Numerous scholars have translated Homer’s The Odyssey from its original Greek into many languages and versions. But it’s safe to say no one has translated its opening lines into a nursery rhyme or into hip hop parlance. Or, for that matter, into a haiku or a Google search.

And definitely none of the hundreds of translations has Homer writing the opening lines as a “wangster”—or, translated—wannabe gangster.

No one, that is, until the students enrolled in the course “22 Ways to Think About Translation” played a new game called, fittingly, That Translation Game.

“Part of the idea was to get people more aware of the process of translation,” says Christi Merrill, an associate professor of South Asian literature and postcolonial theory. She is also a co-teacher of the “22 Ways” course, which is offered through LSA's Sophomore Initiative Program. “We wanted to do something fun, something that makes translation visible. We came up with the idea of a game show.”

That Translation Game

The game, played on iPads, pits teams of students against each other to come up with translations of the written word, cartoons, even music videos.

The game starts with each team picking an avatar, then a team name. The game’s host (in this case, the professor) selects whether they will translate, for instance, a few lines of a poem, a Biblical verse, a cartoon, or a video. The host also picks the level of difficulty, and can add conditions such as translating it from formal to informal, changing its tone, or if it’s satirical, translating it so something else is satirized. In one game, the host made the teams translate a cartoon into a concise haiku addressed to non-English speakers.

The host then puts time on the clock, usually three to five minutes, and the teams get to work. All the teams’ translations are shown on a video screen in real time and are judged by applause when time runs out.

“Everyone has an opinion on what is a successful and unsuccessful translation,” says Merrill, who also is co-director of Translation at Michigan, the LSA 2012 fall theme semester.

For one game, students were shown six different translations of the first line of Homer’sThe Odyssey. One, by William Cullen Bryant from 1873, reads:

Tell me, O Muse, of that sagacious man
Who, having overthrown the sacred town
of Ilium, wandered far and visited
The capitals of many nations.

After five minutes, the teams presented their translation.

One team used the 5-7-5 format of a haiku.

“Tell me more, Muse, of
that last hero who sacked Troy
and did other things.”

Another turned it into a nursery rhyme:
“Tell me, grandma, of that big strong man
He went to Troy and destroyed the land
He bullied the people and made them sad
And then traveled far.”

Yet another put their translation into instructions on how to start an epic poem.

  1. Call the muse
  2. Submit an inquiry on the man who sacked Troy
  3. Specify that he’s the one who traveled the world

Two teams went more current. One presented a hip-hop translation: “Yo, this dude just robbed Troy and dipped out!” The other team channeled their inner wangster: “Yo holla at me fine lady ‘bout that balla.”

In another game, the student teams were shown six translated versions of the Biblical passage Genesis 11: 6, 7—part of the Tower of Babel story. The 1611 King James version of the Bible translates the passage as:

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

One team took the humor route: “God said oh no, all people share one language and in the future the U of M won’t be able to have the class ‘22 Ways to Think About Translation.’ Let’s fix that.”

Junior Diana Cabral says she liked playing the game in class.

“You can take alternative translations of things and make it more applicable to what we know today,” she says. “You can change something scholarly into wangster!”

A Team That Translates Together

“I think people play off their strengths,” Cabral says. “I’m more a bit of a jokester. [Another teammate] studies classics so she thinks in a more elevated way. It works well.”

Sophomore Oriol Burgos-Tsoffar called the game “pretty cool” and a “fun thing, once we wrapped our heads around it.”

“You find out that there are infinite options for translations,” he says. “It coincides well with class.”

Yopie Prins discusses That Translation Game during the “22 Ways to Think About Translation” course.
Photo: Evan Hansen

The idea for That Translation Game was hatched soon after the translation semester was set in summer 2010. School of Engineering student Alex Migicovsky first conceived of the game and began developing it. LSA student Evan Moss saw the game’s genesis through to completion with the help of an LSA technology grant as well as assistance from U-M’s Language Resource Center (LRC).

After a lot of work, several test runs, and some tweaks, the “22 Ways” class played the game for the first time in October.

Merrill says the game slows down the translation process and gets students to think about it more, to consider what they are prioritizing when they do their translation.

“The point is not to get the single best translation. The whole point of the game is to show there are a lot of possibilities of what can count as a high-quality translation,” Merrill says.

She likes the social aspect of the game, and that teams can debate and discuss who has the best translation. “As an instructor, that’s exactly what I hope for,” she says.

“More Razzle-Dazzle”

The “22 Ways” class recently had U-M alumnus and Google Translate software engineer Josh Estelle come speak to them and also play the game at a campus-wide event. Merrill says it was “less classroom, more production, more razzle-dazzle.”

Yopie Prins, professor of English, chair of the Comparative Literature Department, and theme semester co-director, says the game fits in perfectly with the translation theme.

“A goal of the theme semester is to get students across the College to talk to each other,” says Prins, who also co-teaches the “22 Ways” course with Merrill. “It’s a quite collaborative game.”

Prins also says the game and subsequent events surrounding the theme semester “makes visible the resources and classes and faculty that we have in the College and U-M writ large.” She says they have proposed adding a minor in translation studies at the undergraduate level.

“There are new, innovative pedagogies in the translation field, and we really feel LSA can be at the cutting edge of this field,” Prins says.

She says the next step is to take the game, “this teaching tool, and figure out how to make it available to students both inside and outside the classroom.”

“We’re hoping to have a version people can play on their mobile devices, something students can play with each other between classes or during a study break in the dorm,” she says. “I would love to see students sitting in corner of North Quad playing it just for fun.”

Click here to learn more about Translation at Michigan, LSA's 2012 fall theme semester.