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Jurisdiction: California, USA.

If a book was written in Greek two thousand years ago, and someone translated it into English more recently (say, yesterday), and then someone else wants to translate that English translation into French, would that be a violation of copyright law?

This resource suggests to me that it may be: https://www.translatorsbase.com/articles/42.aspx

However I haven't found really clear legal information about such re-translation.

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The English translation is a copyrighted work

While the original Greek is public domain, the English translation is a new literary work with its own copyright running for 70 years after the author(s) death(s). The French translation of the English work would require the permission of the author(s). A French translation of the original Greek wouldn't.

This assumes that the translation was not simply mechanical; like running it through Google translate. A purely mechanical translation lacks the originality required to create a literary work - an English translation obtained algorithmically is a copy; just like a zip file is a copy.

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  • 36
    How is fair use relevant in this context? I don't see how parody is relevant and translating an entire book hardly falls under "commentary and criticism" – Doryx Oct 19 at 12:15
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    @MikeBrockington a French translation of the English work that is made and used only under fair use would not require the translators' permission, just as any fair use doesn't require permission. But fair use is a US doctrine, so it doesn't apply in most parts of the world where French is spoken widely. There are similar provisions in European and Canadian copyright law, which are more restrictive in some circumstances and more permissive in others. I don't know about francophone jurisdictions in other parts of the world. (Furthermore, fair use is widely fundamentally misunderstood.) – phoog Oct 19 at 14:27
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    Note also that the original Greek being public domain quite possibly only applies to the original Greek texts. If you buy a modern, printed copy, even in the original Greek, the typesetting effort usually counts as creative for copyright purposes. Oh, and scans of the original, if touched up by human hand in any way, are also covered. So to be 100% safe you almost have to go to the museum and copy straight from the original. Or at least make sure nobody can prove you didn't. – Perkins Oct 19 at 17:17
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    @Perkins Or find a version that you can use that has been put into the public domain or shared with a permissive license that allows modification for commercial uses. I may be mistaken, but I would think that many ancient texts would have versions like that done by scholars and academic institutions that are making their money through over means – Kevin Wells Oct 19 at 17:30
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    Does the English translator have to prove the French is based on English, or must the French translator prove it is not based on English? – Mark Oct 20 at 18:10

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