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.