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?


  1. You have covered an interesting topic....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.

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  3. Slightly off topic: who has the copyright for a literary work which has been out of print for 80 years and the publishing house is defunct?

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