Copyright of a translation of a classical text

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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Copyright of a translation of a classical text

Post by pscase »

Hello and thanks all for any advice. When I first thought about this it seemed very clear. A translation of a classical text is copywritten of course. The more I thought about it though the more complicated it seemed to me and basically it comes down to this:

"Aby być albo nie być"

How can this line be copywritten for live performance or anything else? It means "To be or not to be" in Polish. This is the way the Polish people quote this line therefore who would own the copyright of its translation? The first person/organization who made the translation and hasn't yet been dead for 70 years or whom ever makes this translation and says it is their "original" translative interpretation? If this holds true then how does this relate to the entire play of Hamlet? Does it mean that this one line is not copywritten (along with "to thine own self be true", "get thee to a nunnery"...etc etc) and the rest of the play is?

I am looking to do a performance of a translation of an ancient text and we are debating doing a new translation as the only translation available is copywritten. It is a very short play, just a few pages, and there is really very little interprative leeway in regards to the translation.

So my question is: If there really is only one practical way to translate a given text how can a given translation of this text be copywritten when the original work is 500 years old?

Woah, thanks ever so much for all opinions...
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Post by AndyJ »

You have correctly identified that a published translation of a work attracts copyright because it is itself a creative work; some translator has used his or her skills, linguistic knowledge and literary ability to create the same spirit of an original literary work. But if you bring it down to individual words or sentences, such as 'to be or not to be' then it becomes difficult to identify what is the translator's creative work and what is just common use of language. In most cases I think a court in trying decide whether or not there had been infringement would look at the number of occasions where the texts (of the two translated versions) were identical and how many differences there were. I don't know of any case law on the subject, and of course in the particular example you mention, any dispute would be likely to be decided in a Polish court so I have zero knowledge of how that might turn out.

But your question about the short text you would like to perform partially answers itself. The value you place in the existing translation can be weighed against the actual cost of getting a fresh translation done for your performance. Do you value the original translator's work sufficiently to pay a modest royalty to perform his translation, or not? I suspect that if the text is 500 years old, it might not be the easiest or cheapest task to find someone who can translate it afresh for you. Undoubtedly if you did that and made sure you had his permission to use his translation, you would not run the risk of infringing the original translator's work.

I assume the text you want to use is intended to be performed as a play, and therefore it is expected that groups will wish to obtain a licence to do this, so why not check with the publishers, or failing them, the Society of Authors to find out what fee you may have to pay for a licence, as it could be cheaper in the long run.
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