Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Copyright for Translations

The New York Times recently reported on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that returns works published abroad and previously not protected under U.S. copyright to protected status under U.S. copyright law. Since many such works were presumably originally published in languages other than English, it got me thinking about copyright for translations. According to the Copyright Advisory Network of the American Library Association, translators have a copyright to their translations, but need to obtain permission from the rights holder of the original work in order to publish that translation.

Technical text, such as computer documentation, is usually written as a "work for hire", i.e., the author either is an employee of the end client or relinquishes his/her copyright in the freelance contract. Most of my contracts with translation agencies also specify that I cannot claim copyright to my work. Since I translate mainly technical and legal documents that have little commercial value beyond their specific uses, such as documentation accompanying a certain device or a contract between two specific parties, this lack of copyright does not particularly concern me.

It did make me wonder, though, how contracts for literary translations are worded. Do they include the same language on copyright as most standard agency contracts? Given the relatively low rates most literary translations command, it would only seem fair that translators should be able to retain rights to their work. This is particularly true since the absence of such rights for the translator generally does not mean that the translation is in the public domain, but rather that a corporate entity (usually a publishing house) benefits from the translator's work.

An interesting perspective is provided by Lenita M. R. Esteves, who translated J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings into Brazilian Portuguese. She wrote about her experience with copyright issues after that book became a bestseller on the Translation Journal's blog, Translators Around the World.

If you translate literary works, what has your experience with copyright been?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Aren't eBooks Global?

Joshua Bodwell writes in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine about book lists ("You Are What You Read"). He calls the list of some of the books he read last year "Bodwell's Baker's Dozen". As translators we not only read for pleasure, but also to keep current on terminology and usage in the languages in which we work. As freelancers we also run our own businesses and may read up on business advice. All of this, then, should lead to a fairly eclectic reading list for most of us. Last year, mine included:
  • Global Communication by Thomas McPhail
  • The Social Media Survival Guide by Deltina Hay
  • Till Eulenspiegel by Christa and Gerhard Wolf (German)
  • The Entrepreneurial Linguist by Judy and Dagmar Jenner
  • Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar edited by Richard Ford
  • New Stories by Southern Women edited by Mary Ellis Gibson
  • Los Mejores Narradores Jóvenes en Español from Granta en Español (Spanish)
Unfortunately, unless I am willing to pay outrageous shipping charges, I find it rather difficult to get a reasonable selection of physical books in German here in the U.S. The main branches of both the Brooklyn and Manhattan library systems do have German-language sections, but their holdings tend to be rather mixed, including quite a number of German translations of American books, and mostly relatively old. Bookstores carry, at best, annotated bilingual collections of short stories for students who are learning German.

Enter eBooks -- or so I thought. Just like the Internet finally let me read foreign newspapers without spending a fortune (and waiting 2 weeks for an issue to arrive), I thought I would now be able to download German-language books. But when I went to Amazon Germany, I found that I cannot download books from them to a Kindle registered with a U.S. address. So much for digital media as a means to access content from around the world ...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Colleague or Competitor?

In about 5 weeks I'm going to Austria. This time, the trip is wrapped around my sister's 50th birthday and other family obligations. Another part of the trip, however, is dedicated to meeting with colleagues. Some of these colleagues work in the same language combination in which I work: German to English. In some ways that makes them competitors, I suppose.

I have encountered other translators who see anyone working in the same language combination and direction as they do as a potential competitor best to be avoided and/or trumped in the race for projects from translation agencies. I am fortunate to be working in a relatively large language combination and have health insurance through an employed spouse (not a minor point in the U.S.). Even so, it's not always easy to get enough projects.

But if we view each other as competition, rather than colleagues, each of us will struggle alone to get paid a living wage while upholding quality standards. Plus, there is something to be learned from -- and sometimes taught to -- colleagues working in our language pair.

The fear of competition seems to keep many of us from getting together to demand better conditions and pay. Yes, we are not unionized employees. But as I explained in my previous post, unless all of us demand to be treated as the independent business people we are, some agencies will use the age-old "divide and conquer" tactic and treat us as quasi-employees without benefits or rights.

I, for one, enjoy meeting with my colleagues in Austria and elsewhere to compare notes, talk about the industry, and maybe share some knowledge I may have gained during the last decade or so. This increasingly interconnected world needs translators. If we all talk with each other -- including about pricing -- and stick together we may be able to carve out a reasonable niche for our profession. If each goes it alone, we will simply be played against each other. So talk to your colleagues -- they are your colleagues, not your competitors!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Are Translators Becoming Employees Without Benefits?

In his "GeekSpeak" column in the current issue of the ATA Chronicle Jost Zetsche notes that translation agencies increasingly ask translators to work with specific online tools. Some even require translators to pay for the agency's own tool. I have had several requests to use an agency's online tool myself last year, including from agencies with whom I had worked previously. As Mr. Zetsche points out, such a trend toward cloud computing erases the gains made in the ability to exchange data among different tools. In the still highly heterogeneous world of online tools we can rarely use a glossary we developed in one tool in another one, for example.

If we work with multiple agencies who use cloud computing, we also have to learn to use these tools, generally without being compensated for the time this takes. Once we have mastered the tools, we must constantly switch between different ones as we work on projects for different agencies. That makes it difficult to become thoroughly familiar with any one of them. We simply can't develop the necessary "muscle memory" for each tool. It also means that the agencies decide on the tools their independent contractors use. I tell agencies that I use a standard tool, Trados Studio 2009, and do not intend to switch.

Another trend I have observed during the last year is that translation agencies ask me to commit to specific periods of availability for them -- i.e., being "on call", but without compensation, except for whatever projects the agency might offer me for these times. My standard answer is that my availability varies depending on other projects I have accepted, but that I have always delivered any projects I do accept on time or early.

In addition, some agencies I have worked with in the past have asked me to accept lower rates, threatening that I would be unlikely to be offered projects from them in the future, if I refused. I refused anyway.

Taken together, these trends point towards agencies increasingly treating freelancers as if they were employees, but without any benefits or job security. Agencies require us to work with tools they specify, invest time in learning these tools, be available to them for specific periods of time, all with the promise -- not guarantee -- of projects to be assigned. We are only paid for the translation work assigned, and the rates we receive for that work are falling.

This reflects a trend in the larger U.S. economy to hire "consultants" to perform the work previously done by employees, often under substantially the same conditions, but without overtime pay or benefits. Unless all of us refuse such attempts at controlling our tools and time while being paid less, translators may end up becoming quasi-employees without benefits or rights.