Since there are still so many misconceptions circulating about translation rights and their acquisition, let me put together a thumbnail sketch of how it all works. Translation rights can be assigned (sold or given away for free) only by the person or entity who holds copyright in the original work. In many cases, this is not actually the author. I’ve just pulled a book off my shelf: Bruno by Gerhard Falkner, a terrific novella about a writer who gets obsessed with a wild bear that’s been terrorizing livestock in the Alps near where he’s doing a writing residency. Have a look at the book’s copyright page (below), and you’ll see that the work has been copyrighted not in the name of the author but by the publisher. This means that in Falkner’s original contract with his publisher, Berlin Verlag, he sold his copyright in the work, which means that it is no longer his to sell or give away. Now, if you happen to make friends with Gerhard Falkner and convince him that you’re the right person to translate his book, he can then turn to his publisher and ask them to assign the translation rights (usually for a fee – that’s a matter of negotiation) to whatever publisher will be printing your translation. The rights can’t be sold or given to you, because translation rights can only be held by publishing houses (or magazines). But authors don’t always fully comprehend that by selling their copyright they’ve also given up the right to assign translation rights to their work, so it may indeed happen that you ask a foreign-language author for permission to translate their book and they cheerfully provide you with a document to that effect. But unless they hold the copyright in their work, this document is legally meaningless, at least until such time as the actual copyright holder makes a deal with the would-be publisher of your translation. Sometimes, of course, authors do retain copyright in their work, and in these cases they are indeed the ones in a position to grant translation rights – though even so, the bureaucracy of the rights negotiations is often handled by their publishers or agents and the rights can still only be formally acquired by whoever publishes your work. (Note that in any of these cases, you still can and should retain the copyright for your own translation – there’s no advantage to you in assigning it to your publisher, though many publishers may still ask you to.)
So what do you do when you want to submit a sample to a publisher or for a competition and the submission guidelines ask you to demonstrate you have “permission to translate the work”? Well, you’re being asked to do the impossible – this just means that whoever wrote these instructions doesn’t really understand the legal status of translation rights. In cases like these, I recommend that you supply documentation that the rights are available and assure whomever you’re submitting the work to that you’re happy to be of assistance in negotiating the rights. To acquire that documentation, write to the holder of the rights (check the copyright notice inside the book to see who it is) and ask simply whether the translation rights for English are available. And since the holders of the copyright in a work are generally eager to sell translation rights, you should get a response. If it’s a publishing house that holds the rights, you should be able to find contact information online, and if the rights are held by the author, you can usually write to the author care of the publishing house, and the letter or email will be forwarded. Sometimes a follow-up phone call is needed. If you don’t get a response in several weeks and are about to miss the deadline for the contest etc. and have thoroughly checked to see that no previous English-language translation of the work in question has been published, you can always, as a last resort, include a note indicating who owns the copyright, saying that to the best of your knowledge and research the translation rights are available, but that you’ve been unable to get formal confirmation of this despite queries sent on [indicate dates]. Not ideal, but better than nothing, and if you’re lucky, it’ll be enough to keep you from getting kicked out of a competition for lack of documentation. In the case of Falkner’s novella, an online search for the book reveals that the original publisher, Berlin Verlag, is now part of the German publishing conglomerate Piper, which provides contact information for the staff of its foreign rights division on its website (in English, the international language of publishing), so that’s where you’d direct your query. You can write in English or, as a courtesy and to demonstrate your fluency, in the language in question. It’s not actually all that difficult once you get the hang of it. And the moment you introduce yourself as a translator interested in translating a particular work that hasn’t yet been sold to an English-language publisher, most foreign-language publishing houses will see you as an ally in their mission to get their authors’ works distributed around the world.
And now for a few last nitty-gritty details. Generally English-language publishers who buy translation rights purchase what’s known as “world English rights,” which means that a publisher then has sole permission to print and distribute a translation of this work anywhere in the world. Sometimes, though, the rights are carved up by region or even country, and in this case it might be possible for U.S. translation rights to a work to still be available even if the U.K. rights aren’t. If a book has been published in the U.K. but not in the U.S., and you’d like to do a new translation, it’s worth inquiring. And if a book you’d like to retranslate has been out of print in English for a while, it may be that the rights are now again available, so here too it may be worth inquiring. A work old enough to be out of copyright in the original (i.e. in the “public domain“) can be translated and published by anyone – terms vary by country; in the case of Germany, for example, works remain in copyright until 70 years after the death of the author. Finally, keep in mind that you need no one’s permission to translate anything you like – translating is always legal – it’s only publishing your translation that requires permission.