|I was delighted to be the editor for Arturo Sangalli’s book, Pythagoras’ Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery, which Princeton published in 2009. As far as anyone knows, Pythagoras did not leave behind any writings. But, suppose he did? What would he have said, and where would the writings be found? Would it have been possible for his writings to survive and in what kind of container would they have been preserved? During the course of his writing, Arturo checked all sorts of obscure facts to make sure that everything in the book would be viable. He even traveled near and far.
He received technical advice from specialists in various fields. He consulted a special collections paper conservator and an expert in the conservation of rare paper-based objects and another expert who had knowledge about the effects of time and environment on the structure of various metals that might have been used to store Pythagoras’ documents. The Canadian Conservation Institute provided valuable information on papyrus conservation. Arturo even went to Faversham, England to meet with an antiquarian book dealer. So, you can see that it takes much more than just sitting at your computer to make a really good book.
Since the publication of the book in English, Pythagoras’ Revenge has been translated into several languages. I asked Arturo to tell us what it has been like to promote his book in different languages.
On promoting Pythagoras’ Revenge in foreign lands
The Genoa Science Festival is a huge event: a ten-day annual feast of lectures, workshops, laboratory experiments, exhibitions, films, and other activities, over 300 of them, at all levels and for people of all ages with an interest in science. Attendance figures routinely exceed 200,000. So, when I received an invitation from the editor of the Italian translation of Pythagoras’ Revenge to present the book at the festival, I accepted without hesitation.
To be honest, the invitation didn’t just fall out of the Italian sky—I had to work for it. The promotion of a book does not come cheap. I was willing to actively participate in the process and bear some of the cost. Since I planned to be in Florence on holidays in the fall, I informed the Italian editor in May that I would be available for a reading, interview, or some other promotional event.
Three months later, I received an invitation to give a talk about the mathematics in the book at the Genoa festival on October 31, sponsored by Ponte alle Grazie, the Italian publisher of the book. They would cover transportation costs from Florence and accommodation for one night.
The Genoa Science Festival gets a lot of publicity, and it receives wide coverage in the local and regional press. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the room at the FNAC bookstore was packed, with many people standing. I first presented and analyzed some of the mathematical ideas in the book and read a couple of passages, all this in Italian. There followed an interview with Giovanni Filocamo, the Italian mathematician who had introduced me, after which I answered a few questions from the audience. A handful of people came forward to have their copies of the book signed. Among these was a young boy, not older than thirteen, accompanied by his mother. She told me he had a passion for mathematics. I wrote, in Italian: ”To Joshua. This book was written for you. Now go and become a great mathematician! ”
Since I was going to be in Europe anyway, I figured “Why stop in Italy?” The book’s German translation was due out in October. I contacted the German publisher, Spektrum-Springer, mentioning in passing the Italian event. An exchange of emails followed and culminated with an invitation for a reading at the university bookstore in Heidelberg on November 3, and the offer to pay for part of the expenses. My European book tour was set up.
Heidelberg was the next stop. In the afternoon, I was given the rare opportunity to pitch the book to the Spektrum sales people, who happened to be holding their annual national meeting that day. The reading at the Ziehank bookstore in the evening had been announced through posters and fliers, with an entire window devoted exclusively to Pythagoras’ Rache. I had been told that people from the university, the likely audience, understood English. So I read some passages from the original English version, and Frank Wigger, the editor of the book, read other excerpts in German. The attendance was somewhat disappointing, though, but those who did come really appreciated the bilingual reading, judging from the comments afterward.
Frank told me that it was only the second time Spektrum had published a novel (the first one was seven years ago), and that sales figures were very promising: nearly 1,000 copies sold in the first three weeks.
All in all, it was a great experience, which I would be happy to repeat. Who knows? Two more translations of Pythagoras’ Revenge will be released shortly. But a trip to either Greece or Japan looks like a long shot at the moment.
Wait! This just in: the Paris-based Dunod Editions has bought the French translation rights for the book. Hmmm, Paris, that’s a different story.