Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Case of the Harry Potter Translators

We already know that translators aren’t always visible and don’t always receive fair treatment. But this case is even worse than you can imagine. Gili Bar-Hillel Semo is a prominent translator from English to Hebrew as well as an editor, and she doesn’t deserve such bad treatment by Warner Bros (or any organization, obviously).

It’s shocking to see how horribly translators can be treated and it makes one worry about the state of the translation industry.

What can and should be done about this?


B.J. Epstein said...

This is from Kevin Hendzel, who still can't seem to post comments on the blog:

While I understand that she feels wronged, my reaction was much different from yours. I confess that I found her behavior exceedingly unprofessional. By "unprofessional," I mean that she was taking exactly zero actions or responsibility for behaving like a professional, which would include, but not be limited to, the following: 1) Retaining the services of an attorney to represent her and her previous work prior to any cafe meetings with a publisher or anybody else; 2) Refusing to be intimidated by threats concerning future books 3) Reserving the right to file a suit against any party she feels has infringed her rights and finally 4) Instead of whining about how, and I quote, "I'm not in a position to ascertain whether Warner Bros. actions at any point were strictly speaking illegal. What is clear is legal or not, their actions are shitty," why not do what all professionals do in such circumstances and FIND OUT by paying another professional?

Here are the questions that occur to me in this context:

1. Is "shitty" a defined term of art in the law that I'm not aware of?

2. Is "strictly speaking illegal" the same thing as "I don't know if it's legal or illegal because I didn't find out" and its twin, "I'm not professional enough to hire an attorney to make the determination of whether what they did was legal or not, or if in my best interest -- I'll just get outraged instead.

3. And then I'll rely on other people to get outraged on my behalf.

4. Did she consider the possibility that what they did was perfectly legal and she was an idiot for not properly confronting them using the procedures available under the law and pushing back to result in a different outcome?

With the title "professional" comes the responsibility to act like one. No professional translator would have ever met a publisher and signed away rights without counsel, be intimidated by ambiguous future options or opportunities or even stood for this kind of behavior.

I might add that it's generally recognized that translators' rights are subordinated to the authors' rights once payment is made. Translator rights are called "derivative rights" meaning they derive from somebody else's rights, and in this case, it's the authors rights. Now the laws do indeed vary by country, but in the U.S. such works are treated as "works for hire" and once paid for, the ONLY rights a translator has to any translation he or she has produced depend on the original author's willingness to grant those rights.

I'm sorry, but her behavior was the definition of unprofessional. Saying the other guy or international conglomerate was more unprofessional does not absolve one of the obligation to act in a way to protect and promote her own rights as well as to be taken seriously.

How does she think real professional translators handle issues like these? Certainly not in this fashion.

And just to be clear -- I am well aware of how much lawyers cost, and I'm also aware of the legal weapons and tools available to both sides in disputes such as these. It's completely inexplicable to me that a translator would walk into such a serious business encounter without legal counsel, without even the slightest clue of knowledge of her legal standing under the law, and without any sense at all about how to defend her position and her future opportunities.

Unknown said...

And have you seen this JK Rowling translation fiasco also?


It's shocking. A different kind of abuse than in HP, but clear and obvious abuse.

Unknown said...

Ugh, "unknown" there is Alys, by the way; the sign-in option I used to use is apparently gone...

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks, Alys! That link was very interesting.

Best wishes,

Riccardo said...

" Now the laws do indeed vary by country, but in the U.S. such works are treated as "works for hire" and once paid for, the ONLY rights a translator has to any translation he or she has produced depend on the original author's willingness to grant those rights."

In many countries (but not the USA) a translator has copyright rights over his or her translations - at least as regards published books. So a translator would be entitled to royalties on his or her translation unless he or she specifically signed them away.

Chris Durban said...

It's true that different systems apply in different countries. And/but re "So a translator would be entitled to royalties on his or her translation unless he or she specifically signed them away". Well, yes. And in this case, the translator apparently signed away her rights.
As harsh as Kevin's comments (above) may seem at first sight, I'm with him on most points.
That is, in reading the translator's tale of woe, I found myself wondering once again how and why it is that translators persist in playing the victim card.
This is *not* inevitable; you don't have to buckle and you certainly shouldn't limit yourself to complaints about how mean everybody is.
But for me this is also a reminder that *all professional translators* should be members of at least one professional association. (And note that commercial online platforms are definitely *not* professional associations).
Why? Well, there is the solidarity/collective action thing -- strength in numbers. There are also member benefits that can be a huge help in situations like the one discussed here.
E.g., in France, SFT offers members a legal helpline; likewise ITI in Britain. Others do, too: I recently had a copyright issue and the (UK) Society of Authors translation division was extremely helpful -- this even before I became a member. So that's my comment: if you want to call yourself a professional translator, you should join a professional association.
Note that there are also examples of translators -- including literary translators -- who have stood their ground (with the support of their associations) and won victories for the entire profession, imagine that. Translator Karin Krieger (in Germany) comes to mind: in 2004, she won a case against Piper Verlag who had behaved shabbily -- and, more importantly in this case, illegally. (Her translations of Alessandro Baricco qualified as "unexpected bestsellers" and she asked for a clause in her contract to be applied (= extra royalties).) Piper fussed, agreed in extremis, then a few months later withdrew all her translations and republished new translations by a meeker translator. They even went so far as to use critics' blurbs praising Krieger's translations on the back cover of the new, bumpy translations.)
Krieger sued and Piper lost, the case got wide press coverage and the cause of all translators was advanced. She could have stepped back ("oh dear, publishers might blackball me if they know I sued Piper!") but didn't, and last I heard she was translating away just fine. The Turkish translators' association is also active, defending its members in court -- good for them!
But you can only take action like this if translators drop the victim business. And stand up.

Darnell King said...

That is a shame that a pig time company like Warner Bros would have to resort to strong arming professional translators who are working for them. For the amount of money that those movies took in, and the amount that the receive from all the other ventures, you would think that they would at least be reasonable. It is a shame that all of these companies only care about their bottom line these days.