It Happened to Me

Lost in Translations

Here’s a graphic I stumbled across yesterday. It’s for a book in

French, which I’ve shown below. The title translates directly as “The

Virtual Samurai,” and as you can see, its author is Neal Stephenson,

“The Dark Prince of Hacker Fiction”:

“Virtual Samurai?” you might be asking yourself. “He wrote no such

book!” However, he did, but under the title for which it is better


Snow Crash: published in 1992, this book is considered to be an indispensable part of the Geek Canon, seated at the right hand of William Gibson’s “Sprawl Series”.

I bought it in November 1992 based on a quick blurb in some

nerd/culture magazine — either the

dreadfully-too-into-the-Grateful-Dead Mondo 2000 or boing boing (not the blog, but the magazine that preceded it) — and a hearty

recommendation from a young and excitable nerd manning the counter at

the old Bakka Books on Queen Street (who may have been this guy).

I was a computer science student at Crazy Go Nuts University

at the time, and it was this book that inspired me to go beyond the

particular areas for which I was displaying a knack — namely, software

engineering and databases — and take up a computer networking course.

You must remember that in 1992, the World Wide Web was a pet project of

European nuclear scientists for posting their papers; you surfed the

net via Usenet or Gopher.

The “Virtual Samurai” to whom the French edition’s title refers is Hiro

Protagonist, who is — as his name suggests — one of the book’s two

protagonists. He’s a half-Japanese half-African-American hacker who

also delivers pizza in 30 minutes or less. He’s a good swordsman in the

real world, but in the Metaverse, the next-generation virtual reality

internet of the book’s world, he’s the top-ranking swordfighter. While

he is a major character in the book, it’s not completely his story. The

French retitling is like renaming Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) as “The Restless Farmboy Who Whined a Lot”.

(There are worse examples of retitling for translations. One notable case that comes to mind is the movie The Sound of Music. In Hong Kong, it’s called Fairy Music Blow Fragrant Place, Place Hear. Hong Kong and Chinese cinemagoers are an odd bunch and prefer movie titles that are either overly literal or made up of words describing elements of the movie, strung together: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Eat Drink Man Woman.)

Anyhow, I got to thinking:

What do covers of Snow Crash published in other countries look like?

Here’s what a little Googling turned up.

U.S. and Canada

This one’s similar to the cover of the 1992 edition. If I recall

correctly, the ’92 paperback cover used the same typeface, but had a

single square picture in the centre of a white cover.

I’ve seen this less-artful cover in a couple of US-based online

bookstores. The artwork — and I’m using the term very loosely —

doesn’t suggest a critically-acclaimed cyberpunk novel, but an unsubtle

and unreadable spy-tech thriller written by an Evangelical right-winger

with both an axe to grind and a none-too-discriminating publisher.


Motorbikes! Circuitry! Rock and roll! These three elements of Snow Crash make up the montage in this UK cover.

By the way, Industrial Rock circa 1991 called and they’d like their album cover back.


The stereotype of Germans is that they are an efficient people. The

fact that they tell you that a book is a novel by stating it on the

cover (they use the word “roman”, as in the French expressions “roman a clef” or “roman policier“)

only reinforces it. In the computer science world, we call these things

“metadata” or “tagging”; in the real world, we call this “anal


This cover’s pretty sharp:

This one says “It’s 1992! Read this while waiting in line for your Lollapalooza tickets!”

This one is close to the American cover, except for the bit where they tell you it’s a novel.


This Italian cover uses the image of a “snow crash” — random data as

represented on a computer’s display — as the backdrop for the stylized

half-Japanese, half-African-American face of Hiro Protagonist. Dig

those lips!

Actually, he’s all pouty because he’s got a sword in his head.

Like the German edition, the designer Italian edition felt that is was necessary to tell you that THIS! IS! A! NOVEL!


I always love the way they reinterpret American culture in the Land of

the Rising Contradiction. Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it’s creepy,

sometimes it’s creepy-cool.

I believe that these are two alternate covers for the same Japanese edition:

I also like the stark printed-circuit board look of this cover:


Here’s the Russian cover, featuring Hiro. I assume that this depicts him on his motorbike trip to Alaska.

I cannot resist: “In Soviet Russia, virus catches you!


In Spain, Hiro is depicted as a Samuel L. Jackson-style badass on a

bike. Note the way the tires are depicted — that’s a pretty faithful

interpretation of the self-adjusting “SmartWheels” in the world of Snow Crash.

You can click the image below to see a larger version.

Bonus Cover

If you know your William Gibson, you don’t need to know Russian to figure out what this is a cover for:

I’m just not sure who the woman with the mohawk is (Sally/Molly? Then

where are her eye impants?) or what scene the cover depicts (the final

showdown at Gentry’s?). I welcome your comments.

5 replies on “Lost in Translations”

The first US cover you show is identical (as far as I can tell from a thumbnail when my real copy is at home in a box waiting to be unpacked) to the one on the ’92 trade paperback edition.

And even if you’ve never read a line of William Gibson, you still don’t need to “know Russian” to identify that last cover. You just need to be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet–the title’s in English.

This is actually funny, the second German cover has a “Review” blurb on it.

It is from a TV Show called “Aspekte” which you could consider a cultural magazine, and it runs on one of the two public broadcasters in Germany (think CBC).

Considering that they were never really hip it is sort of interesting to see that they actually endorsed [holds nose]Science Fiction[/holds nose]


The pair of Japanese covers are for a split edition of the novel (the characters for “up” and “down” at the end of the title are the clue).

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