November 15, 2012

Translation in the age of social media


Spanish-speaking fans of Harry Potter are currently at work on a collaborative translation of The Casual Vacancy, because Rowling’s Spanish publishers, Salamandra, decided not to publish the book concurrently, or even near to, the publication date of the English-language version — presumably to avoid the hellish situation of translating a book in record time, which translators in other countries were forced into by Rowling’s agent’s refusal to release the text of the book to her publishers in countries where they deemed there was a risk of piracy or plot leaks.

Which includes Italy? And Finland? See this earlier MobyLives article about the dauntless Finnish translator who agreed to do the book for the Finnish publisher, Otava, in three weeks, presumably so that sales of the Finnish edition would not be utterly cannibalized by the English edition.

But Salamandra’s decision not to rush the translation means eager Rowlingites in the Spanish-speaking world haven’t been able to read the book, and so some of them have turned to social media for a solution: they’re calling it The Spanish Vacancy, and the translation is being done by volunteers, facilitated by the site HarryLatino.

The doughty Vacancy translators, who’ve taken their enthusiasm for Rowling and their annoyance with Salamandra, and instead of just grousing about it, have started up this project brings to mind another all-volunteer translation force currently at work today: the Twitter translators.

Back in 2009, Twitter made an open call for translators to help translate the site’s content — though not, alas, the tweets — into French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Since then they’ve expanded mightily to 28 languages, and recently opened the floor to Catalan, Afrikaans, Ukrainian, Greek, Czech, and Basque translators. These volunteers, who submit translations and also rate existing translations, gain badges and move up in the translator rankings based on the number of approved translations and votes they submit — the lure of virtual shiny gold badges being, clearly, universal. Interestingly, one way you can get banned from the group is for submitting machine translations, from Google Translate or elsewhere. So, here there is a little (or perhaps not so little) stand being made for the importance of the human translator.

But as translation challenges go, I’d really like to see a group of translators picking a tweeter and joint-translating them for a week or two. Like the collaborative translations the participants at the annual summer school at the British Centre for Literary Translation create, joint translation of any kind turns up all kinds of pertinent questions about both target and source languages. And Twitter-speak is rich in jokes, sarcasm, and other fairly thorny-to-translate language manifestations (whereas Twitter instruction … eh, not so much).

Maybe some brave souls somewhere are already trying it?



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.