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The British Museum reaches settlement with translator whose work was used without permission

Yilin Wang said she wanted to take this opportunity to emphasize the need to credit translators for their work.
A British Museum worker looks at displays at the "China's Hidden Century" exhibition at the British Museum
A British Museum worker looks at displays at the "China's Hidden Century" exhibition at the British Museum in London on May 18.James Manning / AP file

A translator has reached a settlement and received an apology from the British Museum months after her work was used in a temporary exhibit without her permission or credit.

Translations by Yilin Wang, a Chinese-to-English translator, writer and editor, of poetry by the Chinese revolutionary and poet Qiu Jin were used in the museum’s exhibit “China’s Hidden Century,” which runs from May 18 to Oct. 8 and focuses on life in the country during the 19th century.

“I am happy to announce that the British Museum and I have reached a settlement after they used my translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry in the ‘China’s Hidden Century’ exhibit without permission, pay, or credit for over a month, and their later action of removing both my translations and Qiu Jin’s poetry from the exhibit,” Wang wrote on her website this week.

Her translations will be reinstated with appropriate credit and compensation, she continued.

The British Museum published a news release last week that acknowledged its wrongdoing and said there isn’t a policy to address the clearance of translations specifically.

“The British Museum apologises to Yilin Wang for this oversight,” the release said. “The British Museum 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.”

Wang took to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, in June to call out the museum, saying it didn't contact her to use the translations. Her thread included a link to a page on her website featuring her translations of Qiu’s poetry, as well as a screenshot of the museum’s guide on the exhibit online and the on-site exhibition text, showing their similarity.

“Given this exhibit description that focuses on ‘cultural creativity,’ the British Museum should really acknowledge and pay for a translator’s ‘creativity,’” she wrote in her thread.

The British Museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I really appreciate the community support that I received throughout this, and it was truly a community effort,” Wang said in an email to NBC News. “Qiu Jin was a queer, feminist poet whose work remains very relevant to this day, and is an icon for queer and trans communities. She wrote a lot about women’s friendships, queerplatonic relationships, cross-dressing, and gender equality, and I hope that I can share more translations of her work with readers in the future.”

Qiu was a revolutionary feminist who was executed during the failed uprising against the Qing government. She was later hailed as a martyr for her role in the revolution after the empire was overthrown in 1911.

Wang crowdfunded 19,200 pounds ($24,426) through CrowdJustice in July to find legal representation to take action against the museum. She said she plans to donate half of the settlement amount, which has not been disclosed, to support translators of Sinophone poetry. 

“I hope my donations can help fund a series of workshops with a focus on feminist, queer, and decolonial approaches to translation, in honor of Qiu Jin,” she said on her website.

Wang also emphasized the importance of crediting translators for their work.

“Let this be a lesson for the British Museum and other museums, organizations, 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,” she wrote.