Marga shows her video of Lucas

Here he is with a speech bubble

The children translate and add their own speech bubbles

These are the (very dark – sorry! my camera’s not up to it) pictures from the YouTube subtitling workshop that Marga Navarrete from Imperial College ran last week at Lawdale Junior School in Tower Hamlets.  Marga has run this workshop many times before as part of the brilliant Routes Into Languages programme, but usually with older children, around year 9 or 10. This was Free Word’s only  translator-in-residence event for children, and it almost didn’t happen – we weren’t able to find any schools near to Free Word whose pupils are learning Spanish and were available during the period of my residency, but luckily Marga had her own contacts in this beautiful Victorian school just off the Old Bethnal Green Road.

The school has an incredibly high percentage of Bangladeshi students due to its location right in the heart of the East End, and most of the pupils speak English, Bengali and Arabic, since they have to start studying the Quran from the age of three. So translation, for these kids, is no big deal – they live it every day, at home, in school, and in their  heads.  The kids in this workshop were aged between 8 and 10, and the oldest had been learning Spanish for 3 years. Their level of language was pretty good, and their confidence astounding, so what we wanted to do with this workshop was to give them a chance to use the language skills they already had in order to add some fun speech bubble-style subtitles to a video Margo had created of her son talking in Spanish.

In the video, 8-year-old Lucas tells us, all in Spanish, his name, where he’s from, who his brothers are, what he likes to eat (and doesn’t like to eat – tomatoes being a particular dislike), and his favourite toys. Marga began the workshop with an icebreaker game of throwing a ball and saying phrases in Spanish, then she introduced the language used in the video by showing the children a freeze-frame image of Lucas and asking them who they thought he was. We then played the video all the way through, and asked the children what he was saying. Once they had translated what Lucas was saying from Spanish into English – which they were remarkably quick at – they took it in turns to come up to the computer and use the YouTube annotation software to add speech bubbles to the video, which was then relayed onto the Smartboard so that all the kids could see it.

The software is really easy-to-use (it didn’t even take me that long, and I’m a veritable Luddite compared to these kids who’ve grown up with the internet), and it’s a really good way of adding informal subtitles, in any language, to a pre-existing video, or one that you’ve created yourself. The kids loved it, Marga and Lucas were stars, and hopefully their Spanish teacher María will be able to use what she learned in the workshop to help the children create a subtitled film about themselves as an end of term project.

Muchas gracias a Marga, María, y Annette, la directora de la escuela – y a los niños, por supuesto!


Have finally posted the photos of last month’s Wordkeys translation game on Brick Lane – check them out on the Free Word Centre’s Facebook page.

Thanks to Louis Buckley for the images, and all the participants, players and volunteers.

We’ve had another great review of our Book Club Fest by Steve Wasserman who came along – read it here. Steve also runs his own monthly book club reading short stories, so do please check it out! Thanks Steve.

Last Sunday, something strange happened at Brick Lane market. As well as the usual hawkers, hipsters and heavily-accented tourists, there was something else going on: the first ever run-through of the Wordkeys translation game was taking place, and by golly was it fun!

The idea first surfaced when I came across the brilliant work Coney had done with their real-world games for adults. Coney’s raison d’être is play for people who have left play behind, or who don’t get a chance to be playful in their lives (few of us do, and more’s the pity). I wanted to take translation out into the street: to create an urban game based around ideas of translation, which would be very closely linked to notions of language, place and exchange, both linguistic and cultural. Together with the wondrously energetic David Finnigan of Coney we came up with the format and structure of Wordkeys, then enlisted the help of Bengali, Chinese, Spanish and Turkish translators to create phrasebooks, and mapped out how the game would play out along the bustling streets of the East End.

The way it starts is you have two teams of people who are each given a phrasebook, a locked box, a set of instructions and some money. One phrasebook contains Chinese and Spanish, the other Bengali and Turkish. The teams are told they must follow their instructions and informed that they must maintain the distance of one street’s width from the other team at all times, unless they are specifically instructed to approach. The two teams may look at each other, wave and gesture to each other, but they are not to speak to each other. The teams are separated and the game commences… I think the photos below will explain better how it worked (there’ll be more up on Free Word’s Facebook page shortly), and soon there’ll also be a full blueprint of how to run the game available on both Coney’s and Free Word’s websites – watch this space. You can also watch a short video about it here.

Using the phrasebook

First instruction completed!

Finding the Chinese instructions (in a smelly hole!)

The arch of translation - we're all the winners!

As I ran through the market, making sure people didn’t get lost among the throngs of market-goers, found the right Argentine empanada stall and Sri Lankan fruit stall, and didn’t miss the rolled-up piece of pink card covered in Chinese characters stuffed into a hole in the wall down a urine-soaked alleyway, I came up with a new term for what we were doing, and for what Nicky and I have been attempting to do with our entire programme of events this autumn: 4D translation. A little like Sarah Ardizzone’s ‘360-degree translation’, this is translation that has nothing (and yet everything ) to do with a 2D piece of paper or a computer’s flat grey screen.

I was completely out of my comfort zone (which usually involves just me, my computer, a book and a nice cup of tea) and watched, at first apprehensive and then astonished, to see how the ambiguous instructions were not flung down in frustration but rather re-interpreted and moulded by the players so that each iteration of the game was unique but equally successful – sound familiar? I think that’s what translation does, too. People were so inventive when it came to following (and breaking) the rules, and it was immensely fun – I encourage all of you to have a go!

Thanks to all our translators, the Free Word staff and volunteers, David and Coney for their amazing work, Tom Chivers for the video, and Louis Buckley for the photos.

So I’ve had to dream up a series of Free Word Centre talks for a non-specialist, non-translator audience, which are China/translation-focussed. Why not ask myself? It seemed like a great idea at first.  I could hardly refuse…. So I did: “Nicky, will you give a talk on ‘3,000 years of Chinese translation’? “Yes Nicky, I will, no problem.”

But as the day grew nearer, I began to get cold feet. Why had I chosen a talk which I originally wrote for a Translation History class at Imperial College? Surely a bit too academic? Sprinkled with words like skopos (theory) and ST (source text). I tried rehearsing the talk to my husband and the dog but stopped after ten minutes because I was boring myself. Who on earth would come? At one point last week, only two people had registered. Should I take them to the pub? Back to the drawing board, and quickly.

Things looked up when I realized that a few fascinating facts and provocative pix might liven the event up, and mentally re-titled it: “Plus ça change…”.

Yes really! Here are just a couple of historical continuities. Translators have taken the rap down the ages: from the penalties meted out during the ancient Zhou Dynasty, the latter illustrated by a colourful print taken from Punishments of China, of an interpreter being tortured for “willful misinterpretation” …to the killing in 1991 of the Japanese translator of Satanic Verses.

And translation has been seen as an instrument of social/political/cultural change from the arrival of Buddhism in China, through to the translation of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in the first half of the twentieth century. Often, of course,  a great deal was lost or changed in translation. The Chinese female deity Guan Yin was originally male in India; the translator of Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, a bestseller in late Imperial China, transformed the innocent sister of Armand, Marguerite’s lover, in order that she should should conform to Confucian proprieties. (Instead of “loving” her fiancé, she has a “desire to have a family of her own” and her future marriage is described as “an arrangement by the parents”.)

I gave my long-suffering listeners quite a dose of Buddhist translation history, because those monk-translators faced some familiar-sounding challenges (how to get lengthy Sanskrit names into Chinese, how to translate new religious concepts for which the language of the time had no words, how to deal with lengthy, flowery digressions by the Sanskrit writers…).

I even managed to get skopos theory in once: Chinese Buddhist translations had an overriding purpose – they were meant to be chanted – and other considerations (comprehensibility, faithfulness to the original) sometimes came second. Chant-ability ruled. Cat-lovers in the audience were charmed when I told them that in Tibetan Buddhism the word for telling the beads is the same as the word for “to purr”, and is said to bring about a similar state of ecstasy. Think of that next time your cat sits purring on your knee. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand her, she’s in bliss.

I found some wonderfully colourful quotes. Critical of translation, from Kumarajiva, aka Luo Shi, a monk-translator in sixth century China: ““[Translation] “is like giving someone rice that you have chewed; the person will find it not just tasteless but downright disgusting”. And applauding it, from the contemporary Chinese author Han Dong: “Western [literary translations in the 1980s were] turned into nutrients to be stirred into the soup that was Chinese literature re-born.” Notice how food creeps into an appreciation of literature in China? No surprise there then!

As for the audience, I needn’t have worried. Loyal friends bringing their own friends plus our intensive leafleting of bookshops, meant the room was full. And what a nice room: anyone looking for a meeting space in London should consider the Free Word Centre. The tables were arranged café-style, free wine and juice was served at the back, and the data projector behaved impeccably, as did the helpful staff and volunteers.

We galloped through three thousand years in precisely one hour and no one left early (though that might have been because it would have been difficult to squeeze through the packed knees). To my surprise, and perhaps to theirs, we had a whale of a time.

Biljana Scott from Oxford University, a Chinese speaker and linguist with a special interest in diplomatic language, will fill the next Thursday evening slot (6.30pm, Thursday 27 October 2011) with Diplomatic Incidents: The Pitfalls of Translation.  

There’s a two-for-one offer on all tickets: Buy one ticket (£5/ £3 concs) and get FREE entry to another talk in the series, which continues till December. If you’re within striking distance of London, do come!

Punishing the Interpreter, China.

Time: September 30th 2011, 9am- 6.30pm

Place: Free Word Centre, London

Themes: Translation (of course!), dialogue, new initiatives, success, sharing ideas, the importance of readers (thanks to  Rachel Van Riel for a highly entertaining presentation that included telling us about the Which Book website, a site that helps you decide which book to read by theme, which has apparently been around 10 years old but which – to my shame – I had never come across. It’s fabulous. Check it out) music, media, digital, festivals, and many, many more.

Action: Workshops – on ‘Getting started in literary translation’ (this was mine and Nicky’s, and it was standing room only!); literary festivals; the media; funding translations (also a popular one, surprise surprise); education – this one had some rather shocking stats about the decline in foreign language teaching (shame on you, politicians); and minority languages, with Vietnamese poking its head up for possibly the first time this year. There was also much networking, heated debate, exciting discussion of new initiatives, an impromptu performance of a traditional English folk song by an ad hoc choir of translators (you had to be there), and some rather exciting canapes courtesy of the European Commission…

Nicky’s tea quiz proved popular (everyone likes cake – oh, and who was the winner, Nicky?!) and it felt good to be part of such a positive, buzzy event that seemed to have more newcomers this year than ever before – as Daniel Hahn put it as he scanned the packed-out lecture theatre in the morning, ‘There’s so many people here that I don’t know – it’s great!’ Roll on next year.

phew! Well we had our first event last night, a joint one hosted by Rosalind and me, the Bookclub Fest. Around 40 people came, all enthusiastic readers and some clearly Bookclub regulars. It was excellent. First the practicalities: we had a great space, at the Free Word Centre, with plenty of room for everyone, plenty of seating, and refreshments. We had a lovely handbell to bring people to order, and mikes so we could have a whole-group discussion at the end.

We were nervous, Rosalind and I, it has to be admitted. Has anyone done anything like this before? With this number of people who didn’t know each other (and some of them didn’t know us)? It was all a bit experimental. But the numbers who registered and the feedback we got as people participated and the nice things they said as they left, all encouraged us to believe that this is a winning formula. Lets do it again sometime!

This is how it worked: four existing Bookclubs who read translated literature, respectively, from Spanish, Swedish, Chinese and Russian, each produced a short story (translated into English) which participants read beforehand. Each Bookclub group had a discussion-leader and people circulated between groups, spending time in each talking about the story. The time we had – a maximum of two hours – meant that participants could spend twenty minutes in each group. The bell was then rung, and they changed to another group for another discussion. Everyone then got together for a whole-group recap of the discussions, and there was time at the end for announcements (of other book-reading groups and events). Judging by the lingering and chatting afterwards, the chance to network and talk to fellow book(club) enthusiasts was as important to everyone as the discussion of the stories which preceded it.

Rosalind and I spent the evening dropping in on the various groups.  I was extremely impressed by the kind of contributions people were making – thoughtful, informed, uninhibited. Personally, I’ve never been to a Bookclub before. I’m seriously considering joining one now!

* Edit as of October 7th – Jessica from young people’s creative reading and writing project MyVoice, who attended Book Club Fest, has kindly written a review of the event – you can read it here. Thanks Jessica! Glad you felt inspired to read some more translations after our event – let us know how you get on!

**Edit as of October 31st – another great review of the event by Steve Wasserman, who attended the Fest and also runs his own monthly book club reading short stories. Read all about it here.

The Spanish and the Chinese groups discuss their short stories

One big group rounds up the discussion at the end