Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Spectacular Translation Machine

At the King's Cultural Institute Creative Labs on Thursday I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Ricarda Vidal who does all sorts of exciting things with translation, such as the upcoming Translation Games. Thanks to her, I found out about The Spectacular Translation Machine event at the Southbank Centre's London Literature Festival this weekend, which as a language nerd I would have been really sad to miss out on.

Translation can be a lonely activity, with nothing but you, your source text and a pile of dictionaries. The Spectacular Translation Machine aims to change that. For one weekend, members of the public - from French native speakers to absolute beginners - will collectively translate an entire French book into English, under the guidance of experts lead by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone. The book in question is On les aura!, a graphic novel with a fascinating story behind it. On les aura! began life as the diary of a soldier fighting in the first few months of World War I. The soldier is never named, and what happens after the diary ends remains unknown. French illustrator Barroux recently found the diary and decided to publish the text verbatim accompanied with his distinctive line drawings (Paris, Seuil: 2011). The project is therefore a double first: the first time ever that a book will have been translated collaboratively over one weekend, and the first translation of this work into English.

The space in the Royal Festival Hall allocated to the project felt like a magical translation playground, designed to make translation as engaging and interactive as possible. Large whiteboards on the walls were covered in alternatives for the title, for visitors to add to, and the table was littered with not only a range of dictionaries, but maps, reference books and other items to get people into the frame of mind of a French WWI soldier. A washing line was strung across the whole room with each panel of the graphic novel pegged up. Visitors could choose which of the panels they would like to work on, write their own translation and then peg it up with other people's versions. Participants are encouraged to discuss their translation attempts with each other, creating a real sense of community, as everyone seems so passionate about language and literature. At the end of the weekend, the experts will put all of the panels together into a complete book. What I love most about the project is that its truly collaborative nature will ensure the best possible translation of the book. Because translations are often individual efforts, the end result is naturally a subjective interpretation of the original; for as much as translators try to stay faithful to the source text, they cannot avoid making choices between different words or ways of interpreting a phrase. 

Another reason why this project is so exciting is the opportunities it opens up for translating texts quickly, accurately, and most importantly in today's market, cheaply. The chronic under-representation of foreign fiction in British markets is undoubtedly due in large part to the unwillingness of publishers to finance translations. Turning the activity of translation into an event not only reduces these costs but creates invaluable publicity for the finished product. While this event is thanks to the British Centre of Literary Translation, I really hope that publishers take note and run events like this of their own in the future, not only for the fun of being part of a community activity, but to help other wonderful books from other languages achieve the translation they so desperately need if they want to find an audience outside their country of origin. 

My attempt at translating one of the first panels from On les aura!
Translation continues at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 26, Monday 27 May. and Saturday 1 June. The results will then be presented in a celebration on Sunday 2 June at 3pm. Full details are available here.


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