Publishing a translation of copyrighted material
April 10, 2014 11:47 AM   Subscribe

So, there was a poet who wrote poems in German in the 1940s.

His poems are published by a German publisher. I am translating his poems into English for my own benefit. What if I wanted to publish, or have someone publish my translations? I (or my would-be publisher) would need to get permission from the current German publisher? The author's estate? Both? I (or my would-be publisher) may need to pay the current publisher money? A percentage of the earnings? Both? etc. How is this done?
posted by goethean to Law & Government (4 answers total)
Response by poster: Oh, also: no translation into English exists for this material.
posted by goethean at 11:47 AM on April 10, 2014

Best answer: If the work is still in copyright, which it almost certainly is (currently, German copyright extends for 70 years after the author's death), you will need permission from the copyright holder. That could be the publisher, the author's estate, or some other party—what does the copyright information in the book state? That's the place to start.

Terms for publishing a translation would be negotiated depending on the potential market and, if the publisher holds the copyright, any obligations they have to the author. For instance, the contract for my first book involved my assigning copyright to the publisher, but I am entitled to receive royalties on derivative works that the publisher authorizes, including translations. My publisher (the University of Chicago Press) has in fact been negotiating with Peking University Press over a Chinese translation; if that is published, I'll get some royalties from sales (perhaps enough for a couple bottles of wine or a dinner out—academic publishing usually isn't lucrative!).

The translators I know usually work for hire, after a publisher has negotiated rights for a translation. I'm not sure whom you should contact for more information. You could check with the American Translators Association.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:03 PM on April 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Check out this handy dandy sheet from Cornell:

It helps you get more information about copyright on certain items (scroll down for the section on international copyright), although you do have to know specific information about its copyright status. What you're describing is an adaptive work under the law, to which you would hold the rights if it were published, so my guess is that yes, you need copyright permission from whoever the rights holder is. If it's the publisher, easy, just contact them and describe your interest. If it's the poet, s/he holds the right if still living--if not, then the spouse does; if the spouse is deceased, all the children from that marriage are equal rights holders...etc. etc. Basically you follow traditional lines of inheritance in tracing copyright, although this could be different since you're working internationally. I just found this from the World Intellectual Property Organization:

"Translations and adaptations are themselves works protected by copyright. So in order to publish a translation or adaptation, authorization must be obtained both from the owner of the copyright in the original work and from the owner of copyright in the translation or adaptation."

Hope this is helpful! I work with copyright in libraries, so I know the headache that copyright law can be, although thankfully most of the stuff I work with is published in the U.S. Good luck!
posted by heathenduchess at 1:18 PM on April 10, 2014

Best answer: The American Literary Translators Association has a page of helpful resources for literary translators, including a guide for submitting book proposals to publishers that has a few pages at the beginning about getting translation rights issues sorted.

There are also countless discussion threads on about obtaining translation rights.
posted by drlith at 1:59 PM on April 10, 2014

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