A tale of two slams

What’s in a name?

Would a translation “slam” by any other name sound as puerile and pseudo-confrontational? A tad harsh, perhaps, but I’m not a great fan of the “duel” rhetoric. Or maybe I was just hoping for a gentle ride, as I girded my verbal loins for my debut slam. My opposite number and I were trying to cultivate a collaborative approach to probe the text, to find the best renderings we could, to explore the various ways to skin a linguistic cat – rather than seeking a rumbustious, rambunctious tussle from which the vanquished slinks away, tail between shanks, their wounds to lick. “Superness”, not “supremacy”, was our aim.

Of course, competitive slams or similar affairs exist in other arenas, such as poetry. If Wikipedia is anything to go by, though (“One of the goals of a poetry slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who claims absolute authority over literary value. No poet is beyond critique, as everyone is dependent upon the goodwill of the audience.”), it sounds like poets might be more prone to delusions of authority than their translator cousins. Some literati celebrate the poetry slam’s diversity, democracy and vibrancy; poet John S. Hall, though, found it “a very macho, masculine form of poetry, not at all what I was interested in”. Which has echoes of its sister (or “bro”?) genre, the rap duel, of which the scripted faux celebrity showdowns on James Corden’s Late Late Show are but a whimsical pastiche.

Call it what you will, a translation slam was something I’d wanted to do for a while – as a career milestone, a “rite of passage” after almost a decade in the profession, something else to add to the CV and tell the grandchildren. So, when the opportunity arose, I did one; or rather, in my eagerness, two. First, once my slam proposal for the main 2017 ITI conference had been slung out, I joined with my virtuoso colleagues at the Italian network to make a fringe event of it in Cardiff. And rather good it was, too.

The text, astutely selected by Juliet Haydock, comprised a series of extracts from familiar Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty. The chance for the slam audience to watch each scene before hearing the translations intensified the sense of occasion. The small but perfectly formed company brought rigour, critical insight and stamina (there were 540 words to digest) along with a constructive, collaborative mood, facilitated by the horseshoe seating arrangement. The conviviality continued afterwards in a group meal.

Source-language (SL) natives Paola Riboldi and Adriana Tortoriello provided crisp insights into the text’s cultural and expressive nuances, and it was fascinating to see the different styles of translation that we crafted. My counterpart Denise Muir, a specialist in fiction for younger readers, has a flair for the feisty, colourful turn of phrase, while I aimed to mirror the kind of laconic yet moving spirit that the tenor of the film and its ageing protagonists seemed to exude. Thus “farabutto” became “cheeky rascal” or “rogue” in our respective versions, while “mondano” re-emerged as “playboy” and “socialite”.

Although not an exercise in subtitling, it was important to fit the text both to the pace of the images and to the rhythm and intonation of the actors’ speech. And what actors they were – Toni Servillo won the European Film Award for his performance, and his ability to weigh a pause and craft a cadence is a lesson in itself. Carlo Verdone’s line “Senza pioggia, agosto sta finendo” came out, contrastingly, as “Rainless, August is ending” and “August is nearly over and it hasn’t rained”. Then there was the imagery (“On Jep’s terrace, a cross-section of urban fauna of all ages and classes is forming a long yet joyless conga, a ghastly trail of forced jollity” vs “Snaking its way around Jep’s terrace is a mongrel beast, of mixed ages and social classes, but grotesque and hideous, the pleasure seems fuelled by a drunken fatigue”). Not to mention relatively minor questions of idiom: “Non ci crederai, ma …” is, literally, “You won’t believe it, but …” but perhaps more naturally “Believe it or not, …”.

As an added benefit of group work, there will probably be someone who can resolve the odd outstanding conundrum – by smoking out a rare side-meaning of a word that had blindsided everyone else, for example. HT to Jane Griffiths for realising that filtro here is a philtre or potion, not a filter, thus improving on our “From the cracks in that ground seethes a feverish vapour that works on the blood of certain men like a filter, producing a kind of heroic madness like no other” and “A febrile vapour rises from these cracks in the earth, boiling in the blood of some men, like a filter, begetting a form of heroic dementia like no other” (“Fuma dalle fenditure di quel suolo un vapor febrile che opera sul sangue di certi uomini come un filtro, producendo una specie di demenza eroica dissimile ad ogni altra”).

Slam no. 2 featured at the METM17 conference in Brescia. The text was much shorter (226 words); the timeframe, likewise (75–90′). The frisson of slamming in front of 50 of the most accomplished and experienced translation-conferencegoers around was heightened by having to do it all under the beady eye of celebrity translator, author and strolling slam moderator Tim Parks. I was intrigued about what to expect from a man who publicly volunteers a predilection for anal wands among his lifestyle choices (see a piece in the Evening Standard), but he was charm and literary insight personified, ably helming the mostly non-Italianist crowd through the text: the opening paragraphs of Elsa Morante’s award-winning 1957 novel, L’isola di Arturo.

As a literary translator, he invests considerable time in teasing out the authorial voice (which in my line of work – high-end leisure marketing – is often more immediate and less nuanced), so his preamble on this aspect was fascinating. Although my co-slammer, art expert Laura Bennett, had taken the precaution of reading the entire book, I had made a deliberate decision not to, partly as an experiment to see how much of the voice I could glean from the slam text on its own. As it turned out, the answer was a fair bit but not all, as the narrator’s character was an idiosyncratic mix of a man talking as, or through, his boyhood self. Naturally, if translating the text for real as a paid commission, I would study the whole thing, but it did show quite effectively how subtle and rich the voice can be and just how much of the text you need to examine in order to tune into it properly.

A pivotal point was the sentence running on kangaroo petrol, as I think I decried it. Its halting cadence and frequent asides made it sound hesitant and unnatural, I felt, to the English ear and left me wanting to slap it on the back and tell it to pull itself together:

Ma un altro motivo, tuttavia, bastava lo stesso a dare, per me, un valore araldico al nome Arturo: e cioè, che a destinarmi questo nome (pur ignorandone, credo, i simboli titolati), era stata, così seppi, mia madre.

Laura and I smoothed it out a little, relieving the lines of much of their punctuation:

“Even so, there was another reason why ‘Arthur’ had heraldic echoes for me. For the one who bestowed on me this name (oblivious though I believe she was to its noble symbolism) had been, so I learned, my mother.”


“But there was another reason why the name Arturo still felt heraldic to me. I had been given it, so I’m told, by my mother, although I don’t think she can have known the nobility it symbolised.”

On a more detailed level, as you might expect, there were numerous divergent renderings: “more historical kings” / “better-chronicled kings” for “re più storici” and “spectral” / “embryonic” for what Tim Parks had as “larval” in his literal guide translation of “larvale”, a reference to a faded image of the character’s humble, long-deceased teenage mother. By the way, Tim found the whole experience so stimulating that he was moved to write an article about it in the New York Review of books (take a gander: www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/12/09/gained-in-translation).

So. A growing experience, or rather two. No losers, no winners, although in a sense everyone wins. What did I learn? That literary translation is as challenging as I remembered it from university. That the SL-native perspective in texts with deep cultural roots is especially valuable. That you can always improve by exposing yourself to the leftfield lingual inspirations of sharp colleagues. And, yes, that this slam lark is something I can do. And so can you. And you should. Put yourself out there. Put your work up for scrutiny. Collaborate. Organise slams in your own local translator community. Raise the bar!

How many translation events or conferences have slams? (Do correct me in the July–August letters, fragrant reader, but) AFAIK hardly any. How come? Is there a collective reticence, a lack of courage, a feeling that worthy presentations about tools, productivity and marketing are “safer”, where no one’s core skills are on the line? A qualm that non-SL speakers might be alienated? (Skilful moderation can overcome that.)

Let’s have more sessions about actual language matters at translator events. Let’s have more slams!

But first, let’s have a better name for them.