I'm wondering if translated works of ancient poems are in the public domain, or if they're copyrighted by the translators.

It would seem like if the author on a given work is listed as "Basho", then that work is in the public domain. Is there a convention for this, or another way to tell other than acquiring the book and checking the copyright notice?

For instance, might this website be violating copyright law by publishing translations by Robert Hass? https://www.poemhunter.com/matsuo-basho/poems/

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    Consider: Who owns the copyright of a translated version of a modern work? What about a freshly translated version of a semi-modern work that itself is in the public domain (such as something off Project Guthenberg)? Now, why would poetry be any different?
    – user
    Jul 19, 2018 at 19:47
  • I'd assume the original author retains the copyright of a modern book, but have read that translations are sometimes copyrighted. What would you say?
    – bevanb
    Jul 19, 2018 at 19:54
  • @MichaelKjörling I don't think it's that simple. Imagine a modern author hiring someone to translate their novel to another language. Now the translation is a work-for-hire and therefore the author retains copyright on both the original and the translation. On the other hand, translations of ancient works are original, derivative works, and therefore the translator has the copyrights to the translation, but not the original. The case of independently translating the work of a living author isn't so clear, it might be a license is required to do that. Jul 20, 2018 at 16:53
  • The original poem won't be copyrighted, but the translation might.
    – GordonM
    Jul 24, 2018 at 12:42
  • Old translations will be in the public domain (like all works from the same time), recent translations will not be. Apr 16, 2019 at 9:48

1 Answer 1


This site here says that the copyright for a translation of a work that is in the public domain belongs to the translator.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Consider: if I translate, for example, the Iliad, I'd have to put lots and lots of creative effort into it, and also research etc. That's a lot of work-hours. I'd want to get paid for it, right? But if there's no copyright, then anyone can just republish the thing for free, not even mention my name, perhaps get paid for it instead of me. Not really fair, is it?

That said, some translations are themselves old enough to be in the public domain. Look here for some translations of the Iliad from 1581 onwards, for example. Most of those would be public domain by now.

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