Foreign language rights (sometimes called “translation rights”) are an important facet of any author’s publishing deal, and among the rights which should be specifically explained in the publishing contract.
If the contract specifies “[Insert language] rights” the publisher is acquiring only the rights to the specified language or languages. An example of this is “English language rights” or “Spanish language rights.” Sometimes contracts also specify multiple languages (e.g. “English and Spanish rights”).
When the contract is silent regarding language rights, the grant may be legally ambiguous – and that’s dangerous for the author. Generally speaking, the publisher will probably assume it has acquired the rights to all languages and translations commonly spoken in the covered territories. “World Rights” would thus carry full translation rights, preventing the author from negotiating separate contracts with other publishers to produce the work in translation. Don’t let your contract be silent on language rights.
If you’re granting full language rights as well as territorial rights, the contract should specify “world rights to all forms, formats and translations.”(A warning here: if you’re publishing with a very small publisher that doesn’t have distribution or translation capacity, this grant of rights is a serious and dangerous overreach on the publisher’s part. You should always ensure that your publisher has the resources to fully and properly exploit all rights granted in the contract.)
If you’re granting only English language rights, the contract should say so – and should say it in terms that you understand.
Authors often overlook the issue of foreign language rights because the concept gets lost in translation from Legalese. If you have any questions, be sure to consult an agent or publishing attorney before you sign.