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

Reflections on the ATA59 Spanish-to-English Translation Slam

Translation slams are a powerful tool for translators to hone their craft and learn from each other. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a translation slam or would like to read some other fascinating reviews, please see Chris Durban’s “Post #5 — Word geeks in the hot seat” and Tim Gutteridge’s “Ingredients for a perfect translation slam.” I’ll dispense with an explanation of the format since that information is readily available in these links.

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.

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?

A Slammin’ Good Time at #ata57

ATA 57th Annual ConferenceFor all our camaraderie, we translators rarely have the opportunity to get a glimpse of each other’s work. But at this year’s ATA conference, two translators will display their efforts for all the world to see. Watch French-to-English translators Jenn Mercer and Andie Ho go head-to-head in a Translation Slam at the American Translators Conference in San Francisco on Saturday, November 5 at 2 p.m. Both of them will translate the same text but only unveil their masterpieces to each other and the public for the very first time, live and on screen, at the conference. French to English translator Eve Bodeux, FLD Administrator, will serve as moderator.

This battle for the ages is for novices and veterans alike. Come see linguistic techniques, philosophical approaches, writing styles, and word choices compared and contrasted. Witness how experienced translators face lexical challenges and handle feedback and criticism.

And, just like our own game show, audience members can play along at home! FLD members will receive the text several weeks before the conference so they can try their own hand at tackling the text. It’s a doozy, full of clever word play and on a much-talked-about topic in worldwide news.

Who will reign supreme? Find out this November. Let’s get ready to rumble!

Eve Lindemuth Bodeux is the administrator of ATA’s French Language Division. She has been active in the language services industry since 1994. A French>English translator, her company, Bodeux International LLC, offers multilingual localization, translation, and project management services. She is the author of the book Maintaining Your Second Language: Practical and Productive Strategies for Translators, Teachers, Interpreters, and Other Language Lovers.

Andie Ho is a French>English translator with more than 20 years of experience in the food industry. She is an alumna of Kent State’s graduate translation program and began her career as a project manager before moving into translation full-time. Her background includes a bachelor’s degree in French, a minor in mathematics, a performance at Carnegie Hall, and a stint at a criminal forensics laboratory—all of which influences her translation work today.

Jenn Mercer is the assistant administrator of ATA’s French Language Division. A French>English translator, she has been translating professionally since 2008, specializing in legal, business, and financial translation. She is a past director of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (an ATA chapter). She has bachelor’s degrees in English (with a concentration in creative writing) and French from North Carolina State University, and a certificate in French>English translation from New York University. She has been published in The ATA Chronicle and has presented at ATA conferences twice before on acronym translation strategies and advanced search techniques.