Polly Barton is a TORCH Humanities Cultural Programme Visiting Fellow, as well as Translator-in-Residence at The Queen’s College. This article by Chris Poole can be found at TORCH’s website.
England’s ’66 World Cup win, spiders and goldfish, the devil, Will Smith…discussion points varied at Polly Barton’s Translation Masterclass. These strange examples testify to the session’s atmosphere of free-flowing experimentation and invention. As 13 participants worked on a variety of translation problems, potential solutions ranged from the brilliant to the bizarre. Throughout the masterclass, the eponymous exchange of the Queen’s Translation Exchange remained apparent. Students exchanged ideas, solutions and techniques freely, demonstrating the value of collaboration in translation.
At the beginning of the class, Barton set out two key aims. Firstly, she wanted to show translators the value of input from non-speakers. She stressed that other people can elucidate translation problems even when they don’t speak the language in question. As should be expected in translation, outsider perspectives can be profoundly valuable. Secondly, she wanted to take a hands-off approach. Each of the participants had brought a ‘problem passage’ to the session. These passages had stumped participants in their personal translation work. The passages offered specific linguistic challenges, but they also pointed to broader issues faced by translators. Participants would present these passages to the group, opening them to discussion and suggestions. Barton, the ‘master’ of the masterclass, wouldn’t offer definitive solutions. Instead, she would allow discussion to develop naturally.
In some cases, simply stating a problem out loud was enough to solve it. One student was wrestling with the infamous sobremesa, a Spanish idiom referring to sitting around the table after dinner to chat for hours. The same student also wracked their brains at dominguero, ‘Sunday-er’. Dominguero is used to describe people who are fond of leisure and weekend activity, sometimes with a pejorative slant. Sounding out the particular issues of translating these terms, the student arrived at various possible solutions. This was not an isolated incident. By vocalising the issues that a passage poses, students developed a clearer idea of the problem they faced. In moments of divine inspiration, this was enough to arrive at a satisfying solution.
Certain types of problems recurred throughout the session. One such problem was idioms, the darling bane of many translators’ lives. Is the French ‘chat échaudé craint l’eau froide’ (‘the scalded cat fears cold water’) the same as ‘once bitten, twice shy’? Switching to Japanese, students considered how idioms can become shocking, rather than banal, when translated literally. In Japan, an idiomatic phrase to describe a group of people dispersing is ‘kumo no ko wo chirasu’. This translates as ‘to scatter in all directions like baby spiders’. In the sample passage, the phrase is used to describe goldfish evading a fishing net at a carnival. To render this faithfully in English might cause a few shudders, and visions of chimeric fish-spiders. Literal translation would be jarring rather than idiomatic; it would seem more like a poetic image than an everyday saying. However, opting for an idiomatic English phrase, such as ‘scattering like cockroaches in light’, would change the reference used in the original. As these concrete examples grounded the discussion, participants engaged with more abstract questions of fidelity, cultural context, and foreignization.
Though European languages were most prominent, there was ample variety. German, Spanish and French met with Japanese, Haitian Créole, and a variant of Cantonese associated with Hong Kong’s working class. The latter two languages called for particular sensitivity: translation of a marginalised Hong Kong text into English could subject it to the language, and thus the biases and values, of the colonial power. The original author, Wong Bik-Wan, is alert to the relationship between language and power. Her prose blends standard written Chinese with Hakka dialect and working-class Cantonese. Mimicking these fusions in translation is especially challenging, and risks homogenising Wong’s linguistic multiplicity into a standardised English.
Likewise, Créole references to Voodoo deities would likely be unfamiliar to Western readers. Translators debated the use of footnotes to explain such references in translation. While this might enhance understanding, it risked splitting the reader’s attention and rendering texts too academic. In the original text, the reference was part of a pun, making referencing—or explaining the joke, if you will—all the more undesirable. Participants sensed that translation entailed weighing up several possible versions, comparing their respective advantages and disadvantages. ‘Exchange’ could be an internal process, where effects in the original text were ‘exchanged’ for ones that had comparable impact in the target language. However, it became clear that each translator’s priorities were subtly different, leading to a wealth of creative solutions and healthy disputes.
Alongside the session’s diversity of languages, there was a range of textual mediums. The prose translator enjoyed luxuries that the subtitler did not, while translation of poetry introduced additional formal restraints. Working within restraints sometimes felt like a relief, insofar as concrete limitations gave focus and form to lofty creative processes. In other places, translators longed for a bit more breathing room. Whatever the case, different media and languages had more in common than not: the translator faced similar issues and resorted to similar feats of sensitivity, creativity, and compromise.
Participants left with more than a few possible solutions, and a rather extensive reading list. Yet the more meaningful takeaway was that pooling efforts, even with non-speakers, stimulated the experimentation and creativity at translation’s heart. Translators spend a lot of time alone, fretting over challenging and obtuse manuscripts. Communal translation, though, allows them to create socially, turning the ‘dialogue’ between author and translator into a group discussion. It frames translation as playful, even at its most baffling. A ‘masterclass’ may sound intimidating, but future attendees will only leave emboldened.
Author Biography: Chris Poole studied French & Spanish at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He is a freelance writer and editor interested in horror cinema, Internet-era art, and cultural attitudes to mortality. He also writes poetry and fiction. You can find him on instagram or Medium @chrisjohnpoole.