Literary Translation and Public Domain Books

Today’s post is all about literary translation. Do you remember a book you read in translation? Perhaps it was a classic literary translation like Don Quixote, or maybe it was a more contemporary title. Although many people don’t stop to think about it, literature in translation often forms a significant part of our reading lists while growing up in school and as adults. Literary translation continues to be an integral part of the translation profession, too.

If you speak more than one language, chances are you’ve read a book that is unavailable in other languages. I have to ask myself and other translators: What’s stopping us from translating a book that we’d love to see in our native language? Some translators do just that, often sending excerpts to a publisher to find out if there is any interest in publishing a translation.

Established translator and all-around freelance translation guru Corinne McKay recently tweeted: “As I sit here working on a book translation (very interesting biography of a French resistance fighter), I once again wonder: why don’t frustrated literary translators just translate public domain books and self-publish them? You could start now!”

So true! But what is a public domain book? Stanford University offers a definition on the library’s website: “The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.”

Several websites feature public domain books. Corinne mentions Project Gutenberg in one of her recent podcasts; Project Gutenberg has titles in English, German, French, and Portuguese. Feedbooks has titles in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The Internet Archive has thousands of books in many languages.

If you are a translator who knows of a good resource like the one listed above, please leave a comment below!

Photo by Leandro DeCarvalho.

Published by Alison Trujillo

2 thoughts on “Literary Translation and Public Domain Books

  1. I do not speak another language besides English, except for a smattering of Spanish.
    However, in reading books translated from the Russian (Anna Karenina as an example), I have found that the best translations are by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

    Best regards,



    1. Hi Susan,
      Thanks for the info. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve yet to read Anna Karenina, so I’ll look out for those two translators when I read that and other Russian works.


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