Gone are the lonely days and nights in front of the computer, with nothing but you in your PJs, your source text and a pile of dictionaries to keep you company. The Spectacular Translation Machine project, which took place over the past two weeks as part of London Literature Festival 2013, is set to try and make this reality a bit more fun and exciting, transforming it into an interactive translation experiment. And this opportunity was not reserved solely for professional translators.

For one weekend, members of the public – from French native speakers to absolute beginners – collectively translated 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. It relates the life of a soldier fighting in World War I and it is based on his own description of facts, as found in his personal diary. 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. The project is therefore a double first: the first time ever that a book has been translated collaboratively over two weekends, and the first translation of this work into English.

Reports from people attending the event picture a space which felt like “a magical translation playground”, designed to facilitate interaction for the needs of the project. The room allocated in the Royal Festival Hall included large whiteboards on the walls and tables were 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 were encouraged to discuss their translation attempts with each other, thus creating a real sense of community. At the end of the workshops, the experts had the mission to put all of the panels together into a complete book.

What is unique about this project has to be its collaborative nature. Professional translations are typically individual efforts, whose outcome is naturally a subjective interpretation of the original. The thought of weaving a complete work out of the different translation versions is truly innovative and we cannot wait to read the first samples!