our words make worlds

The River Thames: Mediation and Translation

As part of the Language Acts and Worldmaking two-week Arts and Humanities summer school at King’s College London, the three of us came together to lead one day of the school, with lectures and activities in the morning and an excursion in the afternoon. Developing from our PhD Forum experience, we wanted to run a session together as PhD students working on different areas of study that have overarching themes and interests in common. We wanted to bring our research and experience into the classroom, and beyond into the excursion, with this group of thirteen pre-university students from around the world.

Framed by the setting of King’s College London, in the middle of London – a multicultural and multilingual city – and using the metaphor of the river, and the bridges that cross it, we wanted to encourage an understanding of what language can be, where it is, and how it travels and changes through time and space. Language travels and connects people, times and different parts of the world – like the river – but it can also act as a barrier, over which bridges and strategies must be built. Encouraging an understanding of the many forms and varieties of language – moving away from the strict view of the written, and “grammatical” – we encouraged every student to explore the role of language in their own life and their surroundings. More specifically, we drew from our perspectives and approaches to translation and mediation. 

To begin the session, we mapped the languages spoken and understood by everyone in the room onto a map - introducing the vast scale of travel and movement in the different languages, and the variety even within a small group of people. Students represented their connection to different countries in a projected world map, which took them to identify unexpected connections among themselves. This activity set the basis of getting to know each other’s identities in more depth - even though this was the second week of their course they realised they had still a lot more to learn about each other. Students were amazed to see that in a group of sixteen people, eighteen languages were spoken, where English was our language in common. From this mapping we moved to looking at the river, the leading metaphor of the session. Having introduced the session we asked: What can the river mean? What can it represent? How can it be a relevant metaphor for us in this course? From this, the students contributed to the mindmap, bouncing ideas between them and working together - the range of perspectives and approaches revealed key aspects of the river that would run through the session and others that we had not necessarily even considered but were pertinent and relevant. 


From there, the three of us led a short session each. We looked at the word translation and what it might mean, to then move away from the binary notion of source and target text, using key translation and literary theorists to understand the flexibility and intricacy of translation. Considering questions of post-coloniality, multiculturalism, and the boundaries of the text itself, we encouraged students to understand translation to be a more complex process and exchange. We discuss different notions of non-literal translation and pedagogic translation contrasting “pure” translation, introducing the need to negotiate - taking into account the context, cultures and languages of those involved in the translation process - and far more skills beyond merely transmitting the message in the same format. It became clear that translation and mediation go hand in hand. 


This then led to an introduction to the notion of mediation - again moving beyond the students’ association of the term with conflict - towards understanding that learning a new language can present a situation in need of mediation, which does not have to imply the negative connotations of conflict but simply the idea of facing a new or unknown concept we are curious to learn. Another established idea students had about mediation was how mediators are always a third party and “neutral” role within a dispute. Breaking these misconceptions and making them understand their role as mediators was the goal of this part of the session. Being a mediator (for self or for others) does not have to exclude their personal trajectories, but they can use their previous experience to create links with this new knowledge they are about to acquire. This awareness of the role of mediator in themselves guided the session into a practical activity which required mediating a concept in one of their languages in groups. They were not allowed to use English for the first seconds and they were not encouraged to use literal translations afterwards. It was really interesting to hear them trying to mediate this concept which could be a popular saying, a gesture, or a word with a special meaning in their cultures and making efforts to develop strategies to create connections between what their partners knew and this new concept. We saw some students drawing, communicating non-verbally, using real-life examples, contextualising, showing interest and establishing a positive atmosphere in their groups.They were all acting as mediators, creating new meanings which involved their own existing knowledge of all the languages and cultures they have been exposed to and the new one(s) they want to come closer to. Through activities, explaining idioms and expressions across language borders through body language, explanation, positive engagement and interaction the students became aware of their roles as mediators.

We then explored the performativity of language and power of translation through looking at a key figure in British literature and theatre: Shakespeare. Focusing on Helena’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - where Shakespeare chooses the verb ‘translate’ - students read and performed the speech in their own languages. We saw how performing can engage an audience and the importance of the audience in allowing meanings to cross language barriers. 

With these different activities and explorations, the students then were set a task: to take hat they had explored in the session and see how it is present in London, along the river Thames. The brief was broad and open to encourage students to engage with the topic in different ways, explore different aspects of the metaphor and to use different methodologies. In groups of three or four they decided what they wanted to find out, or what data they wanted to collect and how they would do it. Each group was accompanied by a tutor, with another team member joining us for the afternoon, Bozena - and adding another language to the list - Polish! In this session, the students acted as researchers collecting data and analysing their findings at a small scale appropriate to their experience and basis provided in the morning seminar. It was fascinating to see how they started breaking barriers when talking to people and discussing the idea of the river in such a culturally and linguistically diverse space, by the riverside. Some looked at the variety of languages spoken by people along the South Bank and others at peoples’ perception of the river, through interviews. Others looked at the expression of language and culture through food vendors along the South Bank, taking pictures and notes. The groups presented their experiences reporting some of their findings in the fieldwork, with reflections gathered from interviews including: “the river is the pinnacle of the city”; “it reminds me of my hometown and I can relate to the river”; “the river connects everyone in London”; “underneath the river in my hometown there is religious soil”. All groups saw the river, and the bridges that cross it, as a guide and structure to their approach and all returned at the end of the day with engaging and varied findings. 

The feedback from the whole day was encouraging and positive, with students enjoying the variety of activities throughout the day. Others noted that they liked the freedom of the afternoon excursion. And others particularly noted that they had become aware of their role as mediator and translator, in the classroom and in everyday life. For us we learnt a lot too, from the openness and enthusiasm of the students, and are motivated to carry this metaphor and approach into further sessions and workshops.

Ella Martin, Isabel Cobo Palacios and Mary Ann Vargas