Some questions arose after reading your post on 10 June…
My friend has asked me to translate her memoir and query it. The basics of copyright for translated works exist where she lives, where I live and where I suggest she tries to sell it – the USA. Apparently, in all of these countries, I am entitled copyright of the translation, considered a derivative work of hers.
Let’s assume that there is a contract between she and I which irons out all the definitions regarding the translation, the work I do querying for her, etc. (I am not sure if my translation is a work for hire because I’d be paid only if the book is sold and I would be querying my translation—for her). I imagine any agent would want to know if a contract between the author and the translator was stipulated before taking on the project.
How do I compose a professional query letter regarding the translation of someone else's unpublished manuscript?
Hi There, I’m Faith Buttonweezer, querying my translation of an elderly friend’s memoir. She gave me permission and asked me to query for her. In case the manuscript sells she’ll pay me for the translation. She doesn’t speak English, you could communicate directly with her in languages X,Y,Z. She wants me to be involved in the process to publication, which obviously involves revisions. (Does this make me a co-writer?) . Here’s the story: We/she/I believe her memoir would appeal to an American audience because …
Would an agent have to sign a contract with both of us?
For starters most agents won't touch this because you're not the author.
In fact, you wouldn't even hear back from me if you queried (Query Letter Diagnostics #4) because I don't reply to anyone who writes on behalf of the author.
There's a reason for that: my author/agent agreement is with the author herself. It's certainly not with the translator (no matter how charming.)
If I can't talk with the author directly, there's ZERO chance I'm going to take her on as a client. What I might do is take on the project if it came to me through an agent overseas with whom I have a solid working relationship.
That is, in fact, how foreign books mostly get published in the US: an overseas agent pitches the project to an agent or a publisher here (Frankfort and London Book Fairs are where a lot of this happens.) I know of several editors who acquire books first published elsewhere and that is how they work.
And the idea that the book has already been translated is not the selling point you think it is. Most editors I know prefer to work with translators they know and trust. They're at the mercy of that translator for a reliable translation (that's an actual clause in the contract) and to work with someone unknown (no matter how charming) is pretty much another non-starter.
I know you want to help your friend. I'm quite certain you want to create a reliable translation. Your intentions don't matter at all here. What matters to an editor is how much risk they're taking on. And they're taking a lot on because all the information flows through you.
You'd be better off seeking an agent where you are who can act for you in querying and securing a deal.
And to answer your question: yes this is a work for hire. Yes you have copyright of any translation you do, but the money accrues to the author, and whoever hires you, pays you. That will be spelled out in the contract you sign with whoever pays you.
I know this is much more difficult and confusing than you thought it would be.
Look at it from my point of view: you say you have permission to do this, but I can't ask the author directly cause she doesn't speak English and my Russian is limited to vodka and curse words from the James Bond movies. I can neither verify nor audit any of this. This is a lot of perceived risk for a very limited reward.
Remember in the end, there are many more projects that are publishable than I could ever take on. I tend to pick the ones I don't think have "potential lawsuit" written all over them.