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Books in the Public Domain

Have people discussed translating books in the public domain?

January 2, 2013



That is an interesting point. Public domain books are - by law - quite old (the author must be dead for at lest 50/70 years) but could provide plenty of excellent exercise. On the other side, without a careful revision a crowd-based translation could result too incoherent to be of any use.


Do you have to be dead before it can enter the public domain? I didn't think you had to wait quite so long...


Yes, by law copyright last the entire life of the author plus 50/70 year (the term may differ from country to country). Obviously you can waive your rights and put immediately your book in the public domain or waive only some rights (the concept behind creative commons / gpl and other "free" licenses) and let other modify (translate) or distribute your work.


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Here it is. Lenkvist and I will proceed to copy all 5 of our posts about the subject:


It would be great to have some level/vocab oriented short stories to read as well. I know a Brazilian lady who told me when she immigrated to Canada she learned English starting exclusively by reading Children's books!

It would be great to read kid's stories like "The Hockey Sweater" (a very Canadian kid's story) in German, or if they have a comparable children's stories from other languages it would be fun to read them in their native language."


I was thinking of that some days ago! You should propose that as a new discussion, with a title like "Children's stories" or something, so that it'll get noticed by the staff. I imagine that's totally doable. If not by their translators, just put up some for translation by Duolingo users themselves. Maybe only by natives fluent in the second language, or vice-versa, or the top translators, though, because you wouldn't want any mistakes at all in what would be an educational tool.

Of course that would mean prompting the users for that information, which I've already mentioned in a discussion of my own, because I think that would be useful while reading language discussions; I would look up first the natives' opinion.


This was my first reply:

I don't think it is "totally doable". Children's books have copyright too. Books will enter the public domain 70 years after the author's death which means that you can freely publish the 200 year old Märchen by Grimm, but not Michael Ende's "Unendliche Geschichte" (Neverending Story) as Ende died in 1995. You can take older books, but the number of books within a specific language may be limited or the language might be dated.

I would still be willing to help if they find a way for publishing stories. I like the idea of having larger texts to study as I'm interested in reading literature in different languages.


Well, 70 years, you say? Then I don't know what is the issue. I didn't say "all children's books ever written". As of 2012, anything whose author died until 1912 can be used. That's a lot, if you haven't noticed: the Grimm Brothers, Lewis Carroll, La Fontaine, Johanna Spyri (Heidi), Carlo Collodi (Pinocchio)... not to mention folktales and legends, by the way.

And of course the original tale doesn't have to be originally written in one of the languages provided by Duolingo, so there's loads more right there. I might want o read Aesop's fables in German or Spanish.


Ah, you know your children's literature :) I think you meant authors who have died before 1942, as that is 70 years ago. I have no objection to translated stories as long as the translations are correct and up to date. We shouldn't stick too much to the genre of children's literature either as it is quite a young genre and it's boundaries aren't always that clear. There are enough stories that were not intended for children that are still easy to read. I wouldn't mind reading Austen or Gogol in one of languages offered here.


That concludes our initial discussion. I'm fascinated by the idea how the culture around old novels might change when they become available to a larger audience. Old stories might acquire new meaning and it would be interesting to see if their are any shifts in popularity. Duolingo could work together with site like project gutenberg to make public domain texts more accessible. Or Duolingo might be integrated into e-readers.

I still feel that it is important to have good translations, something that was also mentioned by Beppe. Beppe's remark that a text can also enter the public domain under a creative commons licence gave me the idea that Duolingo could specifically form texts with the words we learn here, just like Dr. Seuss did with The Cat in the Hat. That might make it easy to provide multiple copies of the same text within different languages.


Indeed, I did the math with 100 years. That makes some other good ones available, like the "Wizard of Oz". Yes, you're quite right; the point is to provide suitable content for beginners, so those could be included. If not basic enough, as an "intermediate" category.

Now I understand what you were getting at – dated language. Frankly, I don't know if that's an issue. I imagine you're free to use more recent versions of an old book, not just the original from the 18th century or whatnot. Consider a 2500-year old Greek fable. Who even knows nowadays what the original text exactly was like...? Anyway, I'm sure there's an interesting number just in early 20th century.

Regarding reading via Duolingo, I would be very excited about that, as even with a desktop dictionary or the one provided by ebook readers, it's a major hassle if you're constantly checking up words. With the "hover over the word" system Duolingo has, it would be much, much more convenient.


Thanks, I mentioned this a week or so ago in interest of seeing some children's stories (or other simple literature) translated so we can read it in a non-native language.

There must be public domain poems, simple fairy tails etc. we could use as material.

It is too bad in this day and age that everything has to be so embroiled in copyright laws.

Are stories as simple as the "three little pigs", or "red riding hood" still covered by copyright?


No, I don't think they ever were, actually, since no one knows who are the authors. As much as I know, they were passed orally through time, until they appeared in written form some centuries ago.


CMMPro suggested in marshalTHErtist's polyglot thread that Duolingo could offer children's stories. Tiago_Moita and I continued that discussion and our topics included the use of books in the public domain (not necessarily limited to children's books) and translating books that were not originally written in one of the languages offered here. Tiago_Moita expressed interest in having a separate thread; I will send them a message to see if they want to continue/repeat the discussion here.


sounds great.


I don't think anyone has mentioned this so far. It would be great to read a story and have that "hover for translation" feature, but another interesting mode would be to have the same story in 2 languages, side by side. I've seen this in an "Alice in Wonderland" book in iTunes. The only difference was that it didn't have both languages side by side, but each paragraph repeated in each language.


Some new ideas about this: besides displaying both paragraphs / pages side by side, there could be a "focus" option, as in at least one word processor that I know of, to let the reader focus on each sentence ate a time. The second idea would make me read anything I could on this reader: when you hovered over a word to see its meaning, the first definitions would appear by context, prominently, and below them all other ones. No idea if is this is feasible, though.


I am an author. Anything published before 1923 is public domain, because after that the copyright laws were changed. Anything published after that can be willed to an author's heir, so just because they've been dead a while, doesn't make it public domain.


Maybe advertise in author and self-publisher forums -- "Want your amazing novel translated into six (or more) languages? By a massive team of real people? Then click here to find out more."

Translate the ad, too, post in comparable sites in all active Duolingo languages. Bam -- instant library. And the authors would get amazing free-multicultural feedback on their works, too. Pure gold.

Repeat similar to law reviews, poetry journals, scholars, etc. Repeat multiple language offer. Bam -- make Aaron Swartz's dream come closer to reality as widespread proliferation of texts via Duolingo may also break the stranglehold of JSTOR. Then it really would be that #therevolutionwillbetranslated.


This would be great. I would like to take part in the translation of 'The Anti-Machiavel' by Frederick the Great. The only free versions I can find are in French, and I need the machinery of Duolingo to translate it. The website translation tool (Immersion) would make this process very doable. If this type of project is already underway, I'd like to know more about it.

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