Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Spectacular Translation Machine

At the King's Cultural Institute Creative Labs on Thursday I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Ricarda Vidal who does all sorts of exciting things with translation, such as the upcoming Translation Games. Thanks to her, I found out about The Spectacular Translation Machine event at the Southbank Centre's London Literature Festival this weekend, which as a language nerd I would have been really sad to miss out on.

Translation can be a lonely activity, with nothing but you, your source text and a pile of dictionaries. The Spectacular Translation Machine aims to change that. For one weekend, members of the public - from French native speakers to absolute beginners - will collectively translate an entire French book into English, under the guidance of experts lead by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone. The book in question is On les aura!, a graphic novel with a fascinating story behind it. On les aura! began life as the diary of a soldier fighting in the first few months of World War I. The soldier is never named, and what happens after the diary ends remains unknown. French illustrator Barroux recently found the diary and decided to publish the text verbatim accompanied with his distinctive line drawings (Paris, Seuil: 2011). The project is therefore a double first: the first time ever that a book will have been translated collaboratively over one weekend, and the first translation of this work into English.

The space in the Royal Festival Hall allocated to the project felt like a magical translation playground, designed to make translation as engaging and interactive as possible. Large whiteboards on the walls were covered in alternatives for the title, for visitors to add to, and the table was littered with not only a range of dictionaries, but maps, reference books and other items to get people into the frame of mind of a French WWI soldier. A washing line was strung across the whole room with each panel of the graphic novel pegged up. Visitors could choose which of the panels they would like to work on, write their own translation and then peg it up with other people's versions. Participants are encouraged to discuss their translation attempts with each other, creating a real sense of community, as everyone seems so passionate about language and literature. At the end of the weekend, the experts will put all of the panels together into a complete book. What I love most about the project is that its truly collaborative nature will ensure the best possible translation of the book. Because translations are often individual efforts, the end result is naturally a subjective interpretation of the original; for as much as translators try to stay faithful to the source text, they cannot avoid making choices between different words or ways of interpreting a phrase. 

Another reason why this project is so exciting is the opportunities it opens up for translating texts quickly, accurately, and most importantly in today's market, cheaply. The chronic under-representation of foreign fiction in British markets is undoubtedly due in large part to the unwillingness of publishers to finance translations. Turning the activity of translation into an event not only reduces these costs but creates invaluable publicity for the finished product. While this event is thanks to the British Centre of Literary Translation, I really hope that publishers take note and run events like this of their own in the future, not only for the fun of being part of a community activity, but to help other wonderful books from other languages achieve the translation they so desperately need if they want to find an audience outside their country of origin. 

My attempt at translating one of the first panels from On les aura!
Translation continues at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 26, Monday 27 May. and Saturday 1 June. The results will then be presented in a celebration on Sunday 2 June at 3pm. Full details are available here.

Friday, 24 May 2013

We Are Cardiff Film Launch

While I don't live in Cardiff any more, I often miss the thriving cultural community and still keep up with what's going on there. One of the most interesting local projects that I followed while I was there was We Are Cardiff, which documents residents' stories through pictures, videos and writing. Around this time last year, I visited the Roath State of Mind exhibition, which put Roath residents on the walls of the Waterloo Gardens Teahouse, and their stories on the tables. Now the project culminates in the Portrait of a City film, which launches at Chapter Arts Centre on 7 July at 12:30.

For just £6 you get not only a documentary introducing the wonderful, diverse array of characters who populate Cardiff, but tea and Welshcakes, live acoustic music and a raffle with prizes donated from the likes of Chapter and I Loves the 'Diff. It promises to be a really fun afternoon, a celebration of all the hard work that has gone in to the project in the last three years. Tickets are available exclusively at 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Mr B's Reading Year: Part 1 - The Howling Miller

As a student in Bath for four years, I was always enticed by Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, an award-winning independent bookshop full of unusual treats. At the same time, as much as I love spending a large amount of every day with Venezuelan literature, I've found myself really missing books from other countries. So when my boyfriend asked what I'd like for Christmas, I immediately suggested Mr B's Reading Year. Due to moving house and other distractions, I have only just started my Reading Year, but it is well worth the wait.

The Reading Year is the ultimate gift for book lovers. The package begins with a session with a bibliotherapist (what an amazing job title!) to establish your reading tastes over a nice cup of tea. What do you like to read, and why, where and when? I found it quite challenging at times to actually formulate why I like the books I do - and remembering books that aren't obscure Venezuelan fiction! - but my therapist Becky was great at suggesting different aspects of books that might appeal to me, leaving me confident that by the end she understood my reading tastes better than I did. She also asked about my Mastermind specialist subject, my guilty pleasures, and favourite place in the world, to ensure that the books I receive will be tailored to my tastes. Which brings me to the best bit: armed with my literary likes and dislikes, Mr B's will send me a book at the start of each month for the next year (except January, when readers are expected to be too busy enjoying their Christmas presents).

It's the attention to detail that Mr B's put in to their deliveries that really turns the arrival of each book into an occasion. When the first book arrived, wrapped in brown paper, tied with string and sealed with wax, I was more excited than a kid at Christmas. Attached to the outside of the package is a note detailing why that particularly book has been chosen, without revealing its name, which only heightens the excitement. As Becky has since left to pursue her own writing, my bibliotherapist is now Mr B himself, so I feel like I'm in particularly safe hands. He mentioned in his note that he doesn't usually recommend this as a first book as the cover 'is just too awful', which made me extremely eager to see what it was. I instantly loved the bright, Dada-esque design. I know they say don't judge a book by its cover, but this one gave me very high hopes.

My first book, then, is The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna. While the original Finnish version was written in 1981, it was only translated into English in 2007 and so remains relatively unknown here. It is the story of a misunderstood miller, Gunnar Huttunen, who enjoys howling like a wolf and has occasional violent outbursts. It's a short novel with simple, straight-forward and unemotional language, yet the story of Gunnar facing the hypocrisy of a small-town who villainize this outsider while ignoring their own failings is oddly moving. I found myself really routing for Gunnar, which meant I sped through the book to discover how he fared. Having very little knowledge about Finland, I also enjoyed learning snippets about the country through the novel, from its involvement in WWII to some of its rural geography, and even the spelling of words (many place names looked Japanese to me).

I can't wait to see what my next book is!

Want your own reading year? Click here

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Pajama Game @ Chichester Festival

Chichester Festival has become the place for musical revivals in recent years, with their version of Sweeney Todd, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, sweeping this year's Olivier Awards, narrowly beating their Kiss Me Kate which also received multiple nominations. Having enjoyed both of these productions in their London transfers, I already knew the quality to expect from a Chichester show, so when I saw that Sir Richard Eyre was directing Hadley Fraser and Joanna Riding in a revival of The Pajama Game, I knew it was time to finally take a trip down to Sussex. 

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' 1954 classic all-American musical The Pajama Game is a love story with a backdrop of an industrial dispute in an Iowa pyjama factory. Sexy new super-intendant Sid Sorokin instantly falls for ballsy Babe Williams when he moves to Sleep Tite. The only problem is he's management and she's the head of the union's grievance committee, and their timing couldn't be worse, as the union are on the verge of striking for a 7 and 1/2 cent rise. While certain reviewers seem more concerned with the politics than anything else (I'm looking at you, Quentin Letts), The Pajama Game is above all a good, old-fashioned love story, with a huge heart, lots of laughs and enough energy to power the pyjama factory for a year.  My face hurt at the end because I'd been smiling constantly, either because I was swept up in the joy of songs like There Once Was a Man, Once-A-Year Day and Seven and 1/2 Cents, and Stephen Mears' exhilarating choreography, or because I was just so happy to witness up close such sublime performances from the whole cast.

It was an incredible treat to see the two leading performers in action. I've been listening to Joanna Riding for the last decade, in Martin Guerre and The Witches of Eastwick, and have always been impressed by how she can express so much of the story just through her tone of voice. It was really exciting to finally witness the Olivier Award winner's acting and dancing abilities as well as hearing her sing live. As for Hadley Fraser, it wasn't until the Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert that I was struck by his wonderful, rich voice (and his looks!). I was meant to see him in Les Misérables as Javert opposite Ramin Karimloo's Val Jean, but unfortunately he was ill that day, so I've been waiting for an opportunity to see him live ever since. His hauntingly beautiful duet with himself on the dictaphone- the classic Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes) - is the highlight of the show.

There is no footage of the show available yet, so in the meantime treat yourself to some of Hadley's own music, which I have been listening to on a loop since I got back from Chichester.

Unsurprisingly, it's extremely difficult to get a ticket but it's worth it if you can to see the production in such a tiny, intimate space. The Evening Standard's review called the production 'unimprovable' and I have to agree. I'm already looking forward to the inevitable West End transfer.

The Pajama Game runs until 8 June at the Minvera Theatre in Chichester. More information and ticket booking is available at

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Kiss Me Kate @ Old Vic

When I first heard about the new production of Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic, directed by Trevor Nunn and with a stellar cast, I knew I couldn't miss it. And yet with one thing or another it suddenly came to four days before closing night. Through a real stroke of luck I managed to get a last-minute ticket, and thanks to the Old Vic's fantastic £12 for under 25s ticket offer, I got spectacular value for money.

Cole Porter's classic 1948 backstage comedy is bursting with ridiculously catchy hit songs, from Another Op'ning, Another Show, So In Love and Too Darn Hot. Sam and Bella Spewack's book is also incredibly funny. It's no surprise then that, since winning the first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, the show has frequently been revived on Broadway and in the West End, as well as being adapted to film in 1953. In 2003, Great Performances broadcast a London revival production starring Brent Barrett and Rachel York, which had since then been my definitive Kiss Me Kate.

Nunn had his work cut out to put his own stamp on this musical, then, but he certainly succeeded. Starting life as the triumph of the 2012 Chichester Festival season, the new production won critically acclaim above all for its completely reinvented, high energy dance routines from Chichester Festival Theatre's resident choreographer Stephen Mear. The monochrome costumes and set-design for the show-within-a-show Taming of the Shrew sections was a particularly striking choice, marking a clear distinction between the two sides of the show (and looking really classy at the same time). Turning Always True to You in My Fashion into a duet was a bold choice that really worked and brought new meaning from an otherwise overly familiar song. It is the stellar cast, however, who really deserve the credit for the incredible success of this new production. Multi-award winner Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne sizzled as Hollywood star Lilli Vannesi/Katherine and her ex-husband, director and verbal sparing partner Fred Graham/Petruchio, showing off both really powerful voices and comic talent, while Adam Garcia (of Coyote Ugly and Got to Dance fame) wowed us with his breathtaking dancingas Bill Calhoun/Lucentio.

According to Nunn, this production has been a very long time coming. It was certainly worth the wait.