METM24 keynote

Translation rights: from past riches to present poverty

David Bellos, Princeton University, New Jersey, USA

For a very long time, from Ancient Greece until the later part of the nineteenth century, there were no translation rights, which meant, paradoxically, that translators had all the rights to their work. At the Berne Convention of 1886, however, authors and their assigns acquired very limited translation rights, which have been extended in every major revision of the treaty now administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva. Consequently, translators have progressively lost theirs.

In my talk I will explain how the world worked without translation rights; why translation rights were invented; and what impact translation rights have had on the practice of translation and the status and remuneration of translators. I will lay out the current situation and point to what the future might hold.

About David

David Bellos was born in the UK and educated at Oxford. He taught French language and literature at Edinburgh, Southampton and Manchester before moving to Princeton, where he is now Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature. He focussed initially on nineteenth-century French fiction before an encounter with Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi turned him into a translator. At Princeton he was the founding director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, which gave rise in its turn to Is That A Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011). His most recent books are The Novel of the Century. The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables (2017) and Who Owns This Sentence? A History of Copyrights and Wrongs, with Alexandre Montagu (2024).