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Playing with Tongues: The World of Translation Experiments

By Rex Cleaver, Bianca Fiore, Oisin Harris and Giulia Maggiori


If you’re interested in playing with languages, then the translation experiments we discuss in this issue will be right up your alley.


Eugenio Montale and the Changeability of Poetry in Translation

In his experiment, Eugenio Montale reflects on authorship and translation. To prove his theories, he comes up with a literary game – commissioning the chain-translation of his own work from the original Italian into Arabic, then from Arabic to French, then Polish, Russian, and so on, until returning home with one final text translated into Italian. The results are fascinating.


Eugenio Montale is one of the most translated Italian poets around the world. Throughout his career, he has often collaborated with translators to make his poems as accessible as possible to a foreign audience. Few people know, however, that Montale's passion for translation goes far beyond the translation of his poems into other languages, as Montale himself was a translator. Before his death, Montale decided to experiment with the limits of translation by commissioning a literary game to Maria Corti. Maria Corti had to translate one of Montale’s poems from Italian into Arabic and then commission the translation of the Arabic version to French (without showing the French translator the original Italian poem). This procedure was to be repeated ten times in ten different languages (always starting from the last version of the translated poem and without ever revealing the previous translations) until the penultimate translation was retranslated back into Italian. The experiment gave birth to a book called Poesia Travestita (Poetry in Disguise), which contained all the different translations of the poem. The result is undoubtedly fascinating, since the poetry of arrival and that of departure have little or nothing in common. Montale wanted to demonstrate how the translation of a poem modifies not only its language and form, but also its symbols and cultural references that must be made accessible to a culturally different public from that of the source text.


Understanding Chinese Demand for British Cultural Content


Ever wondered how cultural norms impact a story’s success when translated into another language? The Literary Platform and the Douban social network promoted David Mitchell’s stories to a Chinese audience to find out.


In 2013, Douban, a Chinese social network partnered up with a British publishing thinktank and launched an experiment, making two short stories by British novelist David Mitchell (author of Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas) available on Douban Reads (the network’s eBook service). Both stories entered into a translation contest open to any Douban user, and the best translations went to a public vote, with the winning translation ultimately available for sale through Douban Reads. This experiment seized upon the expanding Chinese market for creative content. Shows like Downton Abbey, Skins and The IT Crowd have done well in China, but many have not. One reason is sensitivity towards cultural norms. As one of the world’s largest publishing industries, the UK’s cultural exports to China (apart from educational materials) has not fared as well as it could. Using Douban, The Lit Platform was able to collect data on user behaviour from the contest, specifically in terms of what the wider cultural preferences were and what interest the contest ignited in other British writing. The study also showed how many participants in the experiment sought out other works by Mitchell. As a translational and cultural experiment, it was great for exploring new translation and eBook revenue models.



The Poettrio Experiment


The Poettrio Experiment is a literary workshop made of two poets and one linguistic advisor who work together to translate a poem. The results speak of communication, teamwork and cultural context.

When we talk of translating literature, the view typically held is that the translation process chiefly involves two key players: the original author of the text and its subsequent translator. Consequently, the journey that a translated novel or poem embarks on is imagined as being relatively linear in its trajectory; a text is written in its original language and is then translated into another language by someone who is fluent in both. The Poettrio Experiment seeks to challenge this typical view of the translation process.


Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The Poettrio Experiment is an ongoing collaborative research project that is interested in the future of translation. Defined by their researchers, a “Poettrio” is a collaborative process between a poet who has written a source text, a poet who writes in the target language and (most interestingly) a language advisor who is an expert in both the source and target language.


Instead of the usual pairing of an author and a translator, the presence of a language advisor means the process of translation is broken down into a fully collaborative process, one that allows researchers to examine each level of translation.


With the Poettrio project, researchers can investigate how trios translate in a workshop context, as well as seeing how the different roles function, and ultimately, how the creative process evolves within a trinity.


Check out the project’s YouTube channel, Poettrio, to see live readings of some of the poems written during this experiment.

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