Chinese Whispers and Collins-ese Whiskers

One of my (current) favourite writing exercises (and one which will be making its way into the next Reading for Writing workshop – you have been warned!) is based on the old game of Chinese Whispers. You know, the one where you whisper something into someone’s ear, then they whisper it to the next person, then the next and so on until it gets back to you, garbled beyond recognition. But instead of whispering a source text to a line of people, I make use of online translations engines.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. You take the text, enter it into an online search engine, translate it into another language (ideally something quite different to English), then copy that text, paste it into the source box of the translator, and translate it into yet another language, and so on and on, until you finally bring it back to English, full of interesting mistranslations and accidents. Then you take that text and use it to write a poem of your own, wandering as far from or near to the original as you like.

One of the reasons this particular exercise occured to me was because I collect weird bits of language. The most well known example (usually given as part of the reason that you always need to check translations by bringing them back into English) is of someone translating the English phrase, “out of sight, out of mind” as “blind insanity”, which is both entirely logical and completely, wonderfully, wackily wrong. An even better example is apparently from an attempt to translate the phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into Russian. The result? “The meat is rotten, but the vodka is good.”

Obviously the main issue is with translating things that are idiomatic. And because poetry makes such strong use of connotations, it falls squarely into this area. The Chinese Whispers exercise does a lovely job of making a text very very strange, and (for me, anyway) full of sparks and points of departure.

And one other thing I’ve discovered – you can get quite different translations if you strip out all the line and stanza breaks. This is what happened when I Whispered Billy Collins’s “Man in Space” in two different ways. First, as a single paragraph of text:

This is a man, heard some women, it is God’s decision, this is what the table, even though the supply is very low, and she trembled as she Laver and science fiction in television or read, have read the painted why not put in your soil, the United States, standing still, with arms in a semicircle, with bare feet is safe to release heart hard plate.

Or if translated in poem lineation:

We will have to listen to them to make the man May pure spouses
Do you remember the plan and said he thought but lower lip began to tremble,
and finally, why women
Movies on their planet
as described by television or read a magazine When the rocket lands
Why stand semicircle
compressed hands, bare feet, leaving a
Hard protective breast plate.

And before you ask, yes, I have written a poem from it. And as a tease, here is the opening stanza of my poem:

Of necessity, and in accordance
with our custom, her mother’s sisters
are singing her a husband.

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