Posted by on Sep 8, 2015 in Blog | 42 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.

42 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
  11. Sandra Lee
    February 28, 2018

    Thanks a lot for sharing this informative stuff, I completely agree with it!

    Reply
  12. Omer Boysan
    March 12, 2018

    Hi elise. Thank you very much for the enlightening article. I am looking to possibly translate a Turkish cookbook with nearly 800 pages into English. I have not found an American translated version of this book yet. It is not 70 years-old unfortunately, so what do you recommend would be the order of events to do such a thing and be able to sell it here in America as an original work?

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      Hi Omer, please get in touch with the publishers of the original book, they should be able to sell you the rights to the English version, or else tell you if they no longer own the rights, in which case you can translate it without worrying about future repercussions.

      Reply
  13. Von
    April 12, 2018

    Hi!
    I am looking at translating an old manuscript (author unknown) from the 17th century. The document is not hard to read (I saw one page of it) and a transcript was published about 10 years ago. Should I acquire copyright permission from the latter publishers? I am planning to publish it in a blog (not for profit).

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      I don’t think so, as the original text is no longer copyrighted, and the published transcript is essentially the same information in another format. If you want to make sure, please contact the society of authors, who will be able to give you a definitive answer: https://www.societyofauthors.org/

      Reply
  14. Lander
    April 27, 2018

    Hello Elise,

    Thank you for the useful information. I recently translated a small treatise from Latin to English. It was written in the 16th century, so I guess that makes it public domain.

    I would also like to include some images however. Does the same apply to images? If the creator has died more than 70 years ago, does that make it public property? Is there a copyright on the photograph or digital image of the original? Do you know anything about this?

    Thank you,

    Lander

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      Hi Lander, this isn’t our field of expertise, but I would suggest pixabay as a good, copyright free catalogue of images which you can use without worrying about potential repurcussions. All the best, Elise

      Reply
  15. Charlie Bavister
    May 9, 2018

    It is such an important topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I thank you to help making people more aware of possible issues.

    Reply
  16. Gabriela
    May 22, 2018

    Hello,

    I would like to self-publish on Amazon the works of a writer who died more than 70 years ago. The works were published in 1932 and 1935. Are these in public domain worldwide (even US)?

    Many thanks

    Reply
  17. David
    June 18, 2018

    Hello! I would kindly need some help!
    I have translated a few poems from Chinese into English of a Chinese poet who died in the early 90s. I had translated these poems for an academic assignment and I am now planning on publishing my translation. These poems were originally published in Chinese in China in 1941. If I publish my English translation, would I need to ask for the right to do so? I heard that one direct relative of this poet still lives and that a Chinese scholar published the collected works of this poet in the 70s.

    Thanks a lot,
    Best,
    David

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      Hi David, the first port of call should be the publishing house who no doubt owns / owned the copyright to his work. They may also be able to put you in touch with the living relative, who may well be entitled to royalties. For more help and information, please speak to the Society of Authors: https://www.societyofauthors.org/. They have professionals who specialised in these issues and will no doubt be able to give you very sound advice!

      Reply
  18. Flossie
    June 29, 2018

    Remarkable! Its genuinely remarkable piece of writing,
    I have got much clear idea regarding from this post.

    Reply
  19. Elizabeth Goodling Gibbons
    July 6, 2018

    IDK if this site is still active, but here’s my question:
    I’m working with someone who wants to translate my book from English into Chinese. It’s an academic work–teaching dance–so won’t skyrocket to the top of the bestseller list nor make a ton of money in royalties, but it will potentially open a new market for the book and a potential small income stream in a foreign currency. What advice do you have for navigating this? Thanks, Liz.

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for getting in touch. I would suggest that you pay the translator for their work (on a per-word basis), and that this results in you owning the rights to the translated text. This means that you will hopefully make a return on your investment, and the translator gets paid for their work upfront. Hope that helps, but let me know if we can help in any other way!

      Reply
  20. Carma
    July 14, 2018

    Hello Elise,

    I recently found out that a published book on my father’s life was translated and publisher without permission. The book has a note saying that they tried to find the copyright owners not were not able to and they went ahead and published the book in Japanese, original was in English published in us and UK.
    I believe this is an infringement. What sold my next step be and what should I expect as compensation? Really appreciate your response.

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      A good organisation in the UK is the Society of Authors. They have professionals who deal in copyright issues and they should be able to help you: https://www.societyofauthors.org/ Please report back if you manage to solve the problem, we’d love to hear how you got on!

      Reply
  21. Vitaly Shemet
    July 15, 2018

    Hello,

    I want to translate a book which is a study guide/learning materials for fine arts drawing. I have consent of the author, so it’s fine from this side. However, this guide contains lots of illustrations, and the text serves mostly as a detailed commentary to insructional images. I can’t get the original or digital copies of these, as the owner likely don’t have them himself anymore. How can this situation be resolved, and what implications it will have on the publishing request and my rights on the translated piece?

    Thanks,
    Vitaly

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      Hello Vitaly, thanks for getting in touch. I suppose that when this book was originally published, it was done through a publishing house. You will need their consent to use any of the material they have printed, so your first port of call should be them. Good luck, and please report back if you manage to have a breakthrough with this issue!

      Reply
  22. P.K. Bajpai
    August 6, 2018

    Hello Elise,
    I have written a book in Hindi language in India. I have copyright registered for this work. I am asking someone for its translation in English against payment but I want to keep copyright of the translated work and earn exclusive royalty over it. Can you suggest how to get the translated work copyrighted in my name. I am ready to give payment and credit to the translator.
    Regards,
    Pradeep

    Reply
    • Elise Kendall
      September 5, 2018

      Hi Pradeep, thanks for your comment. You can of course pay a translator for their work (usually done on a per-word basis), and agree in advance that this will be the only payment they receive, and that the copyright for this translation will belong to you once their work is complete. It is not uncommon to proceed in this way, and, should you wish, we can help you to find a suitable literary translator and set this service up for you. Just get in touch for more information!

      Reply

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