Translation Breadloaf and My Copyright Talk

As if three trips to New York and one to Torino weren’t enough, I just a few minutes ago arrived in Ripton, VT, where I have the honor of being able to participate in (and generally witness) the first ever Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. (A.K.A. Translation Loaf.)

Since this was organized by Jen Grotz—our poetry editor, the translator of the forthcoming Rochester Knockings—I knew a bit about what was going to happen here, but now that I’m holding the full schedule in my hands . . . holy shit, guys. Holy. Shit.

First off, tonight’s opening event features a reading by Maureen Freely, who will also be giving a talk on Wednesday entitled “Where I Go, When I Look Like I’m Translating a Book.” But then, tomorrow morning, Susan Bernofsky, hot off of winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, will talk about “Finding a Language for the Past.” Oh, and then, on Friday, BTBA winner Bill Johnston (I can’t even type his name without hearing the “BILL, billJOHNSTON, bill!” song that Kaija always sings for him) will be talking about “The Quest for a Voice: Translating Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone upon Stone.” Also, Michael Katz, translator of Dostoevsky and many other Russian greats, will give a lecture entitled “Translation Matters? Translation Matters. Translation Matters:.”

These faculty members won’t just be giving speeches though, they’re also directing workshops each morning with seven or eight translators, going over their pre-submitted samples. (That’s some high quality plübbing!) Each of them will also be giving a reading of their own translations in the evening, and meeting with Loafers throughout the day.

In addition to all of that, there are also four special panels and talks and classes for attendees, including one “On Publishing Literary Translations” where everyone can meet Jill Schoolman from Archipelago and Steve Woodward from Graywolf. Don Share is also teaching a class, as is Bill Johnston (one on “Translating Dialogue for the Stage”).

And finally, I’ll be giving a talk on “Copyrights and Translation Contracts: What You Need to Know.”


Since this is incredibly important information for translators, and since I’m not a legal expert, I thought I would post an overview of what I plan on talking about, and if anyone has any specific bits of info that I should/shouldn’t include, please feel free to contact me.

1) Before contacting a publisher with a sample of a book you want to translate, make sure the rights are available. You as the translator don’t have to “acquire” the rights—that’s something the publisher will do when/if they go ahead with the book—but you definitely need to make sure that no other publisher has already bought them. (And for your sake, it would be good to know that no one else is working on a translation.)

2) When signing a contract, refer to the PEN Model Contract. In addition to your fee—which is something I’ll probably spend most of my talk talking about, because that’s a really practical and pressing issue for a lot of translators—the other keys to pay attention to are: royalties on book sales and subrights, where your name will appear (or if it will at all), who has final approval of changes to the manuscript, whether the translation will be copyrighted in your name or not, and how the rights will be reverted when the book goes out of print.

3) Over the past few months, copyrighting translation in the names of translators has been getting some attention on the social media platforms and whatnot, so it’s worth pointing out why this is important (and why publishers should allow the translations they publish to be copyrighted in the translator’s name).

There are various legal arguments about copyright for translations—the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works establishes that translators are to be considered authors and should be treated as such—but I want to mostly look at the practical, publishing side of this.

In terms of terminology, and since this comes up every so often, if you sign a contract in which the publisher takes away the translator’s copyright of the translation it’s a “work-for-hire contract.” Which, basically means what it says: the translator is being hired to do work for the publisher, after that work is completed and the translator is paid, the publisher owns the finished product and can do what it wants with it for the rest of the translation’s copyright. Nothing more is owed to the translator ever, and if the book goes out of print, the rights to the translation do not revert to the translator.

I’m going to pause for one second and make clear that this doesn’t necessarily impact the amount that you are paid. A translator could sign a contract in which they retain the copyright to their translation (essentially, with PEN’s model contract, etc., the translator is “leasing” their intellectual property to the publisher to use for a specified period of time, such as, for as long as the book is in print) and receive a $100 advance against 25% of all net proceeds. Or, they could sign a work-for-hire contract and get paid a billion dollars. Or vice versa. These two things aren’t tied to one another.

When copyright really becomes an issue is when the book goes out of print. This is usually due to the publisher losing the underlying rights. Just to back up to point one: A publisher doing a translation has a contract with the rights holder for the original work (the foreign publisher, the author, the author’s agent) and with the translator. The original contract may well specify that the publisher only has the rights to publish the book in print form for five years from the date of signing. Or it could state that the rights revert if the sales fall below 100 copies a year. Regardless, a lot of books end up going out-of-print at some point in time, either because the publisher runs out of copies and doesn’t feel like it’s financially worthwhile to print more, or because the agent (it’s always the agent, right?) takes them away after a particular period of time.

If the translator signed a work-for-hire contract, and the book goes out of print, the rights to the translation remain with the publisher to reassign. So, let’s pretend that ten years down the road, a new start up press named Deep Letter Archive of Books wants to reissue a new edition of a supercool Thai book that changed the publisher’s life. First they have to acquire the underlying rights to the book, then the translation. This should be easy enough, unless, in the ensuing ten years, the original publisher went bankrupt (they were doing crazy experimental Thai books, so, you know, “limited upmarket potential” and all that), which means that the rights to translation are . . . where exactly? You have to contact how many lawyers? Ugh. That’s the moment I’d just say Fuck it and walk away.

However, if the rights to the translation had reverted to the translator—just as the rights to the book itself had reverted to the author—then I could call up the translator (or his/her estate) and pay them a small sum ($500?) for the rights. And suddenly, this book would have another shot at finding an audience.

Holding onto the translation rights—when you can’t hold on to the rights to the original book—seems baroque and silly to me. As a publisher you’re hoping for what? A $500 offer ten years down the road? At the expense of angering a group of already disenfranchised people?

I’m sure some publishers have their reasons for doing business this way (the main argument being that they’re paying a lot for the creation of the translation so if there are future monies to be made, they deserve a cut), but it just doesn’t seem like something that should be a standard part of your business model, especially if you think about how much you really paid in comparison to the amount of time the translator spent working on this. Respect your translators! You wouldn’t pull this with an author . . .

And I’m sure my presentation will have more jokes and asides and intricate points. But for now, I thought I’d at least share that.


More importantly: Don’t you wish you were on top of a Vermont mountain spending the week with all these great translators and translation publishers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.