Issues related to copyright are often vexing for translators, especially those working in literary translation. One of the most vexing is whether or not to pursue your right to royalties from the publisher or author you are working with. Many translators in the field of literary translation do their own negotiating with publishers or authors when contracted for a job. This brings the question of whether pushing for royalties is worth possibly losing the contract to someone else. In order to help with this decision, we have compiled information on copyright as well as suggestions for pursuing royalties for your work.
What you should know about translation and copyright law:
Translation is typically considered a derivative work. While this varies from country to country, translation is considered derivative because it exists in relation to an original work, in this case a work of literature such as a novel or poem.
Even though it is derivative, translations are eligible for copyright as an original work. Since a translation, especially literary translation, involves considerable creative effort, labour and skill on the part of the translator it can be registered as an original work.
However, it is crucial to have permission from the author, company, or individual that owns the copyright of the work you are translating. This usually comes in the form of a contract with a publisher, in which the duties of each party are laid out. This is also where a translator may sign away, or fight for, their right to copyright their translation and to royalties.
If the work exists in the public domain then a translation automatically retains copyright as an original work. Generally, the copyright for a work of literature expires 70 years after the author dies. So, if you want to translate Virgil’s Aeneid from the original Latin into Japanese you can do so without worrying about infringing on copyright. You can find a useful guide to searching for public domain works here.
So, what should you do about ensuring you keep your rights to copyright and royalties? We have a few suggestions below:
First, don’t sign away your right to copyright or to being recognized for your translation. This would mean the publisher could exclude your name from the published editions of the book, as if it magically translated itself.
Negotiate and push for your right to royalties.It is worth at least asking to receive a portion of the royalties. Typically, a translator can expect to get 1-3% of the royalties. If you don’t think this is much you’re right, but keep in mind that authors may get anywhere from 6-25% depending on the format of the book (hardback, paperback, e-book, etc.) with e-books typically bringing in the highest royalty rate for authors. You can use these facts as negotiating tools – if the author is getting a higher percentage on the e-book, why can’t you get a higher percentage as well? If the publisher or the author refuses, at least you have gained some practice in negotiating for the future.
Make sure the royalties include worldwide publication. Let’s say you translate a book into English for a U.S. publisher and then that publisher sells the rights to the book in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand and those publishers decide to keep your translation. If your contract is limited to U.S. sales then you are missing out on earning potential in other English speaking countries.
Emphasize your commitment to the profession. Translating is not something you do for fun. While you may find translating to be fun and interesting work, you are also a professional and have a vested interest in gaining recognition and proper payment for your work. This might seem obvious, but you never know how the publisher or author is viewing you or your work.
We hope this helps you in your future negotiations. This particular post is centered on literary translation and draws from copyright law in the UK. We would love to hear about personal experiences related to copyright and royalties from translators working in other fields (scientific, commercial, localization, etc.) and in other countries in the comments below or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.