This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Assignment of Moral Rights: It's Not Just Amazon! Agencies Do It All The Time.

Right now translators and interpreters are talking about the open letter of the French Association of Literary Translators to Amazon. You can read the letter in French at and some part of it in English at L'Association des traducteurs littéraires de France and at least some of it in English at Kontax.

The fuss is about the assignment of moral rights, which Amazon requires of its literary translators. The contracts select Luxemburg law as the governing law because such an assignment won't work under French law.

Once you assign, transfer or cede (various words may be used) your moral rights, you no longer need to be attributed, asked for permission to make any changes. Heck, they could possibly even publish the translation under someone else's name, depending on what exactly the law and courts allow them to get away with.

The thing is, it's not just Amazon who's doing that! Translation agencies do it all the time, including the supposedly good guys with 5.0 average scores on the Proz.com BlueBoard from like 200 comments. (Getting a 5.00 average from 200 comments is easier when your contract specifically prohibits your translators from giving you negative feedback online! Which is what some of those guys do and aren't even ashamed to spell it out in your contract with them.)

And I've recently been asked by no less than a French agency to sign that type of clause (although it did stipulate some provisions in case the transfer didn't work out), which was specifically prepared by its team of lawyers, along with one other contract and one exhibit for a nice little bunch of paperwork total.

It wasn't just that French agency, anyway. I remember the same, except more verbose, from an English outfit subordinate to an American parent. And I'm pretty sure there's more of that going on.

Yes, agencies legitimately need the right to make changes over your objections in order that they can meet whatever requirements their clients impose on them. Imagine you outsource part of your workload to a new translator, you trust him but he turns out to be not that good, and he uses his moral rights to forbid you to do any proofreading, forget editing or revising his translation. Awful, isn't it? So yeah, they need the protection to some extent.

On the other hand there is a trend to omit translator attribution. It obviously serves agencies because it allows them to crawl into the spotlight hitherto occupied by individual translators. And it allows them to reinforce the fiction that individual translators don't exist, which is all too convenient. It allows the clients to pretend that translation was done in-house, too. It allows authors and owners to avoid sharing credit, it even allows some people to just steal the credit.

It also helps to devalue our work by denying us any moral rights, stripping us of any connection with our work, reducing our status to that of non-authors and non-creatives. Which is convenient because wages fall together with status. If you bluecollarize translators, you can now pay them blue-collar wages, this isn't just about egos.

Am I ranting about some devious plans hatched by some evil dudes bunkered up in some MLV's HQ and gradually put into execution? Nope, I'm not saying any such conscious and co-ordinated effort exists. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if individual companies were working towards that goal perhaps without putting it on paper much.

Finally, I'd like to call your attention to one more thing: The assignment clauses always say the assigment takes place within your remuneration or consideration. In plain English, this means that your pay already covers the transfer of moral rights. While that's not the end of the world in itself, it means that if the transfer doesn't work and a court decides to strike the clause or declines to enforce it, it's possible that your agency (or client) will now have a financial claim against you for some part of the price of your translation. Because you sold something which you couldn't sell and which the buyer didn't receive.

I suggest a compromise: If you don't get credited, the agency should neither. But you should always be credited if you translate a book for publication. It's up to you with an article, but if other people who translate articles for some sort of widely circulating newspaper or magazine get credited for it, then I don't see why you, personally, shouldn't get the credit (other than to pretend that you don't exist and the agency's or client's corporate identity actually translates texts). And obviously nobody should be credited as the translator who didn't actually translate the text.

So perhaps don't make fuss, don't force the agency to force its client to credit you in that company's own internal newsletter or on a leaflet or milk carton. That wouldn't be very reasonable. But don't allow them to keep pushing and eliminating any attribution still traditionally or customarily given to translators in those particular books or magazines or by the same publishing houses etc.

And perhaps this is another reason why those who can should either push agencies for change or start competing against agencies. I wrote more about these two issues in April: collaboration and change, competition.

Driving our rates into the ground and trampling our rights is hardly collaborative, it's basically a hostile act, so starting to compete by seeking more publicity as individual freelancers is more like a recognition of already existing reality.

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