In the past, there has been famous cases of translations becoming works on their own. Many dramatic plots were copied from country to country (Elizabethan dramatists used to translate Spanish plays for instance, many french plays started as an adaptation of Latin and Greek standards). And the final result ends up very different from the original, and may have greater posterity than the model.

Is this process still alive today in literature? (Please provide examples you may know.)

Have you already considered translating an existing novel or play as a starting point for a new work of fiction you would write?

Are the current laws on plagiarism interfering and making all this more risky than before?

  • I wrote explicitly of literature because the processus is clearly going on in comics and movies. – ogerard Apr 6 '11 at 21:07
  • Copyright laws vary from place to place! What jurisdiction do you live in? Is what you are adapting covered by legislation in your jurisdiction or in another? – msanford Apr 7 '11 at 14:42

You need to have express permission from the author before you can translate a book into another language or adapt it into another format -- otherwise, you're liable for copyright infringement.

Works that are in the public domain are exempt from this. The rules how a work passes into the public domain vary, but generally it's 70 years after the author's death. So Shakespeare and Jane Austen are fair game -- you can do whatever you want with Romeo or Juliet and re-create Pride and Prejudice with zombies, if you must.

Generic plot elements and ideas are not covered by copyright, but the distinction is not always clear. When in doubt, consult with an intellectual property attorney.

Another exemption is parody: You can write about Gary Rotter's adventures at Hogfarts School of Magic if your intent is to poke fun at the original work, but the requirements are quite narrow, and there is no guarantee you won't be sued. Claiming that a derivative work is a parody is a defense against a claim of infringement, not an absolute right, and proving it in court will likely be an expensive undertaking.

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  • Yep, try and write Harry Potter and the Zombie Apocalypse and expect some lawyers to be knocking on your door. – Ralph Gallagher Apr 6 '11 at 21:55
  • Better than zombies! Then again, maybe not. – Cliff Hangerson Page Apr 6 '11 at 22:05
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    Thanks for listing these aspects about intellectual property (and the relative pleasantness of zombies, lawyers and zombie lawyers). But I am more interested in the creative/inspirational aspect of translating (or pretending to translate). For instance, starting to translate and then making "something completely different". – ogerard Apr 7 '11 at 4:30
  • Intellectual property laws vary from place to place! Copyright is not international. Just because you have copyrighted something in, for example, the United States doesn't effectively protect your work in other jurisdictions. – msanford Apr 7 '11 at 14:48
  • I think copyright laws are a strong reason that this tradition no longer exists. Also the fact that if a work becomes popular enough, it gets translated by the publisher into dozens of languages already. – MaQleod Apr 8 '11 at 3:16

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