Rarely in Edinburgh…

have I been in a room, possibly with fifty or so other people, where about thirty languages are spoken. It was a refreshing and dramatic change to the fairly monoglot norm!

The event was part of the Jura Unbound series at the Edinburgh Book Festival and it was run by Daniel Hahn (a translator and director of BCLT, one of the UK’s most active hubs for promoting literature in translation) and Adam Thirlwell (a novelist). The title of the event, Multiples, was taken from Adam’s latest (co-authored) work which provided the premise for the evening: translation, and specifically how meanings are changed, lost, gained, and completely morphed when translating an apparently simple sentence from one language to another.

MultiplesAudience participation was essential, but luckily (helped in some cases perhaps by the generous sponsorship of one of Scotland’s best whisky distilleries) the audience was very willing to oblige, and soon we were all engaged in a series of linguistic “games”.  It was all playful, but also revealing – as quite a few people commented later. Volunteers even staged mime shows (charades with a difference), and a mysterious “Gibberish” game, a sort of interpreter’s nightmare in which you can’t understand what your “client” is saying (he or she is talking gibberish) but you have to turn it into “proper” English and try to keep the conversation going!

Lastly, throughout the evening, a black notebook circulated through the room in which people were asked to translate a particular sentence into whatever language they could: it started with English, and progressed through French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Italian, and finally (and conclusively, because no one could translate out of it) Norwegian. The original Chinese whisper was the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

I happened to get the final English translation, out of Italian. The results of the Chinese whisper effect were extraordinary (the following is approximate, because I don’t have the text in front of me). This is what the last English text was:

He recognised some of the guys who had tried to kill him. Then at midday, his father asked him to fetch water. It was very icy, he remembered well, but that was not what was important.

Poor Marquez! What a disaster.  But at the same time, how revealing!  Of what? Of how soon chaos intervenes, or how easily it is to go off at a tangent to the meaning when you don’t quite understand what is written, or what is being said.

The evening encapsulated, certainly not as elegantly as Adam Thirlwell’s book, but nonetheless surprisingly eloquently, the multiple meanings, multiple originals, multiple languages, multiple translations (by multiple translators) of literature. Sometimes a version will get close to the original, possibly even surpass it, but there will always be another translation waiting in the wings, or in the future.

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