Working freelance, I often translate for people I have never met with emails being our only means of communication. So, when asked to take part in a German – English translation slam at the University of Bristol, I was both honoured and somewhat overwhelmed.
Having attended other slams, I understood the format: Two translators prepare a translation of the same text in advance. These translations are then dissected with an audience of fellow translators, students and academics while a moderator chairs the event.
Receiving the source text in December gave me over a month to prepare a translation of roughly 400 words – normally a 2-hour task even allowing time to liaise with the client regarding any queries. However, whilst there was a clear brief in this case, there was only an imaginary client: A management company representing two musicians planning a UK tour. The text was a promotional brochure for a four-handed piano duo.
The secretive nature of translation slam preparation means that queries cannot be discussed with the client nor with colleagues, and especially not with your fellow translation slammer.
The source text was marketing material for a unique partnership between two pianists. After researching information on the performers, institutions and music mentioned, mostly online, I drafted my translation in English. I checked it for accuracy, read it and spellchecked it. I had assumed British English, as the management company initially wanted to put together a UK tour. So far so normal, but I then annotated my translation to clarify why I had translated as I did since I could be asked to justify any part of it.
Mainly translating in the legal field, where contracts and court proceedings require a high degree of accuracy and a style close to the original, my approach had to be different here. A free style used for press releases, interviews and marketing texts had to come into play. Facts should appear in a lively and engaging way, grabbing the attention of the reader.
Although the text was short, the need to create a truly robust translation whilst working in isolation meant it had to be revised several times. So, the translation, revision and annotations took 16 hours to produce over a couple of months. Some of the source text would have been very impenetrable if translated literally. Several ideas were often crammed into one sentence. So, I broke the text down into more sentences to give the impact a marketing text deserves.
The original audience for this text would have been Austrian and so there were subtle differences between Austrian and standard German as well as institutions more familiar to an Austrian audience scattered throughout the text. The source text was ambiguous at times, which made it seem intriguing. This raised the question of how to achieve this tone in English whilst also making the message clear.
The day of the slam – 15 February 2018
Once the audience of over 40 people had arrived, I realised that the real work was only just about to start. The discussion was lively and the panel took it in turns to answer questions relating to our respective translations, displayed section by section alongside each other. Over the course of two hours, the audience asked about everything from the nature of the musical collaboration involved to our choice of vocabulary, punctuation, style, word order and the time we had spent on our translations.
It was potentially a nerve-racking experience. When queried, I needed to explain my choices while respecting those of my combatant. Usually, we had come up with alternatives, but it was difficult to determine which was better. Several differences were discussed such as the use of quotation marks as opposed to italics, both being acceptable in the context. Snappy titles competed with explanations. Sometimes, the emphasis in a sentence differed.
Despite the two translations being very different at times, the key points were that the information was correct and engaging. We agreed that what’s important is to understand the gist and relay that in a creative, but clear way. A version produced by machine translation provided to the audience highlighted the weak points of using such a tool for a very idiomatic text.
Working in isolation, a translator can consult the client or agency involved and even discuss issues with colleagues online, but rarely has to justify choices made to an audience. If we consider the audience for our translation, we will be more aware of why and how we make our choices and the impact this will have on our readers.
Thanks to Sandra Mouton of ITI’s Western Regional Group for organising this event along with Dr Lucas Nunes Vieira of the University of Bristol, my fellow translation slammer Dr Seiriol Dafydd, our moderator Dr Lindsay Bywood of the University of Westminster, fellow translator Alex Reuer for reading the source text before the discussion and, of course, our audience.
[Photos courtesy of Dr Kiron Chatterjee]