British Museum apologises to translator after copyright row - Museums Association

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British Museum apologises to translator after copyright row

Institution says credit for poetry translation by Yilin Wang was omitted due to 'unintentional human error'
British Museum Copyright
British Museum, Great Court, London
British Museum, Great Court, London Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

The British Museum has apologised to the Chinese-Canadian writer Yilin Wang after using her translations in its temporary exhibition, China’s Hidden Century, without attribution.

In a statement this week, the museum said that permissions and acknowledgement for the translations had been inadvertently omitted due to an “unintentional human error”.

Panels featuring a translated poem by the 19th century Chinese feminist Qiu Jin were removed from the exhibition this week after Wang criticised the museum on Twitter for failing to contact her for permission or credit her work.

Wang, a writer, translator and editor based in Vancouver, said a single translation of Jin’s poetry can take between a week and two months, plus additional background research.

“When they steal my translations, they're stealing all this knowledge and expertise from me,” said Wang.

The British Museum has apologised to Wang and offered financial payment for the period the translations appeared in the exhibition, and the continued use of the quotations in the exhibition catalogue.

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In response, Wang said the museum had told her that it “will not be reinstating the translations in the exhibition that have been removed following your complaint, and therefore you will not be acknowledged in the exhibition as your work will not be featured".

The museum said it continues to be in discussion with Wang.

“The British Museum takes copyright permissions seriously,” continued the statement. “Across the range of our work, we make every effort to contact the owners of rights in text, images, print and digital media. This was a particularly complicated project and we recognise we made an inadvertent mistake and fell short of our usual standards.”

The museum said it had worked with more than 400 people from 20 countries to produce the exhibition, including 30 lenders and other contributors.

The institution condemned “personal attacks” on social media against the exhibition’s curators, which it said were unacceptable.

“They have spent years, together with scholars worldwide, working on the China’s hidden century research project and the resulting publications [...] It is through their scholarship and efforts, and those of their collaborators, that we have been able to present this period of Chinese history, through people-centred stories, to the thousands visiting the China’s hidden century temporary exhibition at the British Museum.

“We stand behind our colleagues fully and request those responsible for these personal attacks to desist as we work with Yilin Wang to resolve the issues they have raised concerning the use of their translations within the exhibition.”

The exhibition opened in May and runs until 8 October.

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