Posted by on Sep 8, 2015 | 20 Comments
Copyright Law and Translation: what you need to know

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 info@bookworktranslations.com.

20 Comments

  1. Rangnath pathare
    December 25, 2014

    Dear Sir,
    I am from Maharashtra,India. A friend of mine has translated Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in our language i.e. Marathi using it’s English translation. This work has been completed in 2005.Since then he has relentlessly tried to contact Marquez (who has died recently.) and publisher of English translation with utterly no response both.The copies of this correspondence are with us.Almost 7 years have elapsed and everything is at a standstill.We do not intend to cheat anybody but would very much like to get the work the light it deserves. Marathi language is spoken by over 100 million people.I strongly believe that this translation will be a good addition to the literature available to readers in this language.Can you suggest some way out here?
    Eagerly waiting for your response,
    Your Sincerely,
    Rangnath Pathare

    Reply
    • Elise
      January 14, 2015

      Hello Rangnath,

      Thank you very much for your message. I am in touch with a publisher who may well be interested in your translation. Please can you email me with more information about your work so that I can approach them and gauge their interest? My email is elise@bookwormtranslations.com. I look forward to hearing from you, Elise

      Reply
  2. Seth Howard
    March 6, 2015

    Hello Elise,

    I’m planning to publish a chapbook of poems (which will have an actual ISBN) with the William Meredith Foundation, and I was hoping to include a few translations I did from the Japanese. Now do I need to get “translation rights” somehow, or would all that be covered in the contract I would be signing with the William Meredith Foundation?

    I tried contacting Japan Uni Agency, but they are not getting back to me. Could you please explain to me what I need to do if I want to include a few translations?

    Kind Regards,
    Seth Howard

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      March 16, 2015

      Hi Seth,

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. You need to establish who has the copyright for the original text, and get approval to translate this text from them. Once you get this approval and create a translation, the translation’s copyright will lie with you / the person who commissions the translation.

      I hope this clears things up somewhat but if not please give us a call to discuss this further.

      Kind regards,

      Elise

      Reply
  3. shrikrishna pandit
    July 15, 2015

    Hello Elise

    About copyright in a translation, does it exist independently of the original, or odes it continue only as long as the original work?
    For example, if the author of the original work died in in 1942, and the translator died in 1950, would the translation remain under copyright (say in a life+70 years country) till 2025 or would it also pass into public domain in 2012 along with the original work or would it continue till 2020?
    Thanks and regards
    Shrikrishna Pandit

    Reply
    • shrikrishna pandit
      July 15, 2015

      Hello Elise

      sorry pl read that as:

      About copyright in a translation, does it exist independently of the original, or odes it continue only as long as the original work?
      For example, if the author of the original work died in in 1942, and the translator died in 1950, would the translation (say in a life+70 years country) pass into public domain in 2012 along with the original work or would it continue till 2020?
      Thanks and regards
      Shrikrishna Pandit

      Reply
      • Elise Kendall
        July 15, 2015

        Hello Shrikrishna,

        Thanks for getting in touch. My understanding is that the translation’s copyright is independent of the original copyright. If you need more information about this, I recommend you get hold of the Society of Authors: http://www.societyofauthors.org/

        Elise

        Reply
  4. On translations and copyrights, and a recent publishing mishap | Subspace Radio Signals
    July 29, 2015

    […] and Copyrights; Copyright Law and Translation: What You Need To Know; Copyright And The Translator: Who Owns Your Translations?; Intellectual Property and Copyright: […]

    Reply
  5. Carter Rose
    August 30, 2015

    Elise,
    I have been in the progress of translating Yusuke Kishi’s novel, From the New World, from Japanese to English as there is no official published English translation. I am pondering whether I can get the rights to publish this translation.
    Aside from permission from the author and their publisher, Kodansha, is it also required that I have some certification stating that I am proficient as a translator or as a speaker in the language the novel was published in like a translator licence or something of the sort?

    Kind regards,
    Carter Rose.

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      August 30, 2015

      Hi Carter,

      No, you won’t need a special certificate. What I recommend you do is send a reader’s report on the book, along with a sample (say 50 pages) and any reviews the book received when it was published in Japan to publishers in the UK, US and Canada whom you believe would be interested in buying the English rights. Alternatively, you can buy these rights yourself and self publish, but I can foresee this being much harder to do. Either way, best of luck with your venture!

      Elise

      Reply
  6. Stefanie Turcotte
    September 8, 2015

    Hello Elise,
    I’m planning on subtitling into Spanish a Korean movie which has already been subtitled in English. Not familiar with Korean, I wish to use the English translation as the “original” text. Is it a problem, and if not, whom do I have to get permission from? The producer? Filmaker?subtitler?
    Thank you very much for your help,
    Best,
    Stefanie

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 8, 2015

      Hi Stefanie,

      My first question to you would be: Who is your client? I suggest that it is up to them to get permission to create these subtitles and use them. You need to find out who holds the copyright for the English subtitles and who created them as I suggest it will be their permission you will need.

      While there is no ‘problem’ with using the English subtitles, it would be better to create the Spanish subtitles from the original Korean text. As you know, subtitles are already a condensed and heavily altered form of translation, therefore to create a new translation from translated subtitles is risky and may result in some discrepancies in terms of relating the original speech in another language.

      I hope this helps,
      Elise

      Reply
      • Stefanie Turcotte
        September 8, 2015

        Thank you, Elise, yes it does help. I’ve figured that much, about the translation of a translation, I’ll get back to my clients and see that through.
        Thank you again,
        Best
        Stefanie

        Reply
  7. Translations I’m working on | Hannah Jane
    September 9, 2015

    […] and published, you need permission from both the author and the other translator. Although translations are considered a derivative work, in keeping in mind that I want to build a portfolio on this blog of my own translations, I want to […]

    Reply
  8. Darian Diachok
    September 30, 2015

    I’d like to submit a similar problem. I translated a historical novel published in 1946 — from an Eastern European language into English. The author died in the 1960s, but his sole-surviving son survives and presumably owns the copyright. The son is essentially refusing to take action toward publication, basically stalling without a resolution in sight. I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to this translation that’s been so-far well-received and I believe deserves to see the light of day

    Can I copyright my translation and proceed to publication without incurring a legal block from the author’s son?

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 30, 2015

      Hello Darian,

      This is the problem with doing a translation of any copyrighted text without first getting the foreign rights for that text. I suggest that you find a publisher who is interested enough to pursue the foreign rights on your behalf so that this text can then be published. I found this to be interesting: http://www.copyrightaid.co.uk/forum/topic1184.htm

      Good luck in getting this text to see the light of day, it would be a shame for your work to not be published, but it is also right that the author’s rightful heirs should benefit from the author’s original work and therefore they need to cede the foreign rights and be paid for these. Have you checked with the original publishing house? They might be able to help you as well if they are still in business.

      Reply
  9. Monica
    October 18, 2015

    Hi Elise,

    I’ve translated poems by a writer I love (who died less than 70 years ago). I’m trying to secure the rights to publication, but assuming that I’m denied, is it possible to put my translation online somewhere–on a blog, for instance–anonymously, and without any potential revenue coming from the translations, without incurring legal consequences? I’ve got no interest in making money on these poems; the translation was a labor of love.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      October 30, 2015

      Hello Monica,

      I don’t think this will be an issue, so long as you properly reference the original work and don’t profit financially from your translations. If you ever consider publishing your translations, that will be the time to seek proper copyright.
      Please let us know where they will appear as we always love to read translated poetry – such a difficult thing to do!

      Reply
  10. Bruno
    October 24, 2015

    Helo! I’m having a similar issue as Stefanie

    I want to translate a public domain Russian music treatise to French using an English modern translation as reference, since I’m far from mastering Russian and I intend to sell it (I own a publisher).

    Russian (PD) —> English (Non-PD) —-> French

    What would be the legal problems involving this? I mean, the original content are all in Public Domain, and I’m sure if I manage to learn Russian just for that the final result wouldn’t be so much different.

    Thank you so much in advance!

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      October 30, 2015

      Hello Bruno,

      I suggest you speak to the person who owns the copyright of the English version. They will be able to tell you if their work is copyrighted and if they had to pay anything to translate the Russian version. Good luck!

      Reply

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