Readers Ask
Every now and then I present questions that readers of Intralingo have asked regarding different aspects of literary translation, along with my answers.

Hi,

I’m a freelance translator and would like to translate a book for a self-publishing e-book writer. I am looking for information that could clarify copyright and royalty issues.

I checked PEN’s website and saw a model contract there, but I don’t know which parts would apply in my case. Could you please advise? Thanks!

Best wishes,

Annette

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Dear Annette,

Your question is very timely! I just recently used the PEN model translation contract to enter into an agreement with an author who will be self-publishing my translation. Most of the clauses apply, with very little tweaking, because the author *is* the publisher in these situations.

Self-publishing is like any other form of publishing, in that copyright should still be granted to the translator and royalties should be part of the deal. But what any translator ultimately decides to accept are personal decisions.

In terms of amounts for royalties, there are a variety of potentially useful posts here on the blog.

Lisa

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Dear Lisa,

Thank you so much for your most informative and kind email.

Are there any dangers about not requesting copyright? My translator friend said the translator has no “copyrights! over a translation, only the credit of having done it.” I do not really understand the argument for or against it. Would you mind clarifying?

And I have one more question. My translator friend said this to me about royalties: How do you actually manage to get them and what recourse (efficient, that is) do you have when you deal with an individual as opposed to a corporation?

I haven’t sent [the author] a contract to sign or anything. It was just an email. So it might still be fixable.

Thanks again for taking the time to write to me. I really appreciate it.

Warm regards,

Annette

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Hi, Annette.

If you haven’t signed a contract with the author yet, you can certainly discuss copyright and royalties. As long as the dialogue is open and respectful, the author is sure to at least hear what you have to say. What you eventually decide to do will depend on many things, including how much you want this book and what other things might compensate for lack of royalties, say.

In terms of copyright, though, this is one thing I would not negotiate. It is your right. You can see that in the PEN contract—and PEN is an international organization that promotes rights for writers (including translators) around the world. I am quite sure that The Society of Authors in the UK also includes a similar clause. So copyright for translators is industry standard.

Your friend may have been mistaken if he or she is most familiar with non-literary translation. Translators don’t usually get copyright on other types of work, but in literary they should. Check out this report and petition on the topic.

It must be made clear to the author, though, that you being granted copyright does NOT mean you can do whatever you want with the translation. Literary translation is a derivative art. See this post (among others) on the blog about what that means.

In terms of making sure that you can collect on royalties, you’ll see there is an audit clause in the PEN contract. This works best with small or large publishers, but you’re right that something like this can be hard to enforce with an author. I personally removed that clause from the self-publishing contract I signed, as it didn’t seem feasible. As a result, on that point, the author and I are going on trust.

I personally take a while to get to know the author, to create a relationship, to make sure we’re going to be able to work together before we enter into any kind of a contract, because ultimately trust is required for all aspects of a literary translation project.

So, to sum up… Are you entitled to copyright? Yes. Will the author grant that? Maybe, maybe not. Are you entitled to royalties? Yes. Can you likely figure out a way with the author to collect them? Probably. Are there guarantees you’ll get your royalties? No. But there are no guarantees of that with a publisher, either.

Again, Annette, I do hope this is helpful!

Lisa

Readers, what additional or different advice would you give to Annette? What has been your own experience? Do share! We’d love to hear from you.

Lisa Carter is an acclaimed Spanish>English translator. Her work has won the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation and been nominated for an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Lisa offers translation, editing, professional development and promotion services through her company, Intralingo Inc., at www.intralingo.com