The Nation speaks to authorities in the book business to educate the public on a subject which is put to use according to the whims and fancies of unscrupulous individuals

One of the most beautiful quotes in Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, The Book Thief, is “The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you.” In its Sinhala translation by Manel Jayanthi Gunesekera, titled ‘Poth Hera,’ the quote has been translated as, ‘oba apriya karana kollekuta wada naraka obata adaraya karana kolleki.’ This in turn translates as ‘what is worse than a boy you hate is a boy who loves you,’ which is completely different to what Zusak wrote.

This, however, wasn’t the only wrongly translated part of the book and Poth Hera, which was introduced during the Colombo International Book Fair (CIBF), wasn’t the only badly or wrongly translated novel in Sri Lanka. Marking International Translation Day, The Nation looked into copyright infringement and quality of translations, which although a topic not focused on, is a continuing issue in the country.

Ganga Niroshinie Suduwelikanda is a translator who has been in the field for more than 20 years. Speaking to The Nation she said that she has faced ‘horrible’ situations in the field of translations. One such incident she mentioned was publishing the translation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel The Kite Runner. While she was trying to sort out the agreement with Hosseini’s agents, another local translator in the field had published a translation under the same title. When Suduwelikanda came to know about the second translation she immediately informed Hosseini’s agents and managed to stop the distribution of the illegal publication. “This is what you get when you take time to do the right thing,” she said.

“When you decide to translate a book first you have to write to the publisher. They will either introduce the translator to the author’s agents or they will handle the procedure themselves. This process will take some time depending on the negotiations. Both parties will sign the agreement and the publisher in Sri Lanka will make the payments. Then only the translator will be good to go,” Suduwelikanda explained the process with her experiences.  “According to the International Law only one publisher gets the copyrights and we are bound to protect our editions as the sole publisher of the book,” she added.
She further said that is surprising that even the ‘veteran’ translators and book publishers aren’t ethical enough to obtain permission from the original writer or the publisher even when they are not legally bound to do so.

Legal aspect
While it may seem like translators get the approval of authors due to ethical concerns, there is a legal aspect that requires the copyright holder’s consent when publishing a translation of a novel. Senior Lecturer of Law, Commercial Law Department, Colombo University, Menaka Harankaha shared this information with The Nation while quoting the Intellectual Property Act, No 36 of 2003. He said that the original work and translations can be copyright protected.

“Only original work is protected and work that is copied by another isn’t copyright protected. The work must be the independent work of the author, which means that while one can write about other people, there must be originality in the work,” Harankaha said.
Being able to claim it as original work gives one protection if, for instance, they find out an unauthorized individual is making a profit out of their work. However, if your work is also copied, you cannot claim copyright infringement because you don’t hold ownership of the publication.

In Vasantha Obeysekera vs AC Alles, it was claimed by Alles that filmmaker Obeysekera’s Dadayama was based on a story in his book, Famous Criminal Cases of Sri Lanka. Both the film and the story were based on the murder of Adelene Vitharana and thus it was concluded that Alles’ work wasn’t original since it was based on an incident and thus, he couldn’t claim copyright infringement.

While copyright protection is spoken about in great detail, not many seem to be aware of the rights awarded to the copyright owner. Harankaha explained that copyright owners have economic rights under which action can be taken against anyone who attempts to reproduce the work without consent or approval. The copyright owner also has a right to translation and thus, translators must get the approval of the author when attempting a translation.

Books like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Sam’s Story by Elmo Jayawardena have been translated to Sinhala from the language they were written in, which is English. However, translations to a language can be translated to Sinhala or Tamil afterwards. In such an instance, one may wonder if approval must be gained from the original author or the translator of the original work.

“Under our Act, a translation is also considered to be an original work and thus the translator may have the right to stop others from translating his story. In such situations, the translator is considered the author,” Harankaha said. In fact, Chandana Mendis, the translator of the fast selling Sherlock Holmes novels, in a recent interview with The Nation, mentioned a fraudulent act where another writer copied his work, although no legal action was taken.

Harankaha also spoke about incidents similar to that faced by Suduwelikanda. “In such situations, there is copyright infringement by the first translator and that translation is illegal while the translation with the author’s approval is legal,” he said.

Harankaha, who specializes in intellectual property law, said that there are a few pending cases that are related to the issue and that there are translators who simply don’t get the author’s approval while there are also difficulties when finding the real copyright owner.
There is also a question of the period copyrights can be claimed. According to Harankaha, an author can claim copyright until 70 years since publication or during the lifetime of the author. If the author passes away before 70 years since publication, his heirs can claim copyright.

“Usually it’s not the author who holds copyright ownership of a book,” Harankaha said, adding that while economic rights protect the copyright owner, moral rights protect the author of the work. In an incident where an author’s work is published under another’s name, the author can claim authorship or paternity rights and also has the right to oppose distortion and the right of integrity.

Info to be mentioned
There is a matter of what information should be included in the publication and a lack of uniformity as some merely mention the name of the original author and the title of the book while others mention that the original author’s approval has been received and that copyrights are held by the translator or publisher. “It isn’t a requirement to mention all details about approval in a book but usually information about the ownership, printer, publisher, translator and original author are published,” Wanniarachchi said.

With regard to concerns about copyright infringement, Harankaha said that while “it isn’t mandatory to specifically mention that the original author’s consent has been given, translators must be equipped with proper documentation in case they are required to prove there is no copyright infringement.”

Since most translations have an ISBN (International Standard Book Numbering), one may assume that the translator received approval from the author.

ISBN is a system designed to provide identification for books published. As an official at the National Library and Documentation Services Board (NLDSB) explained ISBN is a unique and unchangeable number which identifies one work or one binding or edition of a work issued by a publisher. Although this can be considered as the only place where all books are been registered, the process of issuing the ISBN numbers doesn’t seem to address any of the mentioned issues.

As the official said anyone can acquire an ISBN number by providing the NLDSB with basic details (Title, author, publisher, number of pages and published year). The NLDSB receives a copy of the published book in return for the number.

According to the NLDSB official ISBN prevents a person from publishing a book under the same title even though the content of the book is different. An ISBN can be acquired for any translation regardless of consent from the original author and also ISBN is not a must for every published book.  When queried he said that he is unaware of any unit or program which assess the quality of a book, originality or any possible copyright infringement.

However, under the NLDSB Publication Assistance Project they look into all aspects before giving approval.

“We get approval from the copyright holder when publishing translations. However, we are aware that not everyone gets approval,” said Sadeepa Publishers director, Thanura Wanniarachchi. Sadeepa Publishers is a member of the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association, which is a collective of book publishers in Sri Lanka.

He added that usually, a series of books or books by the same author are translated by one person or under one publisher. This allows a good relationship between the author and the translator and when translating books by foreign authors, boosts the image of Sri Lanka. This is also why it’s important to ensure the quality of the translation. “Each translation is sent through a panel of editors so that quality is ensured,” Wanniarachchi said.

“There can be complaints if we don’t get permission from the original author, thus we are careful when publishing translations,” Sarasavi Publications’ Premasiri Haputhantri said, adding that while Sarasavi Publications also makes sure the approval of the author has been received and the quality of the book is up to standard.

Internal mechanism
Reviewer Hashitha Abeywardana pointed out several other issues related to translations. “Another aspect which should be looked in to is translation quality, consistency of language, writer’s ability to grasp what was originally said and also whether the translator has left out any sections of the original book,” he said. “Even if a translation has received copyrights and is not in fine quality, rights of the reader will not be secured,” he said adding that these issues with translations are highly unfair.

He mentioned that most new books haven’t been edited properly before going to print, which is unfair to the original books. “Readers of the translation can be reading something completely different from the original story and they wouldn’t even know that they didn’t read what the original writer had written,” he lamented. He added that majority of the readership depends on translations to reach world literature.

Some authors, especially those with a wide readership, aren’t concerned by translations published without their approval. This however doesn’t mean that the translators need not abide the law and steps should be taken to ensure there is no copyright infringement. With regard to the quality of books, Abeywardana’s suggestion of publishers having an internal mechanism to assess the quality, might lead to a good quality outcome.

Readers’ comments

Chamanie Nanayakkara
“I first read a Sinhala translation of Tagore’s poetry and later, I read them in English because I felt they contained lovely ideas. My native language is Sinhala, so I thought I would be more moved by the Sinhala translation than if I read them in my second language,” Nanayakkara said. She, however, found that although Sinhala is a beautiful language, the translation was merely a translation of Tagore’s ideas and hadn’t maintained the tenderness of language in Tagore’s work.

Sudaraka Kalidasa
“I felt the Sinhala translation, while it may not have represented the English culture, did represent although slightly, the Hogwarts culture and magical elements. While JK Rowling told a simple story for young adults, the Sinhala translators fail to do so and instead use heavy words. I’m sure the English author used suitable simple words where the Sinhala translators have used heavy words. Additionally, Rowling focuses on the story while the Sinhala writer focuses on the words with no regard whatsoever to the story.