DEK once said (TUGboat Volume 13 (1992), No. 4, page 423):

The TeXbook has been translated not only into Japanese, but also into Italian (though not yet published in Italian). The people who did the translation are actually prisoners, political prisoners thrown into jail in the '70's because they were liberal activists. But they're in a minimum security prison, so they're supposed to work for their living.

This one group decided that their job was going to be to typeset mathematics with TeX for the Italian Mathematical Society; so they did this. They sent me a letter explaining how they're prisoners, and they enclosed a laser-printed copy of the entire TeXbook translated into Italian, 500 pages of it, a beautiful job. They claim they are enjoying their prison life because of TeX. What could be nicer?

Is there someone who knows something more about this translation? Is there any web link?

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    @egreg Ah that's how you learnt your TeX:-). – user10274 Mar 6 '13 at 10:35
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    Suddenly \clubpenalty sounds weird. – percusse Mar 6 '13 at 10:36
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    I read that passage too, but never heard of the translation from any other source. – egreg Mar 6 '13 at 10:39
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    I checked with Don's editor at Addison-Wesley and they never heard about this – Frank Mittelbach Apr 8 '13 at 15:13
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    I've nominated this for reopening. I'm not sure it fits any of the criteria in the 'not constructive' definition. Perhaps I'm missing something though. It may just be a little too atypical. – qubyte Jun 22 '13 at 11:30

I received the following e-mail from Don today:

Perhaps it is not too late to do some detective work about that early translation of The TeXbook into Italian, made by political prisoners, since only 25 years have elapsed. If you have contacts in Italy, they may be able to help; certainly it's a really interesting story, and it ought to become better known.

I don't have a copy of their letter to me in my files; most likely, it's in the boxes of early TeX documents and correspondence that I donated to the Stanford Archives long ago. (A historian could come out here to examine those papers; I haven't time to do it myself.)

But I do have a copy of the letter that I wrote back. It was addressed to

Syntax Error J.C.S.
via De Amicis, 5
00135 Roma, ITALY

and I began thus:

Dear SynT\kern-.05em\lower1pt\hbox{A}X Errors,

I was amazed to receive your letter of October 21 because I
believed my \TeX book was impossible to translate into any
other language! The people at TUG did not forward your
previous letter to me, so I was quite unaware of your
exciting activities.

I am certainly glad to learn of your successes.

I write in haste, hwoever, in case you have not spotted a spacing error
in the running headlines ....

and then I enclosed several pages with handwritten errata.

I saved only a few representative pages of the translation, beginning with "Capitolo 1: Il nome del gioco. Parole inglesi come `technology' derivano del greco e cominciano con le letter $\tau\epsilon\chi$\dots; questa parola in greco significa arte tanto quanto tecnologia. Da qui il nome \TeX, che \`e la maiuscola della parola greca."

Another page that I saved was from "Appendice B: Sequenze di controllo fondamentali". Their test file began

%Questo file di testo produce l'output della pagina a fianco.

and on the facing page (page 375 of the translation) was the nicely typeset example entitled "Titolo centrato, in neretto, avec un sous-titre \`a la fran\c{c}aise".

It would be a shame if all other traces of this translation were lost. Somewhere in Italy there must be people who worked on this project.

Best wishes, Don Knuth

P.S. Oops, I forgot to mention the date: My letter to Rome was written on 22 November 1988. (Thus less than 25 years ago.)

  • As stated in the answer from Frank Mittelbach, it is likely that Don never informed his editor of this translation (but it looks like it is indeed a complete translation).
  • It is also nowhere said explicitely that Don ever had access to the original TeX files.
  • Syntax Error J.C.S. seems to have moved in the mean time and I didn't find any e-mail address.
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    You received an email from Don Knuth! – Aditya Aug 7 '13 at 22:23
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    Instant TeX.SX celebrity. – Sean Allred Aug 7 '13 at 23:17
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    @SeanAllred: There is unfortunately no gold badge for that. ;o) – Kyle_the_hacker Aug 8 '13 at 13:38

It seems that this translation got nowhere, at least not in any way official in the end. I spoke to Don's editor at Addison-Wesley and they have no knowledge of any such translation. As they hold the copyright to the publication, any translation that would make it in print or would be published electronically would need their permission/approval. So my best guess is that it got never finished or if it did never went beyond being a private exercise.

Next time I have a chance to speak to Don I will ask him if he got any more info on this but I seriously doubt it.

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