26 Exchanges – More Than Words

Beautiful. Powerful. Moving. Emotional. Inspiring.

It’s just words.

I find it amazing how different minds process the same thing. The same sight, sound, colour, movement. When an old boss briefed a design colleague on edits he needed to make to a door-drop flyer – a simple, two-sided card flyer – she used the words, “Don’t worry – it’s just words”. Her translation of her client’s feedback was to just change the words.

If she’d visited 26’s London Design Festival exhibition at the Royal Academy of Engineering this week, perhaps she would have noticed something.

Sometimes words mean more than words.

Two walls. Two projectors. Many smiling, absorbed faces. Hundreds of hours of writers, designers and printers; of sound engineers, event organisers. Of readers. All coming together to produce something beautiful, powerful, moving, emotional and inspiring. These are the words I overheard.

In just a few months, 11 writers from 26 worked with 11 writers from International PEN to explore, as John Simmons notes, “the difficulties, triumphs and surprises of attempting ‘translation’ between languages and cultures”. The task – take 11 texts from 11 different languages, from Spanish to the African language Shona, via Europe, South America and Asia, and translate the words, the meanings.

Writers wrote and spoke, communicated their thoughts across continents, and created a special exhibition. Harry Pearce, design partner at Pentagram, then interpreted the stories graphically – creating this little room bursting with world literature.

“This is a list of all the people to thank,” said John, unrolling the paper in his hand, near the end of Tuesday’s reception. “So many contributed to this wonderful exhibition. I’m very proud.”

Hearing the list of people and skills involved, I marvelled at the power of words to bring people together. From an idea to a blog to an exhibition to a book. 26 Exchanges demonstrates how words and stories can translate into so much more when they undertake a journey.

“Translation is the process of making a bridge that two writers can walk across from different sides,” writes John. What happens in the middle, as this exhibition shows beautifully, is always something exciting.

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