Q. Where does an 800 lb gorilla sleep?
A. Anywhere it wants to.
I put it to you that Warner Bros. studios are an 800 lb gorilla, and they are trampling the habitats of several lesser life forms, simply because they can.
It was my great privilege to translate the Harry Potter books into Hebrew, a life-altering career-building occupation that brought me uncountable benefits and joys, but that also entailed on more than one occasion being rather painfully forced to swallow my pride. I know this to be true not only of myself but of many of the international translators of the Harry Potter books. When two-dozen of us convened in Paris in a closed session, a running theme was that of insult, hurt and rage directed towards the Harry Potter machine – the wall of lawyers surrounding J.K.Rowling, her agents and Warner Bros. – who had gone out of their way to disenfranchise translators of their intellectual and moral rights. The tactics used were impersonal and bullying, even humiliating. There was no debate, no discussion of gray areas in international copyright laws and the status of translators: there was simply the assertion that Harry Potter translators must waive their rights or they will be discarded. Those who refused to waive their rights, like Catalan translator Laura Escorihuela, were dropped without apology.
Though I was not employed by Warner Bros. and not contractually obligated towards them, such was the power of this company that they were able to threaten me by proxy. As far as I was able to figure out, Warner Bros. bullied the Christopher Little Agency into bullying the various international publishers to bully their translators into retroactively waiving all rights to their translations, under the threat that otherwise the publishers would not be sold translation rights to future books in the series. This is how it happened to me: I was invited to a chat with the Israeli publisher after I had already translated the first three books in a series. He met me in a café and required me to sign a memo, which I was not allowed to read in advance or show to anyone else, and of which I was not allowed to retain a copy. I was told I must sign on the spot or the job of translating future Harry Potter books would be given to another translator. As far as I was able to understand, the memo was a promise to Warner Bros. that I would not claim trademark on any of the translated terms I had invented. I could sign or be cut off from Harry Potter forever. I signed.
It later became apparent that to Warner Bros. this memo was tantamount to a complete waiver of any and all intellectual rights I may have thought to lay claim to. When the Harry Potter films were distributed in Israel, my translation served as the basis for the subtitles and dubbing scripts of the film, without my permission or that of the Israeli publisher. I never received any compensation for this. I was never thanked or credited. In fact, the translator who was responsible for the Hebrew titles complained that her contract from Warner Bros. obliged her to use my translation.
I was independently approached by the director of the Hebrew dubbing of the film and asked to serve as consultant to the dubbing script, for which I was to receive a small sum of money from her local business. After I had completed and submitted the work but before I was paid, I was unexpectedly required to sign a contract with Warner Bros. waiving all and any rights to which I might lay over the translation. I felt very uncomfortable signing this contract, so I added a sentence in my own handwriting: “except the rights to which I am entitled as translator of the Harry Potter books”. A few days later I was approached by the studio and told that a Warner Bros. lawyer had demanded that we “remove the language” from this contract, and were holding up all payments to the Israeli studio until I did so. In other words, if I did not sign the form as it stood, not only would I not be paid for my work, but neither would any other Israelis who had worked on the dubbing of the film be payed – including the cute little child actors – and it would be ALL MY FAULT. I signed.
I signed a third waiver under similar pressure, after I had translated and submitted “The Tales of Beedle the Bard”. Again, I was told that not only would I not be paid if I did not sign, but the entire Hebrew edition would have to be scrapped and retranslated, and the readers would be told that the delay in publication was ALL MY FAULT.
After working on the Hebrew dubbing script, I had the temerity to request a complimentary ticket to see the first Harry Potter film. The official answer that I received was that I could very well buy my own ticket from the money I had been paid. While seemingly every journalist in Israel who had the least bit of interest in cinema was invited to a massive advance press screening, I was pointedly not invited. Again and again my phone rang, and journalists asking to interview me on my opinion of the film were stunned to learn that I had not seen it. This happened each time a new film that was released. I did once write about this on my blog and the story was picked up by a couple of papers. The Israeli distributor's response to one paper was that I had not been given credit in the subtitles because I had never asked for it – a statement neither true nor relevant.
Translators were not the only creative people whose rights were trampled by the Harry Potter gorilla. The Israeli designer who had designed a unique Harry Potter Hebrew font to echo the trademark lightning bolt script of the American covers was surprised to discover his font in use in soft drink advertisements. I don’t know the full story, but I gather that Warner Bros. had appropriated this font and sold it to advertisers, much as they appropriated the translations. And there is now a whole mess about e-book rights to translations and the Pottermore website – again, I don’t know the details, except that it is very distressing for the publishers involved. The behavior in all these matters is that of an 800 lb gorilla that simply takes what it wants.
Translators’ rights are a complicated issue and are slightly different in different countries. I’m not in a position to ascertain whether Warner Bros. actions at any point were strictly speaking illegal: what is clear is that legal or not, these actions were shitty. Shitty towards creative, well meaning, hard working people who did their own thing and never asked for a bigger piece of the pie than what they would have gotten translating any other book.
When I translated “Nim’s Island” and “Nurse Mathilda” (aka “Nanny McPhee”) I was given complimentary tickets to see these films, despite the fact that my translation was NOT used as the basis for the translations of these films. My friend who translated “The Hunger Games” novel is given credit in the end subtitles of the Israeli film version, again, despite the fact that her translation was not directly used. Other translators in Israel have received subsidiary payments for use of their translations in film subtitles. But not if the film is a Harry Potter film – no no no. If you ever want to see anything from the Harry Potter franchise, you need to take up arms against the 800 lb gorilla.
Whatever subsidiary payments may or may not have been my due would not have been particularly high. They would probably have been significantly less than what Warner Bros. paid their lawyers to ensure that no translator would ever dream of demanding anything from Warner Bros. I may have briefly entertained the idea of taking Warner Bros. to court, but seriously – who am I to battle this giant? It’s not worth the toll this would have taken on my life. I can’t say I’m not bitter, but I swallowed my pride and went on with what I know best: translating and publishing excellent books for young readers.
Except that Warner Bros. will not let it be. The gorilla is still stomping about. Last week I received an email from the Israeli publisher, forwarding an email from a solicitor for Warner Bros. Entertainment in Europe. The London studios of Warner Bros. are working on a Harry Potter tour, and they would like to screen a short video showing “loyal fans” worldwide. They wrote to the Israeli publisher asking permission to use an image in which the Harry Potter books can be seen in Hebrew. Showing the book covers, it would seem, requires permission. What does not require permission is showing the piece of human furniture propping up those books, namely, yours truly. The Israeli publisher asked if I mind having my picture used in a Warner Bros. studio tour. Given the shoddy treatment I’ve received from Warner Bros. for my crime of having translated the books, I do in fact mind very much. I responded that they may kindly seek another image of a different person holding an international edition. Except that 800 lb gorillas don’t listen to the little midges who protest this kind of thing. I received an email from the Warner Bros. solicitor, INFORMING me “as a matter of courtesy” that they will use my picture, like it or not.
Well, courtesy this, Warner Bros. You are nothing but nasty, litiginous bullies and you should be ashamed of yourselves. And J.K.Rowling, if you ever read this: I wonder if you realize how much hurt and humiliation resides in the hearts of many of the wonderful, creative people whose translations made your words available to hundreds of millions of children across the globe. After a decade of linked work a thank you would have been nice, but we’d settle for an end to the continuing insults to our dignity.