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Translation Rights

July 4, 2011

I’m in an odd situation. I finished a manuscript (of original poetry), my goal for the spring, and at the end of May began to turn my attention back to translation. Balancing my creative output between original writing and translation has worked well for me if I switch off, I can’t quite sustain the output of working on two things simultaneously, at least not without a lot of cross-contamination (which would be interesting to explore, of course, but hasn’t been my goal for these works).

Anyway, I had an incredibly interesting research trip to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic earlier this year, and came back with dozens of potential projects. Next year I’ll be finishing my MFA and need to pick a thesis project, so collecting potential projects was a main goal of this trip, alongside working with the wonderful José Mármol, an exquisite Dominican poet. I’ve always considered myself primarily a translator of poetry, since I am primarily a writer of poetry. But during this trip I came across two super interesting potential projects, one a novella and the other a graphic novel.

Of course, I had intended to select a poetry project. I had researched specifically with that goal in mind. My contacts were all poets. I only bought one work of fiction, and it was not the novella I’m considering working on. I’m not a fiction writer, or a graphic novelist. But it strikes me that perhaps it would be good for me to work outside my genre in translation – that it might free me in ways that moving from poetry to poetry wouldn’t.

So, having learned the hard way, I began trying to learn the rights situation of either project. After what happened to the Bolaño book I translated, I’m a tad gun-shy. In fact, since then I’ve only worked on projects where I’ve had direct contact with the author of the work. But after several months of trying to reach the author of the novella, who is living, or the publisher, and having no luck I began to work on it anyways. I thought, and still do, that if an English-language publisher were to become interested enough to pursue the rights they might have better luck getting a response than I do.

Translators, as many of us have pointed out, are in a terrible situation. They can work on anything they like, but can’t publish it without rights. Foreign publishers are almost never willing to even discuss the rights availability with a translator, much less assign a translator the rights. They want assurance that the translation will be published, so that they can make money on it, and a translator can’t assure that. So publishers, who often hold the rights, only want to discuss rights with other publishers. But if, like me, you’re trying to chose your own project rather than working on commission, you need to approach potential publishers with a sample of the work, and most publishers also want you to have found out what the rights situation is. In any case, it’s not a great idea I learned to invest significant time into a project you have no assurances of being able to publish. So translation rights from the perspective of a translator are a kind of catch-22.

And even if you do get information from a publisher that the rights are available, as I did with the Bolaño, there’s no assurance that by the time an English-language publisher is interested in the project the rights will still be available. So if you’re pitching a project, the months it takes to create a sample and a pitch, send it out and wait to hear back can mean the loss of the project.

For me the solution has been to only work with living authors, ones who control the derivative (i.e. translation) rights to their work. This limits the pool some, of course, but since I’m not getting commissions from publishers and I relish the joy of discovery, it has been working well for me.

But what about all the projects where the author is not living? So little literature is translated into English it sometimes takes decades or even a century for works to make their way into the hands of a translator who is interested and skilled enough to take on the project. The author of the graphic novel I’m considering is not living, and graphic novels present even further rights issues because of the interest of the illustrator.

The more time I spend worrying about rights, researching, writing emails, making phone calls, leaving messages, writing contacts, etc. in search of rights the less time I have to spend on translating. Or writing. Or teaching. Or any of the things that I actually care about. And some days it seems like I should have gotten a J.D. instead of an MFA for how much legal research I do.

I suspect this is one of the biggest problems facing beginning translators. I’d love to know how others have found ways of dealing with these issues…

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