Taking our message to the translation world
At the beginning of this month, I was sitting in a Scottish hotel with my friend Tim Gutteridge listening to the lively buzz of more than 50 people discussing each other’s translations in small groups. And I suddenly realised that exactly a year before I’d been sitting in a meeting room in Barcelona, also with Tim, doing exactly the same thing. It’s been a year in which Tim, and Victoria Patience and I have taken our idea of getting together in a small group of translators to mutually revise one another’s work to the translation world. Before that, it had been more or less our secret, although I did write about it here and here, so if you want to find out more about what RevClub actually is you can read those posts.
RevClub’s “tour” (and I must be careful with the rock band analogies considering that Victoria still regrets that we didn’t develop stage costumes for our presentations) really began just after METM17 in Brescia, where I gave a presentation of my own about specialisation. When I was discussing that by e-mail with Victoria and Tim they had lots of questions, but what they wanted to know really boiled down to two things: where’s the next one? And why don’t we present something next time? In no time at all, Victoria, who lives near Buenos Aires, had agreed that, if I could persuade MET to let the three of us give a workshop, she would cross the Atlantic for the next MET meeting in Girona. Just the thought of the three of us actually being able to meet in person provided plenty of motivation to rise to the challenge as I’m not sure we’d ever contemplated actually being able to meet until that point. I reckoned that, because RevClub was about revising each other’s work, Mediterranean Editors and Translators was likely to be keen on something on the theme of revision, but we also wanted to include something about what the three of us do and how we operate. Because the point of taking RevClub on the road is that it’s an idea so simple that any three translators working in the same language combination can do it.
As I suspected, MET was keen on the revision workshop idea. There were just two conditions: firstly, they wanted us to try it out before Girona, at a workshop day in Barcelona. Secondly, they wanted us to include some theory about revision. Trying it out wasn’t really a problem, as Tim said he would be happy to come to Barcelona to copresent with me. Somehow it was impossible to conceive of there being just one of us to present RevClub, and we couldn’t ask Victoria to come from Buenos Aires twice in a few months. Including theory wasn’t going to be so easy, though, as none of us knew anything about the theory of revising translations.
It was in these circumstances that Brian Mossop, and his book on editing for translators, came (briefly) into our lives, or at least into mine, because I was the one who produced a summary of his work to use in the first part of our workshop. I faced two particular difficulties: firstly, Mossop tends to take a rather minimalist view of revision (“Don’t change anything that doesn’t really need changing”) which we tended to disagree with. It meant we often found ourselves saying things like “This is what Mossop says. But don’t do it like that, do it like this.” Leading on from this, and perhaps more importantly, what Mossop had to say didn’t really have very much to do with our own message or with what we wanted to do. But, despite this, the first part of our Barcelona workshop owed a great deal to him.
We saw the workshop, above all though, as a chance to get people doing things. The difficulty was how to do that with groups working in different language combinations. We came up with a variety of solutions. I wrote a rather artificial exercise so participants could revise a supposed “translation” which was, in fact, just a piece of writing full of deliberate mistakes and oddities. But we also wanted the participants to correct real translations and to make that happen, we decided we needed the same text in various languages. After rejecting the idea of using something from the EU as far too boring, we settled on a well-known novel instead. Anna Karenina was about to become the fourth member of RevClub. An extract was chosen and Tim managed to find it on the internet in all the source languages of all workshop participants so that they could translate it, correct each other’s translations and then all discuss the translation problems involved. We also decided that we would use the same extract to demonstrate the translation slams that the three of us take part in via Skype once a month.
Tim arrived in Barcelona for the workshop and came to dinner at my flat. It was the first time we had met in person, but we quickly relaxed and made sure we had everything ready. In the morning, the turnout was a little disappointing to be honest, but all our exercises worked well, including our slam. Even Mossop was well received. Discussing it with Tim later on, I told him I was pleased at how it had gone. He agreed it had worked well. Then came the sting: “But we’re not doing it like that again!”
In fact, it took a great deal of discussion between the three of us before we had the new version of the workshop hammered out and ready to go in Girona. It would have had to have changed anyway, of course, because this time Victoria was going to be there too, but I hadn’t been banking on such radical surgery. Tim wanted Mossop out, though, and Victoria agreed with him. They were right, of course. He simply didn’t fit with what we were trying to do. But I resisted removing the bit of revision theory that MET had specifically asked us to include. It was one of the few times in the history of RevClub that I have been left in a minority of one and Mossop got his marching orders.
There were more changes too. Out went my revision exercise, which had never been entirely satisfactory. In came a much simpler and better idea from Tim – participants would be asked to bring a small piece of their own translation work to be revised by a colleague in the workshop. This had the advantage that even if the colleague didn’t work from the same language pair they could still revise the English. We changed the slam, too. Instead of using the same piece of Anna Karenina as the participants, we decided to work on the next part of the novel.
There were several months between the Barcelona workshop and the MET meeting in Girona, but they seemed to fly by. In no time at all, Victoria was arriving from Buenos Aires and Tim was back again. When we met at the MET translation slam, where Tim was one of the participants, it was the first time all three of us had been in the same room together and when we went for dinner we were high on the excitement of it all. It was that, I think, which made our workshop so successful. Many participants commented on the “chemistry” between the three of us, something I don’t think we realised we had before.
There were still weaknesses in the workshop, of course. The worst of these was our slam, which did seem to drag a little, partly because, this time, our participants were not familiar with the particular piece of text we’d been working with. The exercise where they revised pieces of each other’s own work was a great success though, and there was plenty of enthusiasm for our message and for the idea of RevClub. We’d thrown out our original script but it had been worth it. We’d also had a great time. I dimly recall dancing after the conference dinner and the picture at the top of the page (a rare photo of the three of us together) shows us that night.
The aftermath of Girona was taken up with discussion between the three of us about what conferences were and what they ought to be. We even made a set of suggestions for MET to consider (and we’ll be looking carefully this year to see if they have taken any of them up). But we soon returned to thinking about spreading the word about RevClub. Victoria was thinking about presenting at the ITI Conference in Sheffield. Tim, who it has to be said isn’t a great conference fan, didn’t want to go to Sheffield, though. He had his own gig lined up: an all-day workshop for the ITI’s Scottish network in Aberdour, near Edinburgh. As I couldn’t imagine anyone presenting RevClub, which is all about working together, on their own, there was only one solution – I needed to be in Sheffield and Aberdour.
In fact, I’d been thinking of going to Sheffield anyway, so it wasn’t a great hardship to add Aberdour as well. It would mean being away two weekends quite close together but fortunately I have an understanding family. So Victoria drew up a proposal and we were accepted to speak in Sheffield. The ITI conference doesn’t have workshops, so this time we were going to have to fit ourselves into a presentation format. Ideas were thrown around and versions of possible scripts whizzed between us until we settled on a final version for which Victoria came up with some brilliant ideas, including a way of giving our audience an insight into the kind of conversations about translation the three of us have by including them in our three-way WhatsApp group. The night before we were due to speak, Victoria and I sat up polishing the presentation in a Sheffield hotel room. It seemed that we had it all under control.
But having seen one or two of the speakers on the first morning of the conference, we changed our minds. Some of them were so slick we wondered if we’d practised enough, while others raised a different kind of problem. A keynote speech given by the people behind the Hoxby Collective (a kind of multipurpose agency in the UK for all kinds of freelancers, not just translators) sent us scurrying back to the hotel at lunchtime. Suffice it to say that we hadn’t enjoyed the Hoxbies very much and the fact that they had used the word “inspiring” in every other sentence made us determined to cut the “i-word” entirely from our presentation so as not to be confused with their approach. We took advantage to do some extra practice as well, which paid off once we got into the large conference hall. I knew it was going to work as soon as we got to our little interactive segment (despite the lack of time, we were determined to get our audience doing something rather than just sitting in their seats) and I heard the satisfied buzz as people chatted away about the translation on the screen. The only problem we had was that we were getting through it too quickly. We were basing ourselves on a script but, noticing that we were going to finish unacceptably early, I began to add in extra points to string out the material we had left. Victoria noticed and began doing the same. Soon we were both frantically improvising, but the material that came to mind was just as good as anything we’d written down. We finished with plenty of time for questions but no awkward gaps.
We’d created our presentation following the principles we’d talked about after Girona – as much interactiveness as possible, no unnecessary slides and no paper handouts – we had a neat QR code slide at the end leading to a pdf handout that we’d placed online. And whether it was that or the content or simply the RevClub idea, the reception was quite astonishing. For the rest of the conference, complete strangers would come up to me and tell me, rather ironically as it turns out, that we’d been “inspiring”. David Jemielity, who had given a wonderful talk himself, told us that the three of us had invented something completely new. It was here, I think, where I realised how special RevClub actually is.
After a break of a couple of weeks of “normal” work, though, it was time to move on to Scotland. Working out what we were going to do with all our time at the all-day event actually proved quite difficult. Although the original idea was to use most of the Girona material and basically give it all a little more time, in fact a lot of changes were made. Initially we all seemed to have different ideas about what we wanted to do but compromises were made and eventually we agreed. One change I was determined to make was to bring back the slam to a piece of text the participants had already worked on. In Girona many seemed to have lost interest in the slam and I was convinced this was because they hadn’t had the same connection with the text as they had when we did our first workshop in Barcelona.
The Aberdour workshop was well attended, with more than 50 people, but this really didn’t make it any more difficult to run. We made a decision to use virtually no slides and no script, presenting RevClub purely off the cuff – and it was all the better for it. Less once again turned out to be more. As for the exercises, they worked extremely well. I took great satisfaction from wandering round the hotel that served as a venue and hearing different languages spoken, because for the first time we were presenting to people who worked out of English as well as some for whom English was their target language. Tim even came up with a special exercise for them, so they could discuss the problems of a translating a particular English text into their own languages. But hearing so many people talking earnestly about translation and translation difficulties was an exciting experience. As was the ceilidh that followed our workshop day. Much Scottish dancing was done, even by people with little or no idea of how to do it properly.
So what did we learn in the year between Barcelona and Aberdour? On a personal level, we’ve realised what good friends the three of us actually are. I don’t know whether we ever really expected to meet, but presenting RevClub enabled us to do that, and it’s all been great fun. Professionally, meanwhile, RevClub is of interest to people. Our workshops in Girona and Aberdour sold out. Our Sheffield presentation filled the main hall. People really do want to know what we do.
However, despite their interest, not many seem to be replicating our model. There is a RevClub in Finland and another of Spanish-English legal translators. Then there are a few other active groups and one or two more in the process of setting up. So why is so much interest not being translated into action? It’s hard to say. It’s possible that Victoria and Tim and I have some sort of special relationship that’s difficult to replicate. We certainly get on well, although we don’t shy away from arguing our corners when necessary, but I don’t think we’re unique. I wonder if the answer lies in human nature. Starting a RevClub is an attractive idea for translators, but it requires effort. And a lot of people perhaps aren’t willing to make all the effort needed. Perhaps there is a reluctance to make the necessary effort or to risk what Victoria describes as “coming across as a stalker or a weirdo”.
Despite all the fun we’ve had presenting and facilitating, Aberdour felt a bit like the end of an era. We can’t go on and on presenting RevClub because, as more people find out about the idea, they’ll want something else. We were asked by MET whether we’d like to repeat our workshop, but we’re not sure it would make sense any more. In any case, it isn’t the workshop about revision that they really wanted us to do in the first place. Even if we do some sort of RevClub workshop in the future, it will be without one member of the team: Anna Karenina has had her last hurrah. In Scotland several participants complained about having to translate a translation and they probably had a point. A better solution is required to the multilingual text problem (although preferably not something involving texts from the EU).
So if we want to do more presenting, what could we do? I wonder about perhaps lifting one of our interactive exercises out of the workshop format and fitting it into an ordinary conference presentation slot. It would require a bit of work, but it could offer something refreshing and different. There are other possibilities, too. There is talk of a webinar, and we have even considered (and rejected) the idea of organising our own conference, although perhaps a weekend getaway with lots of workshops and slams for a few like-minded translators is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Mostly, though, we’d like to get back to the rhythm of RevClub, revising each other’s work and doing translation slams on Skype. A year of taking our message to the translation world has reminded us just what a good idea that is.