Fifty Shades of Translation (Or, Why does copyright matter?)

… the publisher will see you now.

In the week or so since No Peanuts! posted information about the new report, Copyright “Rustling” in English-Language Translation: How Translators Keep (and Lose) Rights to Their Work—Data from Translations Published in 2014, we’ve gotten a lot of reposts, likes, tweets, and all the other goodies that social media provides.

What that tells us is that many translators understand why allowing a publisher to take rights from them—rights they would otherwise own—is a bad business decision.

But we’ve also gotten a certain number of semi-snarky comments about how copyright doesn’t really matter. One literary translator commented that copyright wasn’t even useful to a translator, adding that “the benefits seem mostly moral.”

Wow. Talk about people who get all fluttery in the presence of power.

If copyright were purely nominal—that is, if it conferred absolutely no economic or intellectual-property rights—then, yes, it would be a pretty silly thing to get worked up about.

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Copyright Rustling!” petition!
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But let’s back up a moment to the premise behind the argument that the benefits of copyright are “mostly moral.” Isn’t that just an admission that translators often have little choice but to sign bad agreements in which they receive no benefits at all (other than, we hope, getting paid for the translation)? Isn’t that just another way of encouraging your colleagues to bend over and enjoy the abuse?

And if translators are signing those kinds of agreements—that is, ones in which they are named as the copyright holder but then give away every other significant economic right … well, then, um … what we mean to say … isn’t that a completely bad thing that should seriously tick us off?

Shouldn’t we be concerned about the lack of negotiating and contractual power such a hypothetical situation represents: the translator holds copyright in her or his name, but the grant of a license to publish the translation lasts for all eternity; the publisher can publish the translation in any format, sell it to third parties, and adapt it in any way without involving (or paying) the translator; the translator never has a chance to earn royalties, no matter how successful the translation is….

We’ll answer our own question: Yes, we should be.

And the bad situation doesn’t get better when translators stick their heads into the all-purpose, “please don’t make me get involved in defending my profession” sand: “copyright doesn’t really matter.”

Of course copyright doesn’t matter if translators are so foolish—or so powerless—that they sign away all their rights before they’ve even translated a word.

Meanwhile, if the benefit of holding copyright is “mostly moral” – that is, it means nothing useful in the real world – then No Peanuts! has another question:

If that’s true, why do some publishers bother to take translators’ copyrights at all?

In other words, book publishers must actively DO something in order to get copyright out of translators’ hands. If retaining copyright were merely an insignificant, symbolic victory—that is, if it conferred no real-world benefits—why wouldn’t every publisher let things remain the way they naturally, legally are?

Other translators have argued that a copyright notation doesn’t necessarily tell us about actual arrangements between the publisher and the translator. In fact, even if the copyright isn’t registered in the translator’s name, the translator/publisher agreement might still provide royalties, subsidiary rights payments, or other benefits to the translator.

That’s a fair point. Almost.

Of course copyright doesn’t guarantee royalties, subsidiary rights, or similar economic benefits. It isn’t intended to anyway. Such details are always negotiated.

But how does that become an argument against the importance of making sure translators retain their copyright?

It’s sort of like saying, “There’s no need for you to hold the title to your car in your name because you’re still going to have to negotiate the sales price with the dealer. Plus, your name on the title doesn’t tell us anything about whether you got them to throw in the undercoating.”

Apples, meet oranges.

Still, we would be neglecting our public-education duties if we failed to mention the impact of a powerful phenomenon, a virus that seems to affect translators—and literary translators in particular: the Terrible Submissiveness of the Translator Syndrome, otherwise known as TS2.

For sufferers of TS2, if a publisher wants to do it, well, then, Sir, that sounds OK by me.

But we could all use a little more empathy and understanding for the tribulations of others, and that’s why we’re publishing this exclusive excerpt from a forthcoming blockbuster novel on the theme of self-abuse, Fifty Shades of Translation. Sometimes, literature explains everything.

 The only reason I have a shot at this translation gig at all is that my dearest, dearest friend, a gamine and gorgeous literary translator, had an unfortunate accident with a leather-covered book weight. When it slipped off her copy stand and crushed two fingers on her right hand, there was no longer any way she could hope to meet the deadline. She begged me to take the job instead. I ignored my rising panic and nodded.

In my sensible Crocs Neria work clogs I make my way to the publisher’s office, a frankly intimidating supply closet in the penthouse of a twentieth-floor walkup that once housed IBM’s Seattle headquarters. On the far wall, there’s a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the parking lot of a KFC. I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view, but then I realize I’m only trapped beneath a flawless filing cabinet that has tipped over onto my foot. Get a grip I tell myself. I’m such a klutz.

There’s a long wait, during which I help myself to the warm Fresca I’ve found on the floor near a bank of ripped-out phone jacks. The bottle is actually open, but I don’t care. I sip, ignoring the cigarette ashes. And then it happens. The publisher appears. He’s young, and very, very attractive. No, very, very, very attractive. Also flawless.

He regards me shrewdly, like a hawk eyeing a field mouse, then he extends his hand. I take it and feel myself shivering like someone in the early throes of Dengue fever. Power surges through his long fingers. This was a man who could take my copyright any day.

“I’m here about the translation,” I hear myself saying.

“I thought you might be,” he replies, a ghost of a smile touching his ghostly lips but not extending to his wry, ghostly eyes.

“Perhaps we should talk about terms,” I whisper, my heart pounding. “Royalties, subsidiary rights, term of the license….” He is silent, unnerving me. I make a valiant effort to calm myself, taking deep purifying breaths, closing and opening my eyes, and shaking my head until I’m calm but totally dizzy. Without being asked, I take a seat on an imposing, em-dash-shaped sofa.

“I’m a man who likes to possess things,” the publisher says after a long, unnerving, ghostly pause.

Inside I’m quaking. “But I’ll get to publish a translation, right?” I ask. I don’t recognize my own voice. He cocks his head flawlessly. There’s a wicked gleam in his eyes. Actually, it’s a little bit wicked and a little bit wry. But totally flawless.

“Of course,” he says. His deep voice rocks me all the way down to my Nerias. He can have all the subsidiary rights he wants, I think to myself.

“And you’ll at least put my name on the cover of the book?”

With one hand he cups his chin, and with the other he trails his long, cool fingers across the bridge of his Adonis-like nose, completely unconcerned that this gesture makes him look a little like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. “In the front matter,” he whispers. 

I realize I can no longer remember what royalty payments even are. No one has ever affected me this way before. He’s going to take everything from me, and I don’t care. He may be an arrogant, power-hungry monster who treats me as if I were as replaceable as a double-A battery, but he’s confident, commanding … and he’s going to let me make art. I glance up, and the publisher is staring at me like a mongoose toying with a cobra.

“In the end, you know, it is the translator who has all the power,” he purrs.

“Holy cow,” I say. “Please … just tell me where to sign.”

About No Peanuts! for Translators

No Peanuts! supports professional translators & interpreters in demanding & receiving fair pay for their work.
This entry was posted in Humor, Resistance, Respect, The Sustainable Translator. Bookmark the permalink.

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