Joining us from Salford, England, is secondary school English teacher and bilingual poet Ali Al-Jamri who shares his experience of translating poems with his school’s Creative Writing Club…
By Ali Al-Jamri
I started an afterschool creative writing club pretty much as soon as I had the chance as a new teacher. Every Friday at 3pm, I have a brief fear (and sometimes, an exhausted twinge of hope) that the kids will make the sensible choice of running out into the wilderness of the weekend over spending an extra hour in my English classroom with tables pushed together. But they always come, and the club always proves to be an oasis both for the kids and myself, where we get to play with language and express ourselves in a way that the constraints of the national curriculum do not often allow.
Last year, in January 2022, I took a punt and geared the club through a season of creative translation. I wanted to test the following theses: celebrating multilingualism helps instill confidence in pupils; gives them fulfilment in their identities; allows them to better engage with their English studies in the long term; and encourages social cohesion amongst students of many racial and ethnic backgrounds. Translation is usually the purview of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) departments – usually French and Spanish – and what I really wanted to do was bring that into the English classroom (or club) context.
There hasn’t been much research on creative translation in the English classroom to date, but I believe there to be solid grounds for it. Marxist and anti-colonial pedagogical theories – such as those put forward by Paulo Friere in his ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ – identify the school as an institution which recreates models of domination. School can be a place where racialised and working-class students are treated as objects rather than as active participants in their schooling. We can see this issue at the GCSE level, where diversity of texts is paltry at best: Lit in Colour, a 2021 study by Penguin and the Runnymede Trust, found that less than 1% of GCSE students study books by writers of colour.
Having grown up in this system myself, I know the pains and pressures it can put on students. The English curriculum, applied without decolonising perspectives in mind, asks racialised students to receive and internalise a ‘White’ cultural landscape in which they barely exist.
The English classroom provides a distinctly different space from the MFL classroom where students are more likely to encounter translation. As English teachers are communicators of culture for their pupils, there is an important role we play in flagging what culture is considered valuable by society and what is not. By prioritising literature that exists beyond English, we can place value on aspects of student identities which may not be reflected in the curriculum we are teaching.
In our creative writing club, I employed creative translation practices as an intervention that could give students leadership roles in a learning environment, roles that are rooted in their multilingualism. I found that a successful intervention of this kind can empower students with English as an Additional Language (EAL) and engender social cohesion across the school’s community.
Creative translation as a vehicle for inclusion
For the purposes of this creative translation intervention, I worked with some key stakeholders, namely my school’s MFL department and parents. Working with MFL encouraged pupils to see that their learning is interconnected. Parental support helped students access literature in their language.
It is important that students see themselves reflected in their English curriculum. It is very easy for non-white students to go through their education with next to no representation. And while our department’s Key Stage 3 curriculum is written with diversity in mind, there is always room for improvement. Creative translation raises a ‘foreign’ or ‘diverse’ text from being an artefact to be inspected to a living document to be interacted with.
The choice of exploring this creative translation intervention during our Creative Writing Club on Fridays, rather than during class time, meant we would be removed from the sometimes-pressurised environment of class study. While the club’s attendance is self-selecting (with a regular attendance of around 10 students at the time), the students were of diverse backgrounds and already motivated to write creatively. Translation practice would push them beyond their comfort zone. In the club, my approach has been to take the role of facilitator rather than teacher, listening to what the students want to do, and providing them workshopping tools to achieve them.
Theory and Literature Review: the value of student-led workshops
Research indicates that British schools are still systemically racist. For example, research by the Guardian found 60,000 racist incidents in schools between the years 2015-2020.
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (t. Bergman Ramos) provides foundations for a radical, progressive framework. Racism in schools, he argues, perpetuates oppressive, domesticating structures, where non-white peoples are globally, nationally and locally treated as an underclass. He promotes a reflective practice: “Reflection – true reflection – leads to action.”
Freire suggests an anti-oppressive, revolutionary pedagogy which is fundamentally dialogic: “to exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.” This becomes a problem-posing, dialogic education where ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ instead become ‘teacher-student’ and ‘student-teacher’.
In The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How To Decolonize the Creative Classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez builds on Freire’s methodology in a creative writing context. She argues that we must “put down the red pen. Resist writing over, crossing out, or correcting workshop participants’ word choice. Instead, pursue the impulse, the energy, the heart of an idea: ‘I don’t understand this yet, but I want to.’” This last point is a very empathetic approach, and empathy, I believe, must be embedded in this translation practice. She poses this question to educators: “How do you build a community in your classroom where students learn actively from each other and draw on their own knowledge sources?” This builds on ideas of co-construction between students and teachers which Friere and others argue for.
Finally, Ardizzone and Holmes, whose work has informed the Stephen Spender Trust’s ‘Decode-Translate-Create’ approach (see below), speak to two interlinked aims underpinning creative translation activities:
- inclusion – affirming pupils’ sense of legitimacy and belonging in the classroom;
- educational development – enlisting and enhancing pupils’ existing linguistic skills.
Ardizzone and Holmes state: “for multilingual learners, the opportunity to connect with their full linguistic repertoire is about more than writing good stories. It is both a social and educational necessity.” They use the case study of a project, ‘The Big Translate’, in which pupils translate a children’s picture book from another language into English. This work involved a variety of steps relevant to my own practice: in particular, decoding, predicting and sequencing the narrative of a book based on looking at pictures; using a glossary to produce a literal, rough translation; throwing aside glossaries and “privileging lateral thinking” to write a creative translation or new version of the story.“Recreating the experience of the book” is emphasised over “semantic accuracy”.
How it worked
With support and training from the Stephen Spender Trust, I became familiar with their recommended approach to creative translation which is to follow a process summarised as: Decode-Translate-Create. Our three steps were simplified to fit the one-hour sessions we had:
- Decode: the workshop leader presents a series of images related to the poem to instigate conversation. Participants discuss what they think it is about.
- Translate: The workshop leader presents the poem in its original language, reads it out, then provides a literal translation. Participants discuss their initial thoughts. The teacher helps guide conversation, e.g. to identify use of rhyme or rhythm in the original.
- Create: The participants use the literal translation to create their own versions of the poem.
The club focused on translation over 3 sessions:
- Week 1: Arabic
- Week 2: Punjabi
- Week 3: Spanish
The first session was teacher-led, where I modelled the scaffolded three-step method. In the following weeks, students took the role of translator for the club. In the leadup to each club date, I prepared students to lead the workshops during a lunch break, and I stepped back to take the role of a facilitator, instead of a teacher.
Session 1: Arabic
Ten students attended the first session with a mix of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. The Creative Translation process was introduced, with an Arabic poem I had selected for the group, using my own mother language to model. The decode session generated ideas and discussion which led into our creative translation. Many of the students took to it quickly. At the end of the workshop, I announced that a new lead would be needed next week. Volunteers were easily forthcoming.
Session 2: Punjabi
A Punjabi-speaking student led the second workshop, which was attended by 9 students. The student found a poem online which she translated with her father at home. Before the club day, we put together the Decode-Translate-Create slide deck for this poem.
The poem chosen was an anti-drugs poem by a young Punjabi poet and was one of the first hits on Google when searching for ‘Punjabi poetry’ at the time of the workshop. I had some reservations: the potentially graphic nature of later stanzas and the content of the poem were not ones I would have chosen.
As I have no knowledge of Punjabi or its written script, it was difficult for me to ascertain the poem’s qualities. In a normal teacher-led scenario, I would likely have pointed the student towards more established texts/poets with pre-existing translations for reference. But having committed to developing this teacher-student/student-teacher dynamic, I fought this instinct. Firstly, I trusted that the student found this poem interesting. Secondly, as she had read it with her father, I could assume the parents judged the age-appropriateness of its content. Over the week, we met in lunch breaks. I prepared the presentation with the student and coached her on how she could facilitate.
The workshop was well-attended and successful. Week 2’s student-teacher found great pleasure helping decode the Punjabi references on show, and the poem’s use of repetition and evocative metaphors (e.g. comparing alcoholic drinks to a python) engaged the participants’ imagination. Participants also delighted in recognising the word nagini, meaning ‘snake’ in Punjabi. Many students were already aware of the word through the Harry Potter series, where the antagonist’s snake is named Nagini.
Session 3: Spanish
The third and final workshop was led by a White British student who is passionate about her Spanish study. The head of MFL helped us identify and translate an Argentine poet and I prepped the student-teacher at lunch breaks again.
The workshop flowed smoothly, with our group now used to the Decode-Translate-Create routine. Pupils were excited to apply their knowledge from their Spanish lessons in the creative writing club. The head of MFL dropped by and witnessed the club and provided her own help in translating parts of the poem; several of the students were eager to show her what they had achieved.
Interestingly, one student (who has English as an Additional Language) who was present for this workshop struggled to engage with the poems. Rather than translate, he produced his own poem titled Science which, while not directly relevant to the workshop aims, was a creative achievement that may not have been reached without it.
Months after this intervention, this session’s student-teacher finalised her translation of the poem and submitted it to the Stephen Spender Competition in July where she was awarded a Commendation.
Evaluating the impact
In the final club day that half term, I presented eight of the participating students with a short survey. Pupil engagement cut across all backgrounds. The EAL students felt represented (particularly those whose language was represented), and all students embraced literature from a different culture to their own.
The students felt it exposed them to new languages. One student said, “I enjoyed this as it allowed us to jumble mixed up words into beautiful poems. I kind of learnt a few words in different languages.” Another stated: “It opened me to new ways of translation and the meanings of different poems.”
I was not able to reach all segments of the EAL student population with these first three sessions – for example, our large Tigrinya-speaking community. The engagement seen in the Spanish workshop suggests an untapped potential with some of the other languages: what successes would we have seen had there been more Arabic or Punjabi speakers in those respective workshops? Perhaps most meaningfully, the student-teacher for our Punjabi week stated: “I felt proud to lead one, because people were interested in my home language.” The feelings of pride and leadership here chime very strongly with the intervention’s aims around inclusion and building confidence.
Creative Translation is a process which is student-led and inclusive. It can grant EAL students an opportunity to meaningfully share their cultures and inhabit leadership roles. For Non-EAL students and any student interested in multilingualism, it is an opportunity to practice their language skills.
By rooting it within the English department (the club being hosted by an English teacher), it intrinsically indicates that there is value in these non-English language sources of culture, exposing the students to other cultures – a national gap in our education highlighted by Penguin Books and the Runnymede Trust.
By rooting it in student-led pedagogies, such as those set out by Freire and Chavez, I was able to release myself temporarily from being the ‘teacher’ and give the students an opportunity to develop their own leadership. This influenced the wider stakeholders involved, as the students reached out to people that could help: their parents and MFL teachers. This in turn generated a learning environment that was not bounded within one classroom or one school department.
The impact of this can still be felt a year after the club’s translation focus.
The Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation has three youth categories and is open until mid-July providing an opportunity for pupils to continue to hone their drafts which some have expressed interest in doing.
About Ali Al-Jamri
Ali Al-Jamri is one of Manchester’s Multilingual City Poets, a translator, editor and teacher. He guest-edited ArabLit Quarterly: FOLK and produced ‘Between Two Islands: Poetry by Bahrainis in Britain’ and has been published in magazines including Modern Poetry in Translation, Harana, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal and Harana. His work has been featured by Manchester City of Literature and the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. He is a contributing author to “Who We Are” and “Through Our Eyes”, two anthologies of diverse texts for KS3 and KS4 by Harper Collins. When not writing poetry, he teaches in Salford.