How to Acquire Translation Rights for a Book

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Acquiring the rights to translate literary works can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re just starting out, so we offer a few tips to help you through the process. You want to make sure you’re going about it the right way to avoid potential legal issues or other obstacles. If you’re looking to have your own work translated, we have literary translators working in over ninety languages to help your story reach a global audience. 

Important: Please note that the information below is not legal advice, and any legal questions should be discussed with a copyright lawyer.

Who holds translation rights?

Translation rights belong to the person or entity who holds the copyright of the original work. You can usually find this information on the book’s copyright page. In some cases, the author retains copyright and can therefore bestow the rights to a translator, either for free or for a payment. Quite often, though, it’s the publisher who holds the copyright and subsequently the translation rights, in which case the author can’t assign the translation rights without first negotiating with the copyright holder. Therefore, if the publisher holds the copyright, don’t reach out to the author asking for the rights to translate their work. 

Authors sometimes aren’t aware that they have given up their translation rights along with the copyright to their work, so it falls on you, the translator, to do the necessary research and double-check who actually owns the translation rights before signing any contracts. We suggest retaining the copyright of your translation when negotiating a contract with your publisher, who likely won’t be the same publisher holding the copyright to the original work. 

How to obtain translation rights

First, you have to make sure a translation in your target language doesn’t already exist. If it does, there’s no point in pursuing the project any further. 

If a translation doesn’t exist, the next step is finding out if the rights are available. You should start by writing to the copyright holder to ask about the translation rights; whether it’s the publisher or the author, it’s best to contact them directly. It shouldn’t be difficult to find their contact information—a quick Google search should tell you everything you need to know. 

If it’s a large company, find the right department, such as the foreign rights department, before you start sending out queries. Publishers and authors want their work to be sold around the world, so they’ll usually get back to you if the rights are available. If you don’t receive a reply, make sure to keep copies of your queries in case you’re asked about the rights when entering a competition or submitting a sample of your translated work to your publisher. However, you will need to have the translation rights signed over to you before anything can be published.

World language rights

Keep in mind that every country has its own publishing laws and regulations, so what applies in one place might not apply in another. Thus, it is important to understand how translation rights work in the market you are hoping to publish in. English-language publishers, for example, are split into two groups: the U.S. and the Philippines on one side, and the U.K. and the Commonwealth countries on the other. This means a book might have already been translated for the U.S. market, but the rights may still be available for the U.K. market. 

If the copyright on a book has expired or the work has entered the public domain, you might have the right to publish a translated copy of it, but again, do consult with a copyright lawyer to make sure you’re not infringing on any laws by publishing your translation. You don’t want to break any laws just because you didn’t read the fine print, so do all the proper research before you even think about publishing your translation.  

For more resources and information about publishing and literary translations, head over to our services for authors

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