Miles Franklin-nominated novelist apologises for plagiarising Nobel laureate ‘without realising’ | Books

The Australian author John Hughes has apologised for unintentionally plagiarising parts of a Nobel laureate’s work after a Guardian Australia investigation found multiple similarities and some identical instances in his new novel, The Dogs, which has been nominated for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.

Nearly 60 similarities and identical sentences were found in a comparison of Hughes’ novel and the 2017 English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction book The Unwomanly Face of War.

After uncovering some similarities between the books, Guardian Australia applied document comparison software to both texts, which revealed 58 similarities and some identical sentences.

Guardian Australia also found conceptual similarities between incidents described in the books, including the central scene from which The Dogs takes its title.

The Dogs is presented as Hughes’ original work, without reference to any other sources or research.

Hughes – an Australian descendent of Ukrainian refugees – has received critical acclaim for his novel about the intergenerational impact of wartime trauma.

In addition to being longlisted in May for the Miles Franklin prize, the book was shortlisted for the 2022 Victorian Premier’s and 2022 NSW Premier’s awards for literary fiction.

Hughes’ protagonist, Michael, is the son of Russian and Italian immigrants who came to Australia after the second world war. Nearing death, his mother, Anna, reveals her experiences fighting the Nazi army as a partisan. Anna’s memories are mainly presented by Hughes as either transcripts Michael makes of his discussions with her, or in the third person.

Ukraine-born Alexievich is a Belarusian journalist and a former leader of the opposition movement to President Alexander Lukashenko; she was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 2015 for her historical “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

Her 1985 work The Unwomanly Face of War is one of five books in her Voices of Utopia cycle, depicting life in the Soviet Union through oral testimonies. Collating interviews she conducted with more than 200 women who fought for the Soviet Union in the second world war, the nonfiction work took her more than four years to research and write.

When Guardian Australia sent a number of excerpts from The Dogs to Alexievich and asked about the apparent use of her material, she sent a brief statement through a translator: “I have never heard of The Dogs nor been contacted by Hughes. The verbatim takes from my book that is outrageous, and of course I did not agree to this.”

When presented with the same instances, Alexievich’s award-winning translators, the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, called the similarities ” extraordinary quantity”.

“Such things don’t happen by coincidence: not with such specific words, sequences, voicing,” they said. “This should certainly be brought to the attention of the judges of the [Miles Franklin literary award] and of the public.”

‘I would like to apologise’

In a statement to the Guardian, Hughes said he had started writing The Dogs 15 years ago, a process that involved “many recordings and transcripts” with his Ukrainian grandparents, who told of many similar instances to those contained in Alexievich’s book.

He had first read The Unwomanly Face of War when it came out in English in 2017, he said, and had used it to teach creative writing students about voice, acknowledging Alexievich as the source.

“I typed up the passages I wanted to use and have not returned to the book itself since,” he said. “At some point soon after I must have added them to the transcripts I’d made of interviews with my grandparents and over the years and … [had] come to think of them as my own.”

He said his grandparents’ stories had become conflated with Alexievich’s oral histories in his mind. “I could no longer unpick them, even if I had wanted to.”

Hughes continued: “I’m not trying to justify myself here. I am rather trying to account for how I could have used so directly parts of another writer’s work without realising I was doing so … I did not at any stage in the intend writing to pass off Alexievich’s work as my own and was truly surprised when I saw the material included in the article (there is nothing more disturbing than discovering your creative process is not what you had assumed).

“I would like to apologise to Ms Alexievich and her translators for using their words without acknowledgment.”

Hughes’ publisher, Terri-ann White, at Upswell Publishing, said she “stands steadfast alongside the author, despite the appropriations now evident in this text”.

As a writer, she said, she understood “how creativity can get mixed up in the making of a long work.” Having read Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War when it was translated in English, she said: “I am only sorry that I didn’t recognise these borrowed descriptions.”

She said she would “make amends and acknowledge these primary source materials in the book I have published”.

The plagiarism

Many of the instances in The Dogs which are similarly worded to Alexievich’s transcriptions in The Unwomanly Face of War are presented as Anna’s wartime memories.

In the scene from which The Dogs takes its title, Anna tells Michael for the first time that she had murdered his baby sister to prevent the infant’s cries revealing the location of her partisan unit to German soldiers and their dogs.

The judges of the 2022 NSW premier’s Literary Awards referred to this revelation as central to the novel’s exploration of “the ways an unspoken secret can shape the present”.

The foreword to Alexievich’s book contains a transcribed account of an almost identical incident, told to Alexievich by an unnamed woman who will witness it.

In the extracts below, the ellipses inside the quotation marks are reproduced from both books; they do not indicate omitted material.

From Alexievich’s transcription:

Somebody betrayed us … The Germans found out where the camp of our partisan unit was.

[W]e were saved by the swamps where the punitive forces didn’t go.

For days, for weeks, we stood up to our necks in water.

From The Dogs:

Someone betrayed us … The Germans found the camp. We were saved by the swamps. For days we stood up to our necks. Mud and water.

From Alexievich’s transcription:

The baby was hungry … It had to be nursed … But the mother herself was hungry and had no milk.

From The Dogs:

The baby was hungry.

But she was hungry too and had little milk.

From Alexievich’s transcription:

The baby hurt. The punitive forces were close … With dogs … If the dogs heard it, we’d all be killed. The whole group – thirty of us … You understand?

[W]e can’t raise our eyes. Neither to the mother nor to each other …

From The Dogs:

[T]he Germans were close … we could hear the dogs. If the dogs heard it … ?

There were thirty of us … No one could look at me … No one … You understand …

In his statement to Guardian Australia, Hughes said: “Alexievich’s first-hand accounts of Russian women from the second world war are so much like my grandmother’s fragments as she related them to me, the two became conflalated in my mind.

“Even the scene of the baby in the swamp (which corresponds to other horrific accounts of people in hiding), I remember it as a story she told me, even as I see now that it was Alexievich’s version I included.”

In another section of Hughes’ book, Anna describes to Michael how she fell in love during the war. As written by Hughes, it is almost identical to an account told to Alexievich by Nina Yakovlevna Vishnevskaya, a sergeant major and medical assistant of a Soviet tank battalion.

From Nina Yakovlevna Vishnevskaya’s account to Alexievich:

I remember we once fell into an encirclement … We dug into the ground with our own hands, we had nothing else. No shovels … Nothing … We were pressed on all sides. We had already decided: that night we would either break through or die. We thought most likely we would die … I don’t know if I should tell about this or not. I don’t know…

We camouflaged ourselves. We sat there. We waited for the night so as to try and break through somehow. And Lieutenant Misha T. – he was replacing our wounded battalion commander, he was about twenty – began to recall how he loved to dance, to play the guitar.

From The Dogs:

I remember once we fell into an encirclement … We dug into the ground with our own hands, we had nothing else. No shovels … Nothing … We were pressed on all sides. We had already decided that night we would either break through or die … I don’t know if I should talk about this …

We camouflaged ourselves, the soldiers, me and the two other nurses who’d been caught there. We waited for night to try and break through somehow. And the young lieutenant who was replacing the wounded commander, he was about twenty, he began to recall how he loved to dance and play the guitar.

Hughes presents another of Anna’s memories of her partisan unit finding a nurse who had been captured by the German army. It is also almost identical to an account of an unnamed Soviet woman in Alexievich’s book.

From Alexievich:

One of our nurses was captured… A day later we took back that village. There were dead horses lying about, motorcycles, armored vehicles. We found her: eyes put out, breasts cut off. They had impaled her on a stake… It was freezing cold, and she was white as could be, and her hair was all gray… She was nineteen years old.

In her knapsack we found letters from home and a green rubber bird. A child’s toy…

From The Dogs:

When the village was taken back the next day there were dead horses lying about, motorcycles, armoured vehicles. They found the nurse: eyes put out, breasts cut off, impaled on a stake. It was freezing cold, and she was white as could be, and her hair was silver. She was nineteen years old. In her knapsack they found letters from home and a green rubber bird. A child’s toy.

Alexievich now lives in Germany, having left Belarus in 2020 as one of the few Belarusian opposition movement leaders not imprisoned by the Lukashenko regime.

The 2022 Miles Franklin literary award guidelines state “all entries must consist entirely of the author’s original work”. The Miles Franklin award body has not been approached for comment.