OK, I don’t have any deep thoughts ready at hand for my inaugural blog post, just a question about a curious phrase I recently came across in a book. Well, not in the book proper, but in the front matter. So, I was idly browsing through the first few pages of the Penguin edition of Montaigne’s Essays, heading toward the preface, when I saw the following:

“This translation and editorial material copyright © M. A. Screech 1987, 1991, 2003. All rights reserved. The moral right of the translator has been asserted.”

So, what’s with that last line? What sort of moral right would we be talking about here, as compared to a legal right? And how can you assert a moral right without saying what it is that you’re asserting. The whole thing seems very odd. Any thoughts?

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4 Responses to Translators

  1. David says:

    Well, off the top of my head, I would say that moral rights arise from the French concept that a creative work contains the personality of its creator or author. Copyright is a property right, while the author’s moral right is an extension of the author’s character and personality. Personality is not transferable, which is why the author always retains the moral rights even after the author sells or transfers the copyright to another person or company.

    Just kidding–I just stole this off the internet.

  2. Josh says:

    But David – *why* then does an author assert their moral right? Does it have some *legal* ramifications? Having asserted them, what could someone do with their moral rights?

  3. David says:

    From what I can gather, the author’s ‘moral rights’ include a ‘right of response.’ This means that if someone publishes a critique of the author’s work that is based on gross misunderstanding, mistranslation, misinterpretation, etc., the author has a right to defend his work in the same venue that published the ‘offensive’ critique. It’s unclear what this means. Presumably the venue that published the critique is not legally bound to give the author a platform for responding to criticisms–otherwise, I suppose, this ‘right of response’ would be a legal right. But perhaps there’s an ‘ethics of publishing’ in which this moral right is generally recognized.

  4. Nate says:

    Having reflected on the matter a little more, I now feel confident saying the following:
    The term “moral rights” is a translation of the French term “droit moral,” and refers not to “morals” as advocated by the religious right, but rather to the ability of authors to control the eventual fate of their works. An author is said to have the “moral right” to control her work. The concept of moral rights thus relies on the connection between an author and her creation. Moral rights protect the personal and reputational, rather than purely monetary, value of a work to its creator.
    The scope of a creator’s moral rights is unclear, and differs with cultural conceptions of authorship and ownership, but may include the creator’s right to receive or decline credit for her work, to prevent her work from being altered without her permission, to control who owns the work, to dictate whether and in what way the work is displayed, and/or to receive resale royalties.

    Or something to that effect. You’ll find similar thoughts expressed here:

    I have to say, the concept seems remarkably unhelpful, given how vague it is.

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