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How does translation licensing work?

How does translation licensing work? Does the press buy foreign rights and then approach a translator? Do translators approach the press and suggest that they buy the rights? Do translators buy the rights and then propose to the press?

While some details will vary according to place, language, and even the preferences of a specific author, all rights transactions take place between two parties. The first is the entity that holds the translation rights or “licensor” and is usually the publisher of the original edition. Some authors retain the rights to all or certain languages to be negotiated by themselves or a literary agent, and some funded translations will go through a government office. The second is the entity that intends to publish a translation, or “licensee,” and this is generally a publisher or organization that regularly undertakes some kind of publishing effort (perhaps a museum, gallery, or benevolent society). A potential licensee requests certain materials from the licensor (usually the book manuscript and scholarly reviews), and after examining them makes an offer to the licensor describing the term of the license, their timetable for producing the translation, and financial information, usually including an advance against future royalties. If the offer is accepted, the two parties enter into a formal agreement and the licensee is free to commission a translation at its discretion. Although the translation process is overseen by the licensee, under most agreements the licensor reserves the right to review the translation, and a publisher will extend this right to the book’s author if the author reads the new language well enough. (Authors whose work is frequently translated may have a translator whom they like working with, and in our experience, licensees have agreed to commission the translation from the preferred translator.)

Particularly for scholarly titles, it is not uncommon for a book’s author to initiate contact with a potential licensee, even if the publisher holds the translation rights. Authors often have a good sense of which academic or specialized publishers might be interested in translating their work. They may know an editor from having published other work in the target language, or they may have a colleague who edits a relevant series. In these cases, the author approaches the licensee and then puts the licensee in touch with the licensor, and the process proceeds as described above. (Note that particularly in Europe, the licensee may expect the author to subsidize the cost of licensing and translation.)

—Fordham University Press, May 2021

A translator may approach a rights holder with a proposal, but should not expect to purchase translation rights as an individual. A translator hoping to work on a specific book should approach potential foreign publishers with the intention that the publisher purchase the translation rights from the licensor. However, publishing a translation can be notoriously expensive and time-consuming, and the publisher places a great deal of trust in the translator. Many publishers will be slow to commit to working with an unfamiliar translator. It’s best to establish a track record with a licensee before proposing a translation project.

Translation licensing has two directions, one where the publisher sells translation rights and one where a publisher buys translation rights. Not all university presses have active translation rights–buying programs, but some do. Most university presses sell the translation rights of the books they publish to foreign publishers, since it’s part of most university presses’ mission to make the work they publish available to as many people and markets as possible. The main opportunities university presses have to present our titles to foreign publishers and agents are at book fairs, like the Frankfurt Book Fair, the London Book Fair, Book Expo, and others. We try to match our titles to the expertise of the foreign publisher and to the market in which the translation will be sold. The subject matter makes a huge difference in a successful effort. If the content is too focused on the United States, it may not be of interest to non-American audiences. Libraries around the world buy titles in English, so there needs to be a market beyond scholarly research to make the translation viable—for use in courses, or for a large retail market.

NYU Press often hears from individual translators who think one of our titles should be translated or would have a large market in a specific language. That’s always interesting to hear, but unless the translator has a publishing house willing to produce, market, and distribute the translation, we will not grant the rights. To protect the copyright, and the revenue we realize from the sales of the content, we need to sign a contract with an organization that can guarantee the protection of those rights.

—NYU Press, November 2020