Post #5 — Word geeks in the hot seat

There was some finger-wagging in Post #4.

That’s a turn-off—almost as bad as a translator/language cop lecturing a potential client about misused subjunctives and conjugations until ze eyes glaze over, then wondering why projects fail to materialize. No way to build a tribe.

So today we’ll head over to a win-win-win-win scenario where fear is conquered, a narrative is born, a tribe takes shape.

Seth Godin has suggested one way Ruckusmakers can get people on their side: “You tell them a story in a way they will hear, then teach them something. Make it so that someone who ‘gets it’ has the language and incentive to tell people around them.” And so the tribe grows.

But even without overdosing on conjugation, translation is not immediately perceived as dynamic or exciting. Photos of translators at the wordface are generally bland and generic, bespectacled geeks at a keyboard and screen. No exotic gowns or Kevlar vests.

This is only natural. Because for translators, producing the art—the suspense, drama and high-wire feats of wordplay—takes place inside their wetware. Invisible. No wonder most non-linguist journalists writing about translation are suckers for technology; Star Trek’s Universal Translator is just so much more enticing than screen/cursor/furrowed brow/keyboard/cursor/pursed lips/glasses.

One way to lure non-tribe members into the excitement of wordplay is a Translation Slam. It lifts the words off the page—literally.

Ingredients: a large room, a large screen and projector, a moderator, a short text (100-150 words) and… two translators willing to stand up and put their art out there. (Yes, we’re back to conquering fear.)

Spectators get a copy of the original text. The two slammers have prepared their translations beforehand and these are projected on screen, side by side. Naturally, the two translations are very different; that’s how language works. There’s never “one right answer.” We’re not just replacing words, people, it’s about meaning and connections and flow.

The slam begins. The moderator highlights a formulation; the translators explain their choices, the forks in the road, the stops and the starts. Revisiting their work together, they weigh the music. And analyze, out loud, what works and what doesn’t.

As they do, the words come alive, stretched and juxtaposed in a collaborative process that is more riveting-discovery-of-how-language-works than winner-takes-all joust.

In January, a hundred parents, kids, teachers and students sat in on a slam at a language trade fair in Paris and were mesmerized.

Last August, a slam in Berlin  had a capacity crowd of language learners and professionals on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes.

In both cases, spectators (and professionals) exited the room abuzz, with new enthusiasm and respect for the expertise on display.

They’d seen how language fits together and were heading out to relay their enthusiasm.


HT to serial slammers Laurence Cuzzolin, Iwan Davies, Grant Hamilton, Dominique Jonkers, Hugh Keith, François Lavallée, Clémence Malaret, Lisa Rüth, Ros Schwartz and Steffan Walter.

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1 Response to Post #5 — Word geeks in the hot seat

  1. Pingback: Word geeks in the hot seat | Coquecigrues et ima-nu-ages

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