Museum Settles With Translator Whose Work Was Used Without Permission

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Yilin Wang’s translations in China’s Hidden Century at the British Museum (all photos courtesy Yilin Wang)

After an X (formerly Twitter) firestorm, a crowdfunding campaign, and the intervention of a team of lawyers, Yilin Wang has reached a settlement agreement with the British Museum, which used her translations of Qiu Jin’s 19th-century poetry without permission or credit in an exhibition.

The August 4 agreement stipulates that the museum will give Wang a licensing fee and an additional matching payment (the amounts of which are confidential, as per the settlement), which Wang plans to donate to a literary organization. She has yet to announce which one, but said the money will go toward creating a series of translation workshops. The museum will also reinstate Wang’s work, which it removed after the translator alleged copyright infringement.

In June, the Vancouver-based translator and writer discovered that her English versions of Qiu Jin’s poems were on display in the British Museum’s China’s Hidden Century exhibition. They were also printed in the show’s online guide and accompanying catalogue. Wang had not given the museum permission to use her work in the show, which opened May 18. The translator posted about the incident on Twitter on June 18 and demanded credit, compensation, and an apology.

Yilin Wang

The museum stated that it “takes copyright infringement very seriously” and always attempts to obtain permission from creators. “This was a particularly complicated project and we recognise we made an inadvertent mistake and fell short of our usual standards,” the museum explained in June.

The institution’s response, however, did not meet Wang’s expectations. Within a week, the museum had removed Qiu’s poems and Wang’s translations from the show (they took them down 24 hours after asking Wang what she would like to do, a timeframe the translator said was unfeasible given the London-Vancouver time difference). The translator told Hyperallergic the move had “erased both of us” and described the museum’s communications as “hollow” and “condescending.” The institution had also offered Wang £150 (~$191) for her work in the 30,000-copy print catalogue and £450 (~$573) for her translation’s “retrospective” use in the exhibition.

At an impasse, Wang launched a fundraiser for legal fees and raised £19,200 (~$24,446) from 701 donors. Wang hired Jon Sharples, Aimee Gavin, and Alex Watt of the London-based firm Howard Kennedy LLP to take on her case. The translator wrote in an August 7 statement that on July 11, shortly after she obtained legal representation, British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer sent her a proposal that finally met her initial demands.

The museum declined to comment on this allegation and referred Hyperallergic to its August 4 press release about the mutual agreement.

“I find it very frustrating that I had to go through fundraising and obtaining legal representation in order to get what I considered to be reasonable requests,” Wang told Hyperallergic. “People should not have to do that to get treated fairly. I’d much prefer if the British Museum had just gone through and done the right things — it’s a barrier to justice for a lot of people, not everyone has the social media reach or the public presence to get support.”

The museum’s press release explains that the institution does not have a policy “specifically addressing the clearance of translations” and promised to conduct a review by the end of the year. The museum also apologized to Wang and said it would reinstate her work.

China’s Hidden Century is on view for another two months, through October 8. “Unfortunately you have to get credited to get exposure,” Wang said, referring to potential missed opportunities that could have stemmed from being credited in the exhibition earlier. But she sees a larger benefit in her work’s reinstatement. Wang explained that Qiu Jin’s poetry has been “overlooked.”

“She was a queer feminist poet whose work is very timely to this day, and my goal as a translator is to reach a wider audience in English and to help other people learn about her wonderful poetry,” Wang said. “Work from women poets, women of color poets, and queer poets and translators are often under-translated, and it’s really important to me that their work is getting more visibility.”

“I’m really grateful and really appreciate all the support I received — it really means a lot,” said Wang, who wrote in her statement that the incident “has shown [her] the power of the collective in holding institution accountable.”

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