our words make worlds

Creative Translation. Words at Play in the Classroom

In this blog Catherine Boyle writes about theatre workshops with secondary school children organised as part of the Translation Acts strand. 

Translation is at the core of all language learning. From the moment we start to say words in another language we are translating emotions, desires, fears, ideas. We act and move through translation as second nature. We invent through translation, building the languages we use to be part of the world around us by gathering together and recreating the languages through which we move. In learning our first language we play with words, inventing deliberately, inventing through the mistakes we make, and we constantly invent, gather and translate to push the limits and limitations of our personal linguistic worlds.     

In Translation Acts we are developing methods of creative translation through theatre with secondary school pupils, from Year 9 through to Year 13. In our workshops we ask our participants to complete a translation of a short poem, an extract from a play, or a song. The extracts are not ‘easy’, but we start from the trust that the translation is possible, no matter what the level of the student.

The idea is very simple and is at the heart of Language Acts and Worldmaking: words do work in the world. So, the question that we pose in our workshops is equally simple: what work does each word do in the text? This approach has an important function, which is to distance the pupil from a sense of the imperative to analyse, to impose meaning on language they barely understand, typically by looking for themes or key messages. Neither do we ‘translate’ immediately by looking for unfamiliar words, or by seeking out coherence.

What we do is to start with the simplest of language exercises: playing with words. We use tongue twisters in a number of languages to limber up, make sounds we don’t understand but that make us laugh, hear, copy, repeat. And learn that we all make mistakes.

Our next activity is also the simplest of language exercises: repetition; rehearsal of the words. Reading, for example, a short poem a number of times creates a sense of sonic familiarity. We do this in different ways: the workshop leader reads; a teacher reads; we go around the group, each participant reading a line. Each repetition brings the poem closer to the translator. In these repetitions, we add new elements: the participants pass the lines on one to the other, and each time we do this, we give the lines different actions: the protagonist of the poem is angry / sad / happy; they are telling someone off; they are recounting a memory; they are warning someone about something; they are encouraging other people; they are expressing disbelief. The idea is not to translate, but is to start absorbing the language; to use previous knowledge to start recognising language; to find out the questions to ask about what is unfamiliar. 

The purpose of these exercises is: 1) they create familiarity with the work, the words are brought towards them; 2) to illustrate the mobility and fluidity of language as it moves from one place to another; 3) to question what happens when we ‘re-fix’ the language through translation; that is, how we give it new meaning in the words we choose to put on paper as a translation. Knowing, of course, that the next translation might be different.

In each repetition of the poem, we stop to find out what new things the students have discovered. These are related to, for example, rhythm, repetition, sound, rhyme. They are also related to words that the students are beginning to realise that they recognise. Or, crucially, that they might find access to through the other languages they speak—given that these classes are happening in multi-lingual classrooms.  

Then we deal with the ‘doing’ words. If we are taking the approach that language always does work, the verbs are a great way to start. The students are asked to clap or hit the desk every time they recognise a verb. They are then asked to identify the infinitive, the meaning, and the tense the author is using. In doing this, they are being asked to think about the actions in the poem (which relate to the actions we have developed in the repetitions), about temporality, about the purpose of tense shifts. There is little room here for the idea that there is no meaning in a work, or that the writer didn’t mean to say what we think they are saying. We are showing, little by little, that we make meaning out of understanding and trusting that the words have something to say to us. And that we can make them say things to other people.

This process works. With a Year 9 class with only a few months of Spanish, we translated Lorca’s ‘Nana del caballo’ (Lullaby of the Horse). One pupil, after a couple of readings, said that they didn’t understand the poem yet, but that they knew it was sad and wouldn’t end well. A great insight in the context of Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Another pupil said they’d rather draw their response, and drew a horse’s head with tears uncannily like Lorca’s own drawings. In another school, translating Gabriela Mistral’s ‘Balada de la estrella’ (Ballad of the Star), pupils created a poetic language of translation that drew on their home languages and that allowed access to the poetics of the voices and questions of childhood. Year 12 and 13 pupils did a fabulous translation of Rafael Alberti’s ‘Nunca vi Granada’ (I Never Saw Granada), which drew on the way that they saw languages of memory, regret, guilt, brotherly love, blood shed by loved ones emerge in their readings. A translation of the Jacques Prévert classic, ‘Le déjeuner du matin’ (Breakfast) was enlightened by the pupils willingness to play a game that gave the well-known poem a new vitality as they filtered it through a number of actions that made it strange every time we read it to each other. And in a workshop based on Eugène Ionesco’s La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Opera Singer), the absurdity of the encounter between M. and Mme Smith was brought bang up to date in London by the translation of ‘Mon Dieu’ as ‘Oh, my days!’. Translation at its best.

In other forms of translation, which will be the subject of other blog posts, we carry across practice from other places and times. One of these is a simple and effective method used by Doris Sommer in Pre-Texts. That is, to ask the students, not ‘What did you learn?’ but ‘What did we do?’. The answers to this question are always enlightening, and take us to the heart of what we believe in Language Acts and Worldmaking: that language is play, mistake-making, invention and creativity.

Here are some things that we did.

‘We laughed.’

‘We played.’

‘We exercised our face muscles.’

‘We repeated the poem / play / song.’

‘We thought about words.’

‘We tried out new sounds.’

‘We played with ideas.’

‘We made mistakes.’

‘We listened.’

‘We repeated.’

‘We practised.’

‘We improved.’

‘We looked at verbs.’

‘We learned knew words.’

‘We translated.’