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A Word On Plagiarizing Translations

DEPICTED: the only appreciable value ever created by a Dave Fuller article.
DEPICTED: the only appreciable value ever created by a Dave Fuller article.

The dust-up between the Toronto Sun and Pension Plan Puppets continues, and I just thought I'd give a brief legal word on translations and whether or not they can result in copyright infringement and plagiarism.

First, I should note that there are realms where translations have no copyright protection, and that is usually because the source work would receive no copyright protection. The precedent for that is Feist, a case where the Supreme Court ruled that a phone directory did not meet the "originality requirement" for copyright protection (though you'll note in that Wikipedia link that Canadian courts have put forth an even lower standard for copyright protection-- interesting). Simply put, my translation of a phone directory organized alphabetically cannot receive copyright protection. And there are surely fields where the translation of information, statistics, chemical formulas, etc. are all outside the realm of copyright protection.

However, one look at my bookshelf, and it becomes clear how many translations CAN receive copyright protection as a derivative work and how many linguistics majors have milked me for profit over the years. My copy of The Iliad reads "The Iliad of Homer . . . Lattimore." My 1200 page translation of Count of Monte Cristo reads "Oxford University Press," which explains why I paid $13 to read a book written in 1844 that admits it omitted two chapters because the emotions therein are difficult to convey in the English language. My Criterion DVDs like Wild Strawberries, Le Samourai, Tokyo Story, In The Mood For Love, Ikiru, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Bicycle Thieves and 8 1/2 all bear inflated price tags when compared to their counterparts from overseas publishing companies, a differential that (if you're not a sucker for DVD extras) can only be explained by the quality of the subtitles.

The truth is, and I learned this by learning to speak a few different languages, there is an intricate art to translation, especially when one comes across idioms or concepts ingrained in the culture of the source language. And when a translator attempts even the coldest reading of a complex idea, they are constrained not only by their mastery of the second language but by their experience of that idea in both cultures. For that reason, there is always originality and creativity in someone's interpretation of what another person is trying to say and, more importantly, the panoply the translator uses to convey that idea to you.

Of course, copyright infringement isn't always relevant in regards to translations, especially short passages. Brief and simple information does not often give rise to the creativity required for copyright protection or the complexity of translation we described above. However, plagiarism is not bound by semantic arguments of creativity and complexity; it simply asks if you have claimed someone else's work as your own.

I won't revisit the Pension Plan Puppets case. Instead, I'll point to our own experience here at Anaheim Calling. When Selanne spoke to the Finnish media regarding his return, I fanshotted the article and I posted the Google translation:

He, too, of course, expect me to my decision, "said Selanne Evening newspaper

Sounds like a haiku, right? Not fit for the page? Well, you tell me which words to rearrange, add or subtract. I don't speak a word of Finnish, and any attempt to 'refine' Google's work would almost certainly result in misrepresentation of the source material as the addition or subtraction of a single word might imply different intentions or past actions than Selanne actually discussed. It seems like a simple sentence, but when you're completely unfamiliar with the source language, you probably shouldn't touch it with a fifty foot pole, and you definitely shouldn't maintain the quotation marks if you do. A few days later, Selanne again spoke to a Finnish outlet, and I directed you to TSN's (presumably professional) translation. I also linked you to a user on ALLDUCKS who offered their own translation.

Now, even though the ALLDUCKS translation was more nuanced, I didn't crib it or quote it for the sake of my news blurb, and I certainly didn't copy it and claim it as my own or my own polished version of the Google translation. I respected both the Finnish speaker's work in interpreting the article for a North American audience AND the blatant evidence just a few days earlier that I wasn't willing to do anything more than paste the URL into a web-based translator.

And that is what should have happened in the case of the Toronto Sun and Dave Fuller. There is a significant amount of work and experience that goes into producing a coherent translation between two very different languages, as Google Translate's haikus remind us on a daily basis. If you're a professional journalist who is not willing to do the work yourself, but you've apparently found a translation on a site you trust, then it behooves you to credit that translation or bite the bullet and use the Google haiku. You can't simply do the former and claim it's the latter for the sake of the aesthetics and clarity of your article. SBN isn't the AP Wire.

Plagiarism is something we've all been warned against from the moment we entered a scholastic setting. It's not a crime or an actionable offense, but anything you've been told not to do (by punishment of a failing grade) since Elementary School is worth noting as amoral. You do not claim someone else's words and work as your own. And as I stated above, the work and choice of words that go into creating translations is significant; it's a multi-million dollar industry in the publishing world. As such, it behooves anyone who has ever experienced a scholastic setting-- and more so someone who is paid to produce his own original words and work --not to engage in plagiarism. Of the many defenses I expect to hear from the Toronto Sun, I did not expect them to attempt to redefine "plagiarism." The only acceptable defense is to augment their definition of "Dave Fuller" as someone who does not understand what plagiarism is, because he is not a professional journalist and has never been in a scholastic setting in his life. Now, THAT makes sense.