I recently read a book that impressed me so much I want to buy a copy as a gift for a friend. Unfortunately, the friend does not speak the language the book was written in, and no translations exist at this time.

Fortunately for him, I am a professional translator. I could translate the book in my own spare time, and given that no translations exist yet I am thinking of either publishing it on my own or sending it to a publishing house.

However, I am unsure about the legal aspects of such an endeavor. Obviously, if I just translate it for my friend there are no legal issues involved. On the other hand, I'm not sure what I risk by:

  • self-publishing it and selling it, say on Amazon, and
  • contacting a book publisher and telling them that I have a full translation of the book in my possession (without any agreed translation contract between me and the original author)?

Am I at risk by translating a copyrighted book?

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    The obvious procedure is to address the author or the current publisher (or perhaps the author's agent) and request permission to create and publish the translation. You may not get it, but if there are no current translations, you might. There would probably be some financial arrangement, in which a fee or a percentage of profits would be paid to the author and publisher of the original, but terms vary. – David Siegel Jun 2 '19 at 15:48
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    "Obviously, if I just translate it for my friend there are no legal issues involved." - Wrong. – Brandin Jun 3 '19 at 8:10
  • @Brandin Thank you for pointing that out before I made a huge mistake – Dakter Jun 3 '19 at 8:24

Copyright includes authorization of derivative works such as translations, so you must have permission of the copyright holder to create a translation. You could be sued for creating the unauthorized translation for your friend. If you attempt to further distribute the book, the chances of getting sued increase substantially. That path probably includes your legal obligation to foot the bill for the publisher and distributor having to defend themselves in court, since your contract with the publisher or distributor probably includes an indemnification clause saying that you indemnify them (pay their costs) against damages for your infringement. So your are at risk, and it increases if you do anything to distribute the translation.

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    It is worth observing that there are a few countries where one may legally translate a book under that country's copyright law if no translation has been made of it in that language within a certain period of time (usually just several years). – ohwilleke Jun 2 '19 at 23:52

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