National Poetry Day is an annual celebration, one that sees poets doing everything we can to spread the word about poems, to engage and include the wider communities who don’t automatically have access to poetry, and to welcome the next generation of poets and poetry readers. To say it’s about making access easier is an understatement. It’s a day for being proactive, for volunteering our skills and passion, and for going beyond our own year-round practices, whether they be writing, curating, editing, teaching or translating poems.
All of which makes this the ideal day on which to talk about the special copyright challenges such outreach creates. You can't share poetry without sharing poems. And it is lovely to email a favourite poem to work colleagues, or to read it to the class at school. But once you put someone’s poem up on the college blog, or read it on your local independent radio station’s breakfast show, you move altogether closer to publishing without permission. There’s a boundary somewhere here, and it’s an emotive one. For enthusiasm is idealistic, and inclined to volunteer. It doesn’t worry overmuch about getting paid. But poets, of course, volunteer their idealism all year round, in the sense that they write poems instead of doing something more lucrative. They are, what’s more, the primary producers of this stuff we all enjoy every October - and, ideally, the rest of the year too. The little their poetry can earn is theirs by rights both legal and moral.
Poetry translation throws up similar problems. The best poetry translation is done out of personal enthusiasm, a sense of artistic understanding and intimacy. The density of the literary interpretation it requires is sufficiently great, the requirement for faithful re-making sophisticated enough, that it can never be only a matter of bread-and-butter commission, however distinguished the poet-translator or publisher. Yet this strongly personal sense of poetic ownership mustn’t be allowed to trump the original poet’s rights (or those of his or her publisher). Nor must the narrowness of the profit that poetry generates when, for example, it’s published or broadcast.
As a living poet myself, I don’t want to argue against the translation (or study, or any other kind of promotion) of living, in-copyright poets. Translation, in particular, is how poetry stays alive, disseminated among the widest international poetry-reading community, and creating intercultural dialogues that shape writing generations: which is one reason why it’s so important that younger readers access it. To say nothing of the ‘soft diplomacy’ such mutual cultural understanding can generate. Translating poetry can also be a fabulous teaching tool: one of the very best ways, technical yet also experiential, to get students to close read a text. So we have to be sure to get it right.
Rights are helped, not hindered, by the principle of ‘fair use’, which allows in-copyright work to be cited in ways that bring readers and students to the original text but don’t replace it. But how can we be sure that translated texts, however fairly we treat them, have dealt fairly with their own originals? A key challenge for poets in the Anglophone world, and one I’ve faced myself, especially working in the Balkans and other parts of post-communist Europe, is the financial imbalance between the poets, translators and publishers in less financially secure parts of the world and those working in, for example, the US and the UK. Since promotion, translation and celebration are about hospitality and generosity, it’s important not only that all rights owing to the writers and publishers of other countries are paid, but that these payments are appropriate: prompt, made in a currency or via a payment system which can be accessed, and without much of the sum being ‘lost in translation’ between currencies, and accompanied by courtesy. The distance between respecting and exploiting another culture is not only measured in financial terms; but paying fees owing is a practical - and legal - part of respect. Grabbing cultural assets for free is a nasty habit, as postcolonial analysis points out.
Courtesy is equally important in the other direction, when collecting rights fees from other countries. Sometimes these sums seem comparatively small: but they may make a huge financial difference to an publisher in the developing world, or who relies on fixed government subventions to cover costs, and must pay either the translator or the printer less in order to offer up rights. Making the payment of rights a hospitable and encouraging business sounds paradoxical, but it can help keep the poetry world a happier, more equitable place to work in - on National Poetry Day, and all year round.
About the Author
Fiona Sampson MBE FRSL is Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton, London. Her recent books include The Catch (Penguin Random House) and the critically-acclaimed biography In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein (Profile/Pegasus).