5 Ways You Can Protect Your Rights as a Translator

August 2, 2023
5 Ways You Can Protect Your Rights as a Translator

George Steiner once said, “Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” However, recent events have shown that translators themselves are often silenced, unfortunately even by the institutions they work to support and represent.

This was the case for Yilin Wang, a translator and writer from Canada. Her translations of Chinese poet Qiu Jin’s works were used in an exhibit without credit or payment. After raising the issue, the museum removed both the original works and her translations. In response, Wang took legal action for copyright infringement against the museum as a way to not only get justice for herself, but to uphold the rights of translators everywhere else.

So, how can you as a translator avoid such issues and protect your rights? Wang’s story brings up an important question and a chance for all translators to think about how to safeguard their work. After all, translators are crucial in connecting different cultures and languages, so they should also have the tools to protect their professional translator rights.

In this article, we’ll discuss different ways you as a translator can protect your work and ensure your efforts are properly recognized and rewarded. We’ll cover topics like understanding copyright laws, setting up clear contracts, joining professional groups, and more. These steps can help you protect yourself and prevent any misuses from happening.

Advice from a Fellow Translator

We spoke with Joachim Lépine, a certified French to English translator and translation coach of Traductions LION, who shared with us some insights about the misconceptions within the translation world and offered some helpful advice for how language professionals can ensure their rights are fully protected. Check out the video below to learn more!



  1. Lay Out Contracts and Agreements

Saulėja Visockytė, an English to Lithuanian translator, subtitler, and writer, underlines the importance of signing a fair service agreement with every client you work with. This can either be a contract you have written up yourself or documentation you request from your client. 

Though different types of translation services require different types of service agreements (a literary translator and a marketing translator will not have the same type of contract, for example), a contract of some type is crucial. For one thing, it not only provides a defined framework for the project at hand, but it also establishes a legal safeguard for both the translator and the client. The contract is the backbone of the professional relationship, as it sets the expectations, outlines the responsibilities, and details the specifics of the job, such as pay, timelines, revisions, and copyrights. From the translator’s perspective, this document protects their rights, while for the client, it ensures they receive the services they are paying for.

Understanding the language of a contract is a crucial aspect of this. Contracts can often be dense and filled with legal terminology, making them challenging to decipher for those not well-versed in legalese. However, it’s extremely important for a translator to understand every clause, every term, and every condition in their contract. Any obscurity or ambiguity should be addressed and clarified before proceeding. This can involve seeking legal advice or simply discussing the terms more thoroughly with the client.

Under no circumstances should a translator sign a contract that they do not fully understand or feel comfortable with. Remember, a contract is an agreement, a mutual understanding between the translator and the client. It should be fair and clear to both parties involved. Therefore, taking the time to ensure that the contract is understandable and agreeable is not just a legal formality—it’s an essential step in protecting your rights and establishing a healthy, productive professional relationship.

  1. Join Professional Associations

Professional associations play a critical role in supporting translators as they navigate the intricate landscape of their field. These organizations are not just platforms for networking and professional development; they are bastions of resources, advice, and advocacy that can greatly help translators in their journey.

One of the primary benefits of joining a professional association is the access to a wealth of resources it provides. These resources can range from guides on best practices and professional ethics to webinars and workshops on various aspects of the translation profession. This treasure trove of information can provide invaluable insights to both novice and seasoned translators, helping them continually hone their skills and stay up to date on industry trends. As Erin Johnson, a Spanish and French to English translator mentioned, “I think I can protect myself best if I’m armed with knowledge.”

Professional associations are also designed to support their members in various ways. This includes guidance on understanding and navigating complex contractual matters and advice on protecting translators’ rights. Some associations even offer services like contract reviews so translators have access to the help they need decoding the language of legal agreements and ensuring their rights are upheld.

Furthermore, professional associations play an important role in advocating for translators’ rights. Organizations like the American Translators Association (ATA), International Federation of Translators (FIT), and Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) often work at an institutional level and campaign for better recognition and protection of translators’ rights. They represent the collective voice of the profession, influencing policy changes that could lead to better working conditions and greater professional recognition for translators.

The Chinese-Japanese translator, interpreter, reviewer, and teacher Yao Qin suggests creating a global organization that can represent the diverse interests of language professionals around the world. That way, translators as a whole can be represented by a comprehensive international standard. “I think we [translators] should unite together and set up an organization similar to a trade union to jointly protect our legitimate rights and interests. [...] Until this dream comes true, the first thing we can do is be very careful when signing a contract with any company,” she concluded.

  1. Understand Copyrights

Understanding copyright laws and their applicability to translations is a crucial part of protecting your rights as a translator. These laws vary from country to country, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the specific laws in your jurisdiction.

In several countries, including but not limited to France, Germany, and Spain, copyright laws grant translators the right to hold copyright over their translations. This essentially means certain translations are considered original works, separate from the original text, and that the translator holds exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, or modify their translation. In other words, any use of the translation without the translator’s consent could constitute a copyright infringement.

In other jurisdictions, like the United States, the copyright situation can be a bit more nuanced. While U.S. law does not explicitly grant translators copyright over their translations, a translator could potentially hold copyright if the translation involves a degree of creativity or originality, which is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Unfortunately, translators’ lack of recognition is so commonplace that even readers and users of translations do not understand when a copyright is infringed. Nilay Genc, a Formatting QA Specialist and MTPE Certified Biomedical Linguist, stated, “When people read an article, they are often not interested in finding out who translated it. They just read it and that's it. Readers often lack the awareness of the importance of a translator that has done a great job behind the scenes.”

When you understand your country’s specific stance on translator copyrights, you have the ammunition required to properly negotiate contracts and defend your rights. It can also inform your decisions on where to work and which clients or agencies to collaborate with.

  1. Fight for Fair Compensation

Understanding your worth as a translator and appropriately valuing your work is a must in the profession. The rates for translation work can vary greatly depending on various factors such as language pair, complexity of the subject matter, your experience as a translator, and geographical location. This variation can lead to a wide range of average pay rates worldwide.

Some countries have regulations in place that provide additional financial compensation to translators every time a translation is used. These rights, known as “resale rights” or “droit de suite,” exist in some European countries. They allow the translator to receive a percentage of the sale price each time their translated work is resold commercially.

However, it’s worth noting that in many countries–particularly those without robust intellectual property protections for translations–such benefits may not exist. This further highlights the importance of understanding your rights as a translator and ensuring that you are adequately compensated for your work through clear and fair contractual agreements.

Remember, setting your rates is not just about industry standards; it’s about the value you bring to the table as a translator. Be sure to take into account factors such as your expertise, the time you spend on research and editing, and the value you add through your understanding of cultural nuances and contexts. Your skills as a translator go beyond simple language conversion; they involve bringing a text to life in another language and culture, which is a skill that should be adequately compensated.

Giada Atzeni, who translates from English and Spanish to Italian, always shares with her clients why she applies a certain rate and what this rate includes. Her advice for translators who struggle to receive the compensation they deserve?  “Don't get discouraged if you are offered a low rate, you can always try to negotiate and, if it does not work, don't worry: there are plenty of direct clients and translation agencies in the sea, you just have to find the right ones.”

  1. Get Professional Liability Insurance

Professional liability insurance, also known as errors and omissions insurance (E&O), is a safety net that every professional translator should seriously consider. This type of insurance provides coverage for claims related to errors, omissions, or negligence in your professional services. In the world of translation, such claims could stem from mistakes in translation, missed deadlines, or even the loss of documents.

In this profession, where precision is paramount, even small errors can have significant repercussions. Let’s consider the cautionary tale of a translator who had completed a project translating business cards for a client. Unbeknownst to the translator, there was a minor spelling error in the final copy of the translation. It was only after her client had printed thousands of these business cards that the mistake was discovered.

This situation could have easily resulted in a major financial burden for the translator. The cost of reprinting the business cards would not have been insignificant, and the client might have sought compensation for the error. However, because the translator had professional liability insurance, she was covered. Her insurance was able to handle the costs associated with correcting the error and reprinting the business cards, saving her from a potentially costly out-of-pocket expense.

Even the most careful translator can make a mistake or encounter a dissatisfied client. Having insurance coverage provides a financial safeguard, which allows you to work confidently, knowing that you are protected from the potential costs and legal fees associated with claims or lawsuits.

Want to learn more about translation as a career? Here's an article tackling 7 Milestones in a Translator's Life.

Final Thoughts

While the realm of translation is fraught with complexities, translators need not feel defenseless. By understanding and exercising your rights, you can build a solid line of defense against any potential infringements.

However, it’s crucial to remember that securing your rights isn’t a one-time process. It requires ongoing effort and vigilance. As the field of translation evolves, so too will the challenges that translators face. It is our hope that this article serves as a guide and provides translators with the tools they need to navigate these challenges and protect their rights effectively.

The case of Yilin Wang underscores the importance of this task. By standing up for her rights, Wang is not just seeking justice for herself; she is fighting for the rights of translators everywhere. Her story serves as a reminder of the value of translation work and the importance of recognizing and protecting the individuals behind it. After all, without translators, we would indeed be living in provinces bordering on silence.

By Natalie Worden

Natalie Worden is a freelance translator, copywriter, and localization specialist. She holds a master’s degree in professional and literary translation from the Institut de Traducteurs, d'Interprètes et de Relations Internationales at the University of Strasbourg.



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