The April 2015 issue of the ATA Chronicle featured an in-depth article about translators and copyright, including the legal opinions and advice of copyright lawyer Erach F. Screwvala, who has represented translators in negotiations with publishers, advised the PEN America Translation Committee, and presented workshops on copyright issues in translation.
Among Mr. Screwvala’s comments was this one: “European-based publishers are more likely to attempt such a maneuver [i.e., taking translators’ copyrights], although I have been generally successful in preventing it.”
No Peanuts! wonders whether Mr. Screwvala is familiar with two Italian publishers—Piemme (Atlantyca) and edizioni e/o (Europa Editions). Given these companies’ practices, it is far from clear that even he could wrestle translators’ copyrights out of their hands.
The Rome-based edizioni e/o and the New York-based Europa Editions are owned by the same couple, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri. Piemme, which is now part of the mushrooming media conglomerate, Mondadori, is in direct partnership with the so-called “literary agency,” Atlantyca S.p.A.; both are located in Milan. Atlantyca’s CEO is Claudia Mazzucco who, until she stepped into the big office at Atlantyca in 2006, was the managing director of Piemme.
Atlantyca’s foreign-rights agent, Annalisa Catalini, also came from Piemme, as did Caterina Vacchi, the head of Atlantyca’s Production Department; Atlantyca’s Owner and Chairman, Pietro Marietti; Editor Viola Gambarini; Art Director Paola Cantoni; and a number of other employees and managers. In other words, as the Italians say: “culo e camicia.”
Though the mechanisms are different, the basic approach of Europa-edizioni e/o and Atlantyca-Piemme is the same: an entity has been created to pass translation rights from an Italian publisher to a publisher abroad (to the same company, in the case of Europa; to various publishers in the case of Atlantyca, but prevalently Papercutz and Scholastic in the U.S.)
In the process, Europa or Atlantyca commissions a translation and methodically strips copyrights from translators’ control.
In the case of Europa, it’s simply the editors’ “policy,” and they refuse to negotiate the point. Atlantyca’s approach, conversely, is particularly clever—not to say diabolical.
Atlantyca was originally formed to manage translation and subsidiary rights for Piemme properties (though it has expanded a great deal since then). Atlantyca’s foreign-rights editors, however, now claim that Atlantyca is a “literary agency and not a publisher” and therefore has no power to recognize translators’ copyrights.
Technically true, perhaps, though just barely. Morally bankrupt, without a shadow of a doubt.
In an Italian and European context, in fact, the stratagem of the “literary agency” has significantly streamlined the process of snatching translators’ copyrights. Such “agencies” operate on the model of the traditional translation agency and maintain the thin fiction that all the translations they commission are “commercial” (and, therefore, exempt from laws governing copyright).
That this is unethical seems obvious – and someone should certainly investigate whether it is also illegal. In the U.S., copyright is principally determined by two things: a) whether or not the translator is a legally defined employee of the publisher (freelancers are NOT), and b) the nature and destination of the translation itself.
The way the commissioning client’s business is constituted is irrelevant. All the translations commissioned by Atlantyca are clearly “editorial translations” intended for book publication. As such, they are automatically protected by copyright laws and are automatically works whose copyright belongs to the translator. That only changes if the translator can be convinced (or coerced) into giving copyright up.
Once a translation is in hand, meanwhile, Atlantyca lops off those pesky translators’ copyrights and sells the translation to a foreign-language publisher. Books published with an Atlantyca-commissioned English translation, however, include this copyright notice: “English translation © by Atlantyca S.p.A.”
Because Atlantyca refuses even to consider the option of allowing its translators to retain their copyrights, and then markets these rustled copyrights abroad, one way of looking at this is that the foreign publisher accepts what are the moral equivalent of stolen goods. Yes; a contract exists in which the translator signed over copyright.
No, that translator had absolutely no choice if s/he wanted to work.
Europa, too, refuses categorically to allow its translators to retain their copyrights, a fact that by now is common knowledge (more than one well-known translator has discussed this issue in a public forum).
In both cases, it is best-selling work (Elena Ferrante’s novels for Europa and the Geronimo Stilton series of children’s books for Atlantyca) that provide the most flagrant example of how translators stand to lose when they don’t hold copyright to their work.
In both cases, moreover, the original work in Italian was published by the “parent” company. As a result, Piemme passes its rights to Geronimo Stilton to Atlantyca, and edizioni e/o passes its rights to Ferrante to Europa. All in the family, in other words.
But translators, without whom there’d be no Europa or Atlantyca, don’t get to be part of the family.
At the very least, these “European-style” tactics (or are they just Italian-style?) should raise eyebrows in the U.S. In fact, as Mr. Screwvala points out, “It is exceedingly rare for U.S.-based publishers to seek to acquire the translator’s copyright.”
But it isn’t extremely rare for Atlantyca or Europa.
It’s just another day on the copyright-rustling prairie. Git along, little translator.
Sign the petition, Put A Stop To Copyright Rustling!