Translation Slams: Can You Benefit without Working in the Source Language?

Reflections on the ATA59 Spanish-to-English Translation Slam

Inspired by poetry slams, translation slams are a forum for comparing multiple translations of the same source text. The participants are usually a moderator and at least two translators, or “slammers.” The translations are done in advance of the event, so that each of the translators, the moderator, and the audience can jointly discuss the texts to learn from the experience.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every translation slam I’ve attended. However, I previously thought I would only be able to follow those where I work with both the source and target languages. But the Spanish-to-English translation slam at ATA59 proved me wrong.

It seemed like I was one of only about two or three people who did not have both Spanish and English as working languages in a packed room of around 100 people. But I was determined not to let that stop me from enjoying a translation slam and supporting two of my Savvy teammates.

Three slammers

All of the other translation slams I’ve witnessed or read about had two slammers and one moderator. This one had three slammers, and I thought that added quite an interesting dimension. One thing that fascinated me was that all three translations had their moments. At first, I started to inadvertently form an opinion about which one I liked best, only to realize later that I liked one of the other versions better for certain terms, sentences, and passages. All three translators generally reached a consensus in their discussion on what was most effective. This impressed on me their willingness to seek the best possible translation ahead of their own egos or competitiveness.

A relatively long narrative source text that showcased strengths and weaknesses

The source text was around 700 words in length. This is slightly longer than other translation slams I’ve read about, and sure enough, they did not quite make it to the end. However, one advantage of it being slightly long was that it helped provide a range of opportunities for all three translations to display their strengths and weaknesses. As mentioned, I liked one better initially, whereas another showed its strength closer to the end. A shorter source text may not have allowed for this sort of range.

Complementary skill sets

The slam was moderated by Savvy’s Jamie Hartz. She did a good job of maintaining a constructive tone and balancing commentary from each of the slammers and from the audience. I’d say that is the most important role of a moderator, apart from all the prep work.

The three slammers were Cathy Bahr, Savvy’s Emily Safrin, and Sarah Symons Glegorio. It was fascinating to see how their skill sets and approaches complemented each other. Cathy showed skill in holistically recasting paragraphs and sentences to break free from the source text. On the other hand, Emily’s attention to detail and Sarah’s legal translation background resulted in a stronger focus on mastering individual phrases and words, finding natural English equivalents for tricky Spanish wording. When you put it all together, these macro- and micro-focused approaches make for a winning combination that would lend itself well to a translator-reviser pairing.

My takeaways

I felt that this translation slam did a good job of exemplifying the challenges translators face. Ambiguities in the source text and other wording that was difficult to interpret sometimes resulted in translations that played it safe and stuck too close to the source. On the other hand, there were some translation choices that did get away from the source, but still missed the mark in terms of the intended meaning as best approximated by the collective wisdom of the moderator, the other slammers, and the audience.

It seemed as if the only way to really master some of these passages would be to consult with the author of the source text and combine the writing, research, and reading skills, and unique approaches of all three slammers. In lieu of the source-text author, there were at least native speakers of the source language in the audience who were able to help.

To me, this reaffirms the value of working with a reviser, especially one with a complementary skill set, and of engaging the client in dialogue.

Yes you can!

Although I do have a basic understanding of Spanish (having studied it a long time ago) that helped me understand the source text, I would still assert that I would have been just fine if I hadn’t understood a word of the source language. The comparison of the three translations into my native language was easy to follow. I could judge what read better in the target language and grasp the more straightforward aspects of the source language by comparing the three translations. I was also able to understand the more complex issues, because they came up in discussion.

Another example of a session I attended with a source language I don’t work with is was that of Claudio Cambon, entitled “Being a Faithful Cheat! Betraying Source Texts to Provide Better Legal Translations” about how to get away from the source in Italian-to-English legal translations. My knowledge of Italian is far more limited than my knowledge of Spanish, but that didn’t matter. The presenter shared a word-for-word translation on the screen and then showed how he would completely rewrite it. This made it easy to follow and learn from the step-by-step improvements to the English and enabled me to understand approximately what the source text said.

In conclusion, I would encourage you to look out for future translation slam opportunities. Don’t shy away from participating if you get the chance, because it appears to be very rewarding. And don’t rule out sitting in the audience just because you don’t master the source language. If you at least master the target language, you should be able to get something out of it.

If you’d like to read some fascinating reviews of other translation slams, please see Chris Durban’s “Post #5 — Word geeks in the hot seat” and Tim Gutteridge’s “Ingredients for a perfect translation slam.”

By the way, I’m currently preparing to moderate a translation slam for the first time, with a twist: a text I wrote in English will be translated into Swedish, my source language, and I’ll moderate to provide the author’s perspective and answer questions. Do you have any advice or thoughts for me to consider in this exciting endeavor?