Translation Tales: Ancient Fables on the Streets of London (Funded Project Report, 2021-22)

Report by Dr Rachel Scott, Royal Holloway, University of London / Centre for Language Acts and Worldmaking, King’s College London

‘Translation Tales: Ancient Fables on the Streets of London’ was a real-world translation game – a multilingual treasure hunt led by literary translator Rosalind Harvey and based on the Wordkeys Translation Game originally designed by Coney, represented by David Finnigan.

‘Translation Tales’ ran on Saturday 21 May 2022 as part of events for Kalila wa Dimna: Ancient Tales for Troubled Times – an exhibition held at the P21 Gallery in King’s Cross London from 12 May to 11 June featuring work by UK and international artists, community arts organisations, and primary school children, which stemmed from the work of the OWRI project Language Acts and Worldmaking. The exhibition explored the intercultural/interlingual exchange of stories as sites of shared heritage through which we imagine who we are, who we want to be, and how we relate to others, as well as important themes like identity, migration, community, and intercultural encounters. The project was inspired by the global journeys of Kalila and Dimna, an ancient book of eastern exemplary fables which has been translated almost continuously since the fourth-century CE.

‘Translation Tales’ was an entirely new version of Wordkeys developed by Rosalind especially for the exhibition. According to Rosalind, ‘Wordkeys was designed as a way to broaden the way people think about translation – for me its appeal lies in how it gets me away from my desk and sparks conversations between strangers about language, connection, culture and cooperation.’

Rosalind’s game took inspiration from the streets around the P21 Gallery with their mixture of cultures and languages, evident in the names of local shops and multilingual signs and graffiti. The game began at the Story Garden in King’s Cross and ended at the P21 Gallery. Two teams of participants competed to locate and translate clues written in foreign languages that echo the linguistic journeys of Kalila and Dimna – e.g., French, Spanish, Italian and German, as well as Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, and Hebrew. The teams used their own knowledge of languages, apps such as Google translate, and a special phrasebook prepared by Rosalind to work out the clues. Participants were not required to have any prior knowledge of other languages although all who attended were clearly interested in them or had knowledge a language than English.

At the end of the game, the two formerly competing teams were brought together in a shared activity that required them to collaborate, exemplifying the message (explored in the exhibition) that communication is key to working together successfully to overcome adversity. Afterwards, the participants, Rosalind and I had an informal discussion about translation, languages, and cross-cultural encounters, and participants visited the exhibition.

Our aim was to put into action how stories traverse languages, connecting people and cultures across time and space despite apparent differences; to engage audiences of the exhibition in questions of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic translation in a more interactive way, and to bring a sense of fun to engagement with languages, demystifying processes of translation; we also wished to bring European languages traditionally taught as part of a MFL degree programme into dialogue with those that are not. Feedback was positive, with comments noting that they had enjoyed ‘working in a team with people I’d only just met!’ and ‘puzzling out other languages and scripts based on what I might already know from “my” languages, and doing that just for fun’; and that ‘the exhibit’s focus on one tale or set of tales that concern team work, and solving life questions via community […] was exactly what the 1 hour translation game felt like’.

Photos of the game have been included in a video of the exhibition’s events, which has been broadcast on the project and gallery’s social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and will be uploaded to the project’s YouTube. The activity has also inspired me to investigate ways of incorporating interactive translation games and activities into my teaching and research, including a potential project translating the medieval Spanish version of the fables into English.

About the organisers

Rosalind Harvey is a literary translator and writer based in Coventry. Her translations include Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole (shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize), Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque (with Anne McLean; shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and longlisted for the IMPAC Award), and Herralde Prize-winner Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter. She is a 2018 Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a 2016 Arts Foundation Fellow, and a founding member of the Emerging Translators Network, a lively online community for early-career literary translators.

Rachel Scott is Lecturer in World and Hispanic Literatures at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Visiting Researcher in the Centre for Language Acts and Worldmaking at King’s College London. She publishes on medieval and early modern Iberian literatures in their transnational and global contexts and is the co-editor of Al-Andalus in Motion: Travelling Concepts and Cross-Cultural Contexts (Boydell & Brewer, 2021) and author of Celestina and the Human Condition in Early Modern Spain and Italy (Tamesis, 2017).

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