the front cov­er para­texts in detail, we notice that the author’s name is writ­ten in Cyril­lic let­ters, while the book’s title is writ­ten using both Lati­nate and Cyril­lic let­ters. This fact has been wide­ly dis­cussed by crit­ics and schol­ars, and has been said to offer the read­er a clue as to how to inter­pret the title and what the let­ter “П” actu­al­ly stands for. The expla­na­tion giv­en on the first pages of the nov­el is that P stands for Pep­si, but it sub­se­quent­ly becomes obvi­ous that it can also mean pizdetz, mean­ing fail­ure, fuck-up, or fias­co. It has also been not­ed that the word “Gen­er­a­tion” is writ­ten in Latin script, while the let­ter “П” is a Russ­ian let­ter. This is said to sig­nal that it refers to Russia’s very own fail­ure, or fall­en gen­er­a­tion (Murikov). But, apart from the Russ­ian author’s name and the use of Cyril­lic let­ters, there is noth­ing on the cov­er that specif­i­cal­ly alludes to Russ­ian cul­ture. In oth­er words, the novel’s Russ­ian char­ac­ter is not part of the posi­tion­ing. Instead, the cov­er resem­bles a col­lage, where the design, type­face, col­ors, and use of brand logos allude to a glob­al­ized pop­u­lar cul­ture. When it comes to seg­men­ta­tion, it is rea­son­able to assume that its ref­er­ences to pop­u­lar cul­ture might appeal more to a younger audience.

The Norwegian Cover

Fig­ure 2. The cov­er of the first edi­tion of the Nor­we­gian trans­la­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Gen­erasjon P). Cov­er design by Robin Snasen Rengård.

Gen­erasjon P was pub­lished by Cappelen’s pub­lish­ing house in 2003, trans­lat­ed by Isak Rogde. The first edi­tion was a hard cov­er with jack­et, fol­lowed by a soft­cov­er edi­tion pub­lished by Cap­pe­len Damm in 2009. The front cov­er illus­tra­tion shows a young man in a red t-shirt wear­ing a wrist­band and hold­ing a cig­a­rette in one hand. In his oth­er hand he is hold­ing a tele­vi­sion test screen against his upper tor­so. In the upper part of the test screen, which resem­bles either a Pep­si logo, or a vague yin and yang sym­bol, the name of the pub­lish­ing house can be dis­cerned. The Che Gue­vara image on the t-shirt is part­ly hid­den behind the test screen. Both the Che Gue­vara image and the Pep­si logo were rep­re­sent­ed on the Russ­ian cov­er as well, which indi­cates that the Nor­we­gian cov­er design­er was influ­enced by the orig­i­nal cover.

The col­ors of the cov­er are also sym­bol­ic, using dif­fer­ent shades of red (asso­ci­at­ed with Rus­sia and the com­mu­nism of the Sovi­et Union). Inter­est­ing­ly, a tra­di­tion­al Russ­ian orna­men­tal pat­tern com­bined with small stars holds a cen­tral posi­tion of the cov­er. A red star can also be seen between the author’s first name and sur­name. The title is a lit­er­al trans­la­tion of the Russ­ian title and is depict­ed using an uncom­mon type­face. The let­ter “a” in Gen­erasjon has been altered into a Cyril­lic “Д”, fur­ther empha­siz­ing the cul­tur­al oth­er­ness of the novel.

Judg­ing by the imagery of the front cov­er, with its young, infor­mal smok­er at the cen­tre, it can be pre­sumed that the pub­lish­ing house is aim­ing at a younger read­er­ship. How­ev­er, we must also not for­get the effect the Russ­ian cul­tur­al sym­bols on the cov­er might have for the tar­get­ing of the read­ers. It is obvi­ous that this nov­el is a trans­la­tion. When it comes to the metonymi­cal aspects of this cov­er design, two para­texts are of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance: the title and the illus­tra­tion. The title, as in the orig­i­nal, focus­es on the nov­el central’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the gen­er­a­tion grow­ing up in a post-Sovi­et real­i­ty. The non-ver­bal para­text empha­sizes the very same facet of the nar­ra­tive: what we can see is a young, smok­ing man whom the read­er will uncon­scious­ly asso­ciate with the protagonist—a mem­ber of gen­er­a­tion “P”—which fur­ther accen­tu­ates this par­tic­u­lar aspect of the narrative.

The Danish Cover

Fig­ure 3. The cov­er of the Dan­ish trans­la­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon gen­er­a­tion P). Cov­er design by Llus­tra Copenhagen.

The Dan­ish edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” was pub­lished in 2003 as Baby­lon gen­er­a­tion P by the pub­lish­ing house Tiderne Skrifter, trans­lat­ed by Jan Hansen. The cov­er is of the French flap type, a paper­back with flaps serv­ing as exten­sions of the front and back cov­ers. The front cov­er illus­tra­tion depicts a young man lying down out­side, sur­round­ed by bot­tles and dif­fer­ent kinds of mush­rooms. Che Gue­vara is also rep­re­sent­ed on the cov­er, but here with a star on front of his beret instead of a Nike logo. The col­or­ing is quite sub­tle, with a gray nuance for the cen­tral illus­tra­tion, com­bined with a yel­low back­ground on which the ver­bal para­texts are print­ed in red, next to a part­ly vis­i­ble Pep­si cap. Two of these symbols—Che Gue­vara and Pepsi—are direct­ly linked to the orig­i­nal Russ­ian cov­er, while the rest of the front cov­er imagery rep­re­sents the nar­ra­tive in some way. How­ev­er, if we take into con­sid­er­a­tion the exten­sion of the cov­er design to the back cov­er, we see a bear and some birch trees. The birch trees are indeed rep­re­sent­ed in the text, in a Sprite slo­gan adapt­ed for a Russ­ian audi­ence, but they are also a sym­bol for Rus­sia. The bear, how­ev­er, is not rep­re­sent­ed in the nov­el at all, but is used as a stereo­typ­i­cal sym­bol for Rus­sia in most parts of the world.

The cov­er design of this trans­la­tion draws on what is typ­i­cal­ly Russ­ian, even if this is less vis­i­ble than it is on the Nor­we­gian cov­er. The bear and the birch trees are more sub­tle sig­nals than the use of a Cyril­lic let­ter. Even so, the Dan­ish trans­la­tion is posi­tioned as a Russ­ian nov­el, and the cov­er design seems to sug­gest that it is an excit­ing and exot­ic read for a younger read­er­ship. The cul­tur­al oth­er­ness of the nov­el and the fact that this is a trans­la­tion is clear­ly part of the mar­ket­ing of the Dan­ish edi­tion of Gen­er­a­tion “P”.

From the metonymi­cal point of view, the Dan­ish cov­er is sim­i­lar to the Nor­we­gian. It depicts a young man, pre­sum­ably the pro­tag­o­nist, in com­bi­na­tion with the phrase gen­er­a­tion P. It fol­lows that the gen­er­a­tional theme is present on this cov­er as well, but, in addi­tion to this, anoth­er facet of the nar­ra­tive is high­light­ed by the non-ver­bal para­text, name­ly the use of alco­hol and hal­lu­cino­genic sub­stances (mush­rooms). The ver­bal para­texts also fore­ground more than one theme, since the trans­la­tion uses a dou­ble title: Baby­lon gen­er­a­tion P, which accen­tu­ates the theme of Mesopotami­an mythol­o­gy. This is also seen on the cov­er of the British trans­la­tion pub­lished in 2000, with the title Baby­lon.

The British Cover

Fig­ure 4. The cov­er of the British edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon). Cov­er design by Pentagram.

The British edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” was trans­lat­ed by Andrew Brom­field and pub­lished by Faber and Faber in the year 2000 as a trade paper­back with an illus­trat­ed jack­et. What we can see on this cov­er is a bright room with­out any spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, in the mid­dle of which a tele­vi­sion screen trans­mits an image of an ancient pyra­mid-like con­struc­tion. The col­or scale encom­pass­es orange, red, green, yel­low, and gray, and does not awak­en any par­tic­u­lar associations.

The cov­er design dif­fers from the two cov­ers pre­vi­ous­ly stud­ied in two ways. First­ly, there is no resem­blance to the Russ­ian cov­er at all. Sec­ond­ly, when it comes to the metonymy of the cov­er design, both the ver­bal and non-ver­bal para­texts fore­ground one of the themes of the nov­el that is not specif­i­cal­ly Russ­ian, name­ly Mesopotami­an mythol­o­gy. The orig­i­nal Russ­ian orig­i­nal title has been replaced with Baby­lon, which, togeth­er with the imagery, con­firms the close ties between title and cov­er design. The orig­i­nal title, which referred to a typ­i­cal­ly Russ­ian expe­ri­ence, has been sac­ri­ficed for a more uni­ver­sal top­ic. How­ev­er, more than one theme is rep­re­sent­ed on this cov­er. The tele­vi­sion in the mid­dle of the room high­lights anoth­er of the more uni­ver­sal themes of Gen­er­a­tion “P”—the media theme.

The British edi­tion is the only one on which the name of the trans­la­tor is avail­able. Andrew Brom­field is of British ori­gin, and already had a firm rep­u­ta­tion as a trans­la­tor of Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture, which might be why his name is used as part of the mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy. There is one more ver­bal para­text on the front cov­er, name­ly a cita­tion from a Time review: “A Psy­che­del­ic Nabokov for the cyber age.” The two noun phras­es “psy­che­del­ic” and “cyber age” sig­nal a tar­get­ing of a younger gen­er­a­tion of read­ers, while the name of anoth­er author, “Nabokov,” is more dif­fi­cult to ana­lyze. Although Nabokov is a Russ­ian author, he wrote his most cel­e­brat­ed nov­els in Eng­lish after emi­gra­tion. Con­sid­er­ing the effect of these para­texts, I con­clude that the book is posi­tioned as some­thing fresh, mod­ern, and relat­ed to world lit­er­a­ture, and also that the tar­get­ing is focused at a rather wide, broad-mind­ed audience.

Final­ly, a trade paper­back with a jack­et is a rather rare for­mat for a first edi­tion. A plau­si­ble rea­son for choos­ing not to pub­lish the book as a hard­cov­er is that a trade paper­back is cheap­er. Pelevin is both for­eign and rel­a­tive­ly unknown to British read­ers, which makes it a risky pub­li­ca­tion from a finan­cial per­spec­tive. A cheap­er paper­back edi­tion might result in more peo­ple being will­ing to take a chance with a new author.

The American Cover

Fig­ure 5. The cov­er of the first Amer­i­can edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Homo Zapi­ens). Cov­er design by Dar­ren Haggar.

The first Amer­i­can edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” was trans­lat­ed by Andrew Brom­field and pub­lished in 2002 by Viking Pen­guin, in a hard cov­er edi­tion with jack­et. On a white back­ground, one can see a ted­dy bear and a doll in red shoes hav­ing sex­u­al inter­course. The col­ors are the same as on the orig­i­nal Russ­ian cover—white, blue, and red—but the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the col­ors is very dif­fer­ent. Inter­est­ing­ly, on the Russ­ian cov­er the col­ors were con­nect­ed to the Pep­si logo, but here, with­out any ref­er­ence to Pep­si, the col­ors might instead bring the flag of the Russ­ian fed­er­a­tion to mind. There are, of course, many oth­er coun­tries that use the same col­ors in their flags; but still, in com­bi­na­tion with the ted­dy bear, it is pos­si­ble to inter­pret the col­ors as a sub­tle sym­bol of Russia.

The bear has been used as a sym­bol for Rus­sia since the 17th cen­tu­ry. Dur­ing the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the Rus­sians them­selves used the bear as a sym­bol, but instead of a dan­ger­ous brown bear, they let a bear cub, Misha, serve as the mas­cot of the Olympics. This was an inten­tion­al move to turn this unflat­ter­ing image into some­thing cute and cud­dly, a way to improve the Russ­ian image.

How can this cov­er design pos­si­bly be inter­pret­ed, then? In the nov­el, the antag­o­nist plays around with Amer­i­can val­ues and com­mer­cials, adapt­ing them to the Russ­ian real­i­ty. It is there­fore pos­si­ble to inter­pret the ted­dy bear as a sym­bol for Rus­sia and the Bar­bie-like doll as a sym­bol for the U.S.A. But what we do not get on this cov­er is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some­thing exot­ic or for­eign; instead, we are pre­sent­ed with an edgy, or even shock­ing, image, which might imply a geopo­lit­i­cal satire. From a com­mer­cial per­spec­tive the cov­er design is easy to explain. A for­eign, not very well-known author, a risky pub­li­ca­tion that needs to be noticed—of course, the cov­er design has to be unusual.

Beneath the title and the author’s name we find a para­text con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion about ear­li­er work by the same author: “by the author of Buddha’s Lit­tle Fin­ger”, which is also con­nect­ed to the mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy. Para­texts such as “[Title of the new book] by the author of [the author’s pre­vi­ous­ly suc­cess­ful book]” are quite com­mon and not lim­it­ed to less well-known authors. To illus­trate, even the cov­er of Stephen King’s 2016 best­seller End of Watch informed the read­er that the book was writ­ten by the author of Mr. Mer­cedes (2014) and Find­ers Keep­ers (2015). Apart from attract­ing those who read and appre­ci­at­ed the men­tioned titles, such state­ments imply that the author in ques­tion is acclaimed and established.

When it comes to the metonymi­cal facets of the cov­er design, one aspect is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance: the title. The pub­lish­er chose not to keep the title Gen­er­a­tion “P”, despite the fact that the title is an allu­sion to Gen­er­a­tion X by Cana­di­an author Dou­glas Cou­p­land. The British title, Baby­lon, was also reject­ed. Instead, the U.S. pub­lish­er dis­trib­uted the nov­el as Homo Zapi­ens, a title that refers to the media theme of the nov­el. This theme, like the Baby­lon­ian ref­er­ence, is not spe­cif­ic to Rus­sia, but instead a com­mon theme in dystopi­an lit­er­a­ture. In com­bi­na­tion with the novel’s rather shock­ing cov­er art, the bizarre nature of the nov­el is emphasized.


Trans­la­tion uti­lizes para­tex­tu­al mate­r­i­al as an instru­ment of adap­ta­tion, try­ing to con­vince poten­tial read­ers to choose a par­tic­u­lar book. Pub­lish­ers in dif­fer­ent coun­tries do, how­ev­er, ana­lyze their par­tic­u­lar mar­kets in dif­fer­ent ways, and use vary­ing tech­niques in order to posi­tion a book in the mind of the par­tic­u­lar tar­get audience.

The Nor­we­gian and the Dan­ish trans­la­tion were pub­lished with the same title as the Russ­ian orig­i­nal, although the Dan­ish ver­sion also used the British title, Baby­lon. The same trans­la­tions also put a young man at the cen­ter of the front cov­er illus­tra­tion, and since the pro­tag­o­nist of the nov­el is a young man, it can be assumed that the read­er will asso­ciate the image on the front cov­er with him. Con­se­quent­ly, the Dan­ish and Nor­we­gian cov­er designs empha­size the gen­er­a­tional theme of the nov­el, the expe­ri­ence of the 1960s gen­er­a­tion, and the soci­o­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties in Rus­sia dur­ing the 1980s and 90s.

The British edi­tion uses the title Baby­lon, and the front cov­er design is based on two of the more uni­ver­sal themes of the nov­el, name­ly Baby­lon­ian mythol­o­gy and con­trol by tele­vi­sion and media. The Baby­lon­ian theme is rep­re­sent­ed in both the cov­er art and the title, which results in this theme becom­ing the cen­tral one. By empha­siz­ing the Baby­lon­ian theme, the gen­er­a­tional theme is auto­mat­i­cal­ly down­played, which I claim is the result of a con­scious strat­e­gy in the mar­ket­ing of this nov­el. I base this on the fact that the very part of Gen­er­a­tion “P” that pro­vides a soci­o­log­i­cal back­ground for the nov­el, i.e. the first chap­ter (called “Gen­er­a­tion ‘P,’” just as the nov­el), is sig­nif­i­cant­ly short­ened in the British and Amer­i­can edi­tions (25% of the first chap­ter has been omit­ted), which down­plays even fur­ther the specif­i­cal­ly Russ­ian con­text of the novel.

On the Amer­i­can cov­er, there is no strong con­nec­tion between the title and the cov­er art. The title high­lights the media theme: Homo Zapi­ens refers to human beings becom­ing a cell in the mam­mon while zap­ping between channels—the most fan­tas­tic and absurd theme of the nov­el. The Amer­i­can cov­er art thus also down­plays the specif­i­cal­ly Russ­ian con­text of the sto­ry, since it uses a dif­fer­ent title, in com­bi­na­tion with a cov­er design that takes its inspi­ra­tion from out­side the narrative.

These basic con­clu­sions can be relat­ed to Tymoczko’s con­cept of metonymy. She explains that, in trans­la­tion, “cer­tain aspects or attrib­ut­es of the source text come to rep­re­sent the entire source text in trans­la­tion” (55). Ana­lyz­ing cov­er design using this frame­work makes it pos­si­ble to under­stand the effect it can have on the read­ing and recep­tion of a nov­el. The par­tic­u­lar theme or facet high­light­ed by means of cov­er design is very like­ly to become asso­ci­at­ed with the entire nov­el, and thus become the face of the book, the aspect the read­er will remember.

Some cov­er designs will high­light the fact that the text is trans­lat­ed and oth­ers will down­play it. In this respect, the Nor­we­gian cov­er design stands out, with its obvi­ous ref­er­ences to Rus­sia. The Dan­ish design also uses Russ­ian sym­bols, but they are sub­tler than those on the Nor­we­gian cov­er. On the British cov­er, no con­nec­tions to Rus­sia can be made, but instead, the name of the trans­la­tor is avail­able on the front cov­er. The Amer­i­can cov­er uses sym­bols so vague that they are prob­a­bly only notice­able if you specif­i­cal­ly look for them. This aspect is inter­est­ing in rela­tion to the seg­men­ta­tion of the mar­ket. Who will be inter­est­ed in buy­ing this book? The Nor­we­gian trans­la­tion explic­it­ly uses the novel’s Russ­ian essence in its mar­ket­ing, thus nar­row­ing the tar­get audi­ence. The tar­get­ed read­er­ship is prob­a­bly peo­ple who might be famil­iar with Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture, or who, at least, are not opposed to read­ing Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture. Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture has a rep­u­ta­tion for being heavy and dif­fi­cult, and a Russ­ian book could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly scare peo­ple away. The U.S. edi­tion is, on the oth­er hand, aimed at a broad­er audi­ence. The nov­el is mar­ket­ed as some­thing new and fresh, relat­ed to pop­u­lar cul­ture. Eco­nom­i­cal­ly, the U.S. pub­li­ca­tion might be a less risky project, even if one has to take into con­sid­er­a­tion the dif­fer­ent atti­tudes towards read­ing for­eign lit­er­a­ture in Nor­way and the U.S.

Hav­ing dis­cussed the translator’s invis­i­bil­i­ty in the intro­duc­tion to this arti­cle, I find it impor­tant now to com­ment also on the invis­i­bil­i­ty of the cov­er design­er both in this essay and on the book mar­ket at large. The name of the cov­er design­er may often be found on a book’s copy­right page, togeth­er with oth­er rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion about the edi­tion. How­ev­er, as illus­trat­ed by two of the cov­ers I have ana­lyzed in this arti­cle, one some­times find a ref­er­ence to a com­pa­ny instead of the name of an indi­vid­ual design­er. I find this to be indica­tive of the fact that the artis­tic expres­sion of the cov­er design­er is gen­er­al­ly neglect­ed on the book mar­ket. As this arti­cle main­ly focused on the link between the book cov­er and the poten­tial read­er, I too have paid lit­tle atten­tion to the cov­er design­er as an artist. Instead, the cov­er design has—together with oth­er front cov­er paratexts—been eval­u­at­ed in rela­tion to the mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy behind the pub­li­ca­tion. Luck­i­ly, Anikó Sohár’s con­tri­bu­tion to this issue of Imag­i­na­tions high­lights the link between text and cov­er design in a way that makes the cov­er design­er the prime focus.

In his TED talk from 2012, Kidd specif­i­cal­ly address­es the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the book design­er, claim­ing that, “The book designer’s respon­si­bil­i­ty is three­fold: to the read­er, to the pub­lish­er, and most of all, to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, ‘Wow, I need to read that’” (Kidd 08:01). As a con­clu­sion, I would like to relate this claim to the dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary sys­tems. In order for the cov­er to have such an effect, it has to appeal to the tar­get audi­ence. There­fore, the cov­er needs to look dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. As I men­tioned ear­li­er, the Anglo-Amer­i­can and Scan­di­na­vian lit­er­ary poly­sys­tems are gov­erned by dif­fer­ent norms, to which all agents involved in the trans­la­tion and mar­ket­ing of a book have been sub­ject­ed. Uncon­scious­ly, through their agency, they con­tin­ue to con­firm these norms and either to down­play or empha­size the for­eign nature of a translation.

Works Cited

Even-Zohar, Ita­mar. “The Posi­tion of Trans­lat­ed Lit­er­a­ture with­in the Lit­er­ary Poly­sys­tem.” Poet­ics Today, vol. 11, no.1, 1990, pp. 45–51.

Genette, Gérard. Para­texts: Thresh­olds of Inter­pre­ta­tion. Trans­lat­ed by Jane E. Lewin, Cam­bridge UP, 1997.

Heil­bron, Johan. “Trans­la­tion as a Cul­tur­al World Sys­tem.” Per­spec­tives, vol. 8, no. 1, 2000, pp. 9-26. Doi:10.1080/0907676X.2000.9961369.

Kha­gi, Sofya. “From Homo Sovi­eti­cus to Homo Zapi­ens: Vik­tor Pelevin’s Con­sumer Dystopia.” Russ­ian Review, vol. 67, no. 4, 2008, pp. 559–79.

Kidd, Chip. “Design­ing books is no laugh­ing mat­ter. OK, it is.” TED, March 2012, https://​www​.ted​.com/​t​a​l​k​s​/​c​h​i​p​_​k​i​d​d​_​d​e​s​i​g​n​i​n​g​_​b​o​o​k​s​_​i​s​_​n​o​_​l​a​u​g​h​i​n​g​_​m​a​t​t​e​r​_​o​k​_​i​t​_​i​s​?​l​a​n​g​u​a​g​e​=en. Accessed 22 April 2016.

Matthews, Nicole. Intro­duc­tion. Judg­ing a Book by Its Cov­er: Fans, Pub­lish­ers, Design­ers, and the Mar­ket­ing of Fic­tion, edit­ed by Matthews and Nick­ianne Moody, Ash­gate, 2007, xi–xxi.

Murikov, Gen­nadij. “Parallel’nye miry. Post­mod­ern­izm. Rossiya ХХI vek.” Pelevin, 2011, http://​pelevin​.nov​.ru/​s​t​a​t​i​/​o​-​m​u​r​i​k​o​v​1​/​1​.​h​tml. Accessed 7 Nov. 2015.

Pelevin, Vik­tor. Gen­er­a­tion “P.” Vagrius, 1999.

Pelevin, Vic­tor. Baby­lon. Trans­lat­ed by Andrew Brom­field, Faber, 2000.

Pelevin, Vic­tor. Homo Zapi­ens. Trans­lat­ed by Andrew Brom­field, Viking, 2002.

Pelevin, Vik­tor. Baby­lon gen­er­a­tion P. Trans­lat­ed by Jan Hansen, Tiderne Skifter, 2002.

Pelevin, Vik­tor. Gen­erasjon P. Trans­lat­ed by Isak Rogde, Cap­pe­len Damm, 2009.

Phillips, Angus. “How Books Are Posi­tioned in the Mar­ket: Read­ing the Cov­er.” Judg­ing a Book by Its Cov­er: Fans, Pub­lish­ers, Design­ers, and the Mar­ket­ing of Fic­tion, edit­ed by Nicole Matthews and Nick­ianne Moody, Ash­gate, 2007, pp.19–30.

Shaugh­nessy, Adri­an. “Bal­ance the Books.” Design Week, 15 April 2004, www​.design​week​.co​.uk/​i​s​s​u​e​s​/​1​5​-​a​p​r​i​l​-​2​0​0​4​/​b​a​l​a​n​c​e​-​t​h​e​-​b​o​o​ks/. Accessed 3 May 2016.

Son­zog­ni, Mar­co. Re-Cov­ered Rose: A Case Study in Book Cov­er Design as Inter­semi­otic Trans­la­tion. John Ben­jamins Pub­lish­ing, 2011.

Stein­berg, Sigfrid Hen­ry. Five Hun­dred Years of Print­ing. New ed., revised by John Tre­vitt, British Library, 1996.

Tymoczko, Maria. Trans­la­tion in a Post­colo­nial Con­text: Ear­ly Irish Lit­er­a­ture in Eng­lish Trans­la­tion. Rout­ledge, 1999.

Venu­ti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invis­i­bil­i­ty: A His­to­ry of Trans­la­tion. 2nd ed, Rout­ledge, 2008.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1. The cov­er of the first Russ­ian edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P”. Cov­er design by A. Cholodenko.

Fig­ure 2. The cov­er of the first edi­tion of the Nor­we­gian trans­la­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Gen­erasjon P). Cov­er design by Robin Snasen Rengård.

Fig­ure 3. The cov­er of the Dan­ish trans­la­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon gen­er­a­tion P). Cov­er design by Llus­tra Copenhagen.

Fig­ure 4. The cov­er of the British edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Baby­lon). Cov­er design by Pentagram.

Fig­ure 5. The cov­er of the first Amer­i­can edi­tion of Pelevin’s Gen­er­a­tion “P” (Homo Zapi­ens). Cov­er design by Dar­ren Haggar.


  1. For a fuller analy­sis of the plot, see Sofya Khagi’s “From Homo Sovi­eti­cus to Homo Zapi­ens: Vik­tor Pelevin’s Con­sumer Dystopia.”