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Copyright in Translation: Gregory Rabassa

Header image for English version of blog. Image shows a stack of books next to two overlapping bubbles. One says Hello; the other says Hola. A banner in the center bottom reads Hispanic Heritage Month.

Una versión en español de esta entrada se puede encontrar aquí.

On September 29, and in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the U.S. Copyright Office published the first batch of new and updated copyright resources translated into Spanish. This release of Spanish-language materials includes circulars, frequently asked questions pages, and music-related handouts—all to help increase access to the copyright system for more creators and users of copyright-protected works, supporting the Office’s key strategic plan pillar of “copyright for all.”

Creators and users can find these resources and web pages on the new Spanish Engage Your Creativity page, the centralized hub for all Spanish-language materials. This page is the authoritative source for accurate and up-to-date guidance on accessing and using the copyright system. But this is just the first batch of translated materials; additional resources will be released over the coming months and will highlight fundamental concepts of copyright law, Office policies and procedures, and registration matters for specific categories of works.

The Office has been working to translate and ready these materials for some time, and as I’ve been working on the project, I’ve often thought about how copyright and translations intersect and how creators and copyright owners can exercise their rights to create works that reach new audiences and transcend languages.

Thumbnail image of the first page of Circular 14, Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations

Circular 14 discusses copyright in derivative works.

In general, works created by employees of the Copyright Office or other U.S. government entities, such as these translations, are not subject to copyright protection under U.S. copyright law; they are part of the public domain and free for anyone to use. But for nongovernmental works, the law offers a range of protections.

Under U.S. copyright law, copyright owners have the exclusive right to create or authorize the creation of derivative works based on their original works. Derivative works are works based on or derived from one or more already existing works that recast, transform, or adapt them in some way. In addition to a translation of a novel into another language, a derivative work might be a motion picture based on a play, a drawing based on a photograph, or a new arrangement of a musical work.

When a copyright owner authorizes someone to create a translation of their work, the copyright owner retains the copyright to the original work and the exclusive right to make or authorize other derivative works. Generally, the person who creates the translation is the copyright owner of that specific derivative work. But ownership of the translation may depend on private contracts—for example, if the translation was commissioned as a work made for hire, the commissioning party is the author and copyright owner.

The creator of a translation can open up new markets, revenue streams, and opportunities for the creator of the original work—helping to increase their success and introduce them to new audiences. Take, for instance, the Latin American Boom, a literary movement in the 1960s and 70s that helped the works of Latin American writers such as Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez find new audiences in the United States and Europe—often through translation.

In the United States, noted translator Gregory Rabassa was largely responsible for the Latin American literary explosion, translating more than fifty Spanish- and Portuguese-language novels, including for the above authors. At the time of Rabassa’s death in 2016, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa stated, “Gregory Rabassa was one of the great English-language translators of Latin American literature—Spanish and Portuguese—and a great promoter in the Anglo-American world of its new writers. . . . We Spanish-language writers, especially of my generation, should be enormously grateful to him for the way in which he helped us plant roots in the English-language world.”

Born in 1922 in New York City to a Cuban father and mother of Scottish and English heritage, Rabassa grew up in a multilingual home in New Hampshire, leading to his love of languages. He studied romance languages at Dartmouth College before enlisting in the Army in 1942. Within the Office of Strategic Services, he served as a cryptographer in North Africa and Italy. After his service, he went on to earn his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth, along with a master’s degree in Spanish literature and a doctorate in Portuguese from Columbia University, where he got his first taste of translating works.

Copyright Office registration for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Copyright registration for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In a 2006 interview, Rabassa reflected that he got into translation by accident, noting, “As a cryptographer during World War II, I was unaware that I was already doing translations. Then, up at Columbia in the late 50s, a bunch of us started publishing the Odyssey Review, a magazine based on translated works. I was supposed to pick out good stories, poetry, and what not. We had to have somebody translate them. So, I did. I even used pseudonyms! We couldn’t have everything translated by the same person.”

Rabassa translated his first novel, Hopscotch, in 1966, for which he won the National Book Award for Translation. The book, originally written by Argentinian author Julio Cortázar in 1963, led the Latin American Boom. Rabassa’s friendship with the author also led to Rabassa’s highly praised translation of the iconic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, originally written by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez waited nearly three years, on the advice of Cortázar, until Rabassa had time in his schedule to translate it.

García Márquez praised the translation and dubbed Rabassa “the best Latin American writer in the English language.” But for Rabassa, the translation was both the best and worst experience in his career. “It was a joy to hear Gabo [García Márquez] say that my English read better than his original Spanish,” he said, “but at the same time, in those days, royalties were non-existent or skimpy for translators.”

White House photo of Gregory Rabassa wearing the National Medal of Arts. He is standing between then-President George W. Bush and then-First Lady Laura Bush.

Gregory Rabassa with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush after receiving the National Medal of Arts. White House photo by Paul Morse.

Throughout his career, Rabassa worked to expand translators’ rights. As a founding member of PEN America’s Translation Committee, he and the organization advocated for greater recognition and credit, royalties, and rights, including the copyright for the translation in the translator’s name. He also helped develop a model contract to use with publishers that included royalties for translators.

Rabassa’s fight for greater rights is reflected in his copyright records. Early in his career, copyright registrations for works like One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa note that Rabassa created the translation as a work made for hire and list the publisher, the party who commissioned Rabassa, as the author and copyright owner. In later years, copyright records list Rabassa as the copyright owner of his translated works, such as for The Lizard’s Tail by Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, and The Return of the Caravels by Brazilian novelist Antonio Lobo Atunes.

In addition to translating works, Rabassa was the author of an original 2005 memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, along with essays and articles, including a 1974 article “If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Possibilities” published in The American Scholar.

In 2006, Rabassa was awarded the National Medal of Arts for “his masterful English translations of some of Latin America’s finest contemporary literature,” which, his citation read, “continue to enhance our cultural understanding and enrich our lives.” When asked how it felt to receive the Medal, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government, Rabassa said, “It felt comfortable. I was glad to be honored for the whole translation community. We had arrived.”

2 Comments

  1. Kate Rabassa
    October 19, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    A wonderful tribute to Gregory Rabassa! One correction – my dad was a 1944 graduate of Dartmouth College not 1942. He joined the army while still an undergrad and was awarded his degree when he returned from the war.

    • Nicole Lamberson
      October 24, 2022 at 12:47 pm

      Thank you, Ms. Rabassa! I appreciate your comment and am happy you enjoyed the post. And thank you for the correction; I will update the post accordingly.

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