British Museum settles case with translator after using work ‘without permission, credit or payment’

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The Vancouver-based writer, poet and translator Yilin Wang has agreed to settle her copyright and moral rights case against the British Museum for an undisclosed sum after it acknowledged it used her work without permission or payment—and then wrongly removed it. The museum will now reinstate translations by Wang in its exhibition, China’s Hidden Century (until 8 October), as well as the original poetry by the Chinese feminist poet Qiu Jin who was executed in 1907 at the age of 31.

The museum removed both the original and the translations from the exhibition in June when Wang first pointed out that her work had been used “without permission, credit or payment”. Wang has always denied she requested her work be removed, describing the museum’s actions as “the worst possible outcome”. She said at the time: “The public are now not only being denied the chance to see my translations, and to know who wrote them, but also the chance to read Qiu Jin’s words too. The result is that two female writers of colour have both had their work erased. We are not disposable.”

Wang brought her case last month after raising more than £15,000 via hundreds of contributions to her Crowd Justice campaign. Shortly after she obtained legal representation, on 11 July the British Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer contacted Wang, proposing “the reasonable terms” she had put to the institution “several times before launching my legal fundraiser”. She adds: “I appreciate that the museum has come around. It is frustrating that this did not happen until I went through all the trouble to fundraise and obtain legal representation.”

Wang says the case has showed her “the power of the collective in holding institutions accountable”. She adds: “Let this be a lesson for the British Museum and other museums, organisations, and publications that permission must be obtained for the use of copyrighted translations, and that it’s important to always #NameTheTranslator and pay them professional fees for their work.”

The British Museum has agreed to pay Wang an undisclosed settlement fee, which covers a licence fee as well as an additional payment of equal value for Wang to distribute to causes of her choice. Wang says she plans to donate 50% or more of the total settlement “to support translators of Sinophone poetry”. Wang adds: “I hope my donations can help fund a series of workshops with a focus on feminist, queer, and decolonial approaches to translation, in honour of Qiu Jin.”

Wang will also be fully credited in all exhibition materials and future print runs of the catalogue will be amended to reflect her contribution.

Crucially, the museum is now reviewing its permissions policy as part of its settlement. In a statement, the institution says it takes copyright permission “seriously and recognises the importance of the role of translators and the value of their work, which in many cases helps to further the museum’s research and widen public access through display”. It adds: “The museum is reviewing the permissions process it has in place for temporary exhibitions, particularly with regard to translations, to ensure that there is a timely and robust methodology underpinning our clearance work and our crediting of contributors going forward.”

The museum is to complete its review by the end of this year and says it will “implement appropriate policies and procedures to address any gaps identified in its review”. It acknowledges it currently does not have a policy specifically addressing the clearance of translations “and, as part of its review, will ensure that translations are specifically addressed in its clearances policies and that translators are appropriately credited in future”.

In response, Wang says: “It’s very surprising to me that such a large institution does not have such a policy. I hope that the British Museum follows through on their commitment to create a clearance process for translations in the future by the end of this year and to take concrete steps to ensure that the mistake does not happen again.”

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