Translation as performance in “Found in Translation: Literary Dispatches from the Peripheries of Europe”

by Delphine Grass

What happens when we have to work or interact with languages we do not understand?  How much does performance play a part in literary and poetry translations? “Found in Translation: Literary Dispatches from the Peripheries of Europe”, a MEITS funded event I curated on the 29 March 2019 as part of my “Translation as Creative Critical Practice” research project, has recently encouraged me to think of translation as a performance in its own right. The event, which took place during the annual Lancaster Litfest festival, was a collaboration between international writers and artists on the theme of ‘periphery’.  It explored the theme of periphery geographically, politically and linguistically across different national and cultural perspectives, and also questioned these perceived differences through translation and linguistic displacement. For the event, I asked writers Ulrike Almut Sandig (Germany), Grigory Semechuk (Ukraine), Emma Mc Gordon (UK) and Noémi Lefebvre (France) to each produce or provide an existing text on this theme in their respective languages. Each writer and translator, including Sophie Lewis (UK), was then requested to freely translate and interpret each other's text using sound (where they could not understand the language), music, film, or any other medium which would allow them translate what they experienced and understood of the other’s work in a foreign language. During the day and in a separate event, the public was also invited to translate the artists’ works using similar techniques in creative translation workshops. In the evening, the invited artists then performed their own works in front of each other and the public for the first time.

Some writers and performance artists, such as Emma McGordon, Noémi Lefebvre and Laurent Grappe, created works on the theme of periphery especially for the event. Lefebvre and Grappe’s short film, based on a text by Lefebvre called ’We are We’, translated and performed elements taken from British newspapers on the topic of Brexit. It was translated by literary translator Sophie Lewis and later published on the web by Words without Borders. Lefebvre and Grappe’s short film not only communicated their understanding of the statement ‘We are We’ through Lefebvre’s text, but through their acting performances which, in themselves, conveyed the content of the text beyond language. Other commissioned works, such as ‘Magnetic’ by Emma McGordon, explored our emotional and physical relationship to language through her knowledge of the Cumbrian dialect. It was later adapted into German and performed in music by Sandig and Semenchuk (recording here), who translated the poem in the form of an anagram. Sandig and Semenchuk’s recording of ‘Needle’ sampled McGordon’s voice, translating the line ‘I am true North, telling lies’ of the source text by displacing it within Sandig’s German translation. McGordon, in return, translated a poem from Ukrainian by Grigory Semenchuk using sound translation and the only word (in fact a car brand) she understood from Semenchuk and Sandig’s recorded performance of ‘Lexus’. She then used Karen Leeder’s English translation of Sandig’s German translation of ‘Lexus’ to slightly revise her sound translation, where she had used elements of Cumbrian dialect heard in the Ukrainian source text. One of the most striking aspects of the performances is that they rendered visible the co-creative dimension of all translation work. The use of performance also highlighted the importance of non-verbal communication in interlinguistic communication, particularly where linguistic knowledge is lacking. Artists took turns and became alternately performers and a member of the audience, experiencing their works for the first time through the voices of others thanks to the translations.

The workshops and performance events were beautifully narrated in a comic strip by writer and artist Ines Labarta, which also represents discussions with the writers following the performance event. The discussion revealed how writers like Noémi Lefebvre already thought of their writing practice in translational terms, as this page reveals.


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