Let’s get slamming

Last week, after trying to attend one for ages, I finally managed to go to my first ever translation slam. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. Although they’ve been happening for several years, they seem to have focused firstly on literary texts (which not many of us actually translate for a living) and/or been held at conferences that target a particular language pair (French and English in the “Translate in…” series) or that sell out quickly (MET, ITI).

However, Bath and Bristol universities are now holding regular translation slams in conjunction with the ITI WRG (Western Regional Group). And I hope that more ITI groups and other associations and universities will get on board as slams are a great way to delve into the minds of our colleagues, explore translation choices and improve our own craft.

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that you cannot benefit from a translation slam if it isn’t your language pair. Despite translating from Spanish, the event I went to involved poring over a text translated from German to English. My German is rusty and certainly not good enough to have ever made sense of the complicated text on a couple of musicians. But it really didn’t matter, since we spent most of time comparing the English versions and discussing the differences between them and how the translators, in this case Alison Hindley (who has also written about this slam) and Seiriol Dafydd, had arrived at their final text.

I took my daughter with me as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go (I’d like to give a huge shout out to Bristol University and ITI WRG for allowing us to bring children—my daughter was not the only one there—and for being so welcoming). As she’s only 15 and studying German GCSE, I was worried she’d get bored, but instead she found it fascinating to gain an insight into the translation process. In fact, both of us would quite happily have sat there for longer than the two hours we spent on the slam before the networking drinks.

How does a slam work? I’ve only been to one, so I don’t have much experience, but I discussed the organisation with the slam moderator, Dr Lindsay Bywood from Westminster University, Dr Lucas Nunes Vieira (who I would also like to thank for the photo) from Bristol University and the ITI WRG coordinator and hope colleagues will find the following details useful.

After handing out printed copies of the source text, the two translated versions and the machine translated (MT) version (in this case by DeepL), the event kicked off with introductions to the three key participants on stage: the moderator and the two translators. This was followed by the translation scene-setting when we looked at the brief Lindsay had given the translators. Next, we listened to a native speaker read out the source text for us. And then we were finally ready for the slam itself, in which we analysed both target texts sentence by sentence.

At Bristol there were two screens, one on the right showing the relevant part of the source text and a larger one in the middle showing both versions of the translated sentences one underneath the other. Apparently, some slams have a third screen so that the translations are shown separately on either side of the source text. However, our little discussion group agreed that the two-screen format was probably better and easier to digest.

We didn’t manage to find time to look at the MT version on our handouts or throw open the floor for more questions because the audience had been engaged in the slam throughout and the time had flown by. It would’ve been great to have had more time for networking as well, but it was already getting late and time for dinner. And translators can go on about colons, quotation marks and commas seemingly for ever.

To put on a translation slam, you need an organiser to find a moderator, the two translators and a venue with at least a couple of screens. We were in a lecture theatre, and I think that was an ideal location as it gives attendees somewhere comfortable to write notes as well.

The moderator selects the text, prepares a brief and sends it to the translators. It’s probably best to choose a text that is not too specialised (unless that’s your specific audience) as it will then be more accessible to a larger number of people. But it has to pose some translation challenges to generate discussion. It should also not be too long or there won’t be enough time to discuss it all. Our moderator chose a text she had translated herself for a client a few years back (with permission to use it), so she knew it well. The translators did not confer before the event and were seeing each other’s versions for the first time.

That’s about it, I think. There are obviously variations on the theme, for example, the audience can be given the text to translate themselves beforehand. If I’ve left anything major out, please let me know in the comments. It doesn’t seem that difficult to arrange, so there are no excuses now. Let’s get slamming and up our game.

Further reading:

Write-up of Bath Translation Slam in January 2017

January 2017 Bristol Translation Slam Details

‘Gained in Translation’ by Tim Parks (NYR Daily)

French-into-English Translation Slam. What Will It Teach Us? by Chris Durban and David Warriner, C.Tr.

Translation slam: A war of words by Simon Usborne (The Independent)

Translation Slam at The Norwich Showcase featuring Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne (YouTube video)

2 thoughts on “Let’s get slamming

  1. Hello Nikki,

    Having been a participant in the ATA58 German – English Slam, I can only agree – translation slams are a great! And participating isn’t half as scary as it sounds. At ATA58 we had four translators all working in different fields (patent & technical, financial, marketing and medical). The text was an opinion piece. It was very interesting to see how the specialty fields influenced the translator’s choices. I have a feeling translators shy away because they are concerned that they or their work will be picked apart. But, at least in my experience, that is not the case. Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heike, thanks for your comments and apologies for not responding to you sooner. Yes, I think you are right, people are very worried their work will be criticised so they don’t want to expose themselves. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to volunteer either. And if I did volunteer, I’d stress about it for weeks no doubt. Well done for having volunteered yourself and I’m so glad to hear that it was a positive experience.


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