Words Hit Hard at the Bookworm Translation Slam
   2014-03-18 10:42:22    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Shen Siling

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Sinologist Sid Gulinck and translator Canaan Morse defend their translations of lyrics, originally written by the Tibetan band Neemah. Audience members voted to decide the winner of each stanza, before the loser had to drink. The Translation Slam was a part of the Bookworm Literary Festival. Photo taken March 14, 2014. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/William Wang]

By William Wang

Worlds of words crash, clash and harmonize in the buzzing minds of all those that recontexualize texts in languages. Meanings are invariably up for debate.

TheTranslation Slam (part of the Bookworm Literature Festival and Jue music and art festival)  exploits the issues of translation by pitting two translators against each other to decipher a difficult Chinese text and recreate it in English. The event is wonderfully unique, and wholly appropriate for a city like Beijing where countless people are caught between the worlds of Mandarin and English every day.

This year, Tibetan song lyrics (translated into mandarin) provided the raw materials. The band Neemah attended to play their compositions, and to clarify the meaning of their lyrics when translators got stumped.

Literature translator Canaan Morse and sinologist Sid Gulinck's varying viewpoints produced some surprisingly disparate verses.

Your Ever Present Glance
Like a casual sunshine bundle
Causing a stir in my disheveled heart

wrote Gulinck. Whereas Morse thought the following was more appropriate:

Looking at me with those tender eyes
Warm and free, climbing the sunrise
Clear away dust and sin on my window.

Morse defended his work: "In this translation, all the syllables are matched to the music. Everything is in service of that. It doesn't matter what the meaning is. They have to be sing-able syllables and they have to be metrically inline."

Gulinck waxed lyrical about translations: "The translation itself is like the afterlife of an existing text. It's not an imitation of it; it's like a continuation of it that keeps on going."

Metaphors could resurface in completely new ways. "It's like the Buddha sitting on top of the high mountain, Kunlun," began Morse, "directing us dusty people where to go."

"I see this woman sitting before a man, naked, or approachable," countered moderator Jon Rechtman. "And he is hesitating so she guides him through her midao."

At times, Morse, Gulinck and Rechtman's banter was reminiscent of that heard at an intellectual frat party. Audience votes declared each stanza's winner, and losers had to drink. It was certainly entertaining, though jarringly incongruous with the melancholic strains performed by Neemah throughout the evening.

Impressively, both translators took a stab at singing their lyrics with the band. "Translating for song lyrics is very genre-specific," emphasized Morse after the show. "Because when you're translating for a song, it has to work."

Audience members also proved themselves to be astute, tossing out comments about whether or not a gerund should have been used, and pushing the competition to the 15th and final verse to decide the winner.

The slam is all about bilingual complexities, performed by bilingual wordsmiths, for a largely bilingual audience: it is a wonderfully unique event. Prior to attending, many had no idea what to expect. Could a discussion of semantics entertain an audience for over two hours?

Easily, as it turned out.

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