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French poetry workshop with Year 10: Stacie Allan
Title: Translating the City: London and Paris in French Poetry
Objective: To introduce translating poetry to a group of bilingual (French and English) pupils
Age group: Year 10 (age 14–15)
Duration: 2 hours
What we did
I delivered this workshop as part of a project called ‘(Di)Versify’, run by an English teacher at a bilingual French school. The project considers foreign perspectives on London in French poetry, encouraging the pupils (mainly French native speakers) to reflect on the diverse city that they live in, with a view to having them enter the Stephen Spender Prize. The workshop explored three areas: translating the urban experience of the city; translating culture; and translating poetry. We began by thinking about their own experiences of London, before discussing stereotypes and historical French perspectives, and introducing the theory of Foreignization / Domestication. Next, we looked at how Charles Baudelaire depicted Paris as a city in ‘Le Cygne’ through form, language, tone, and imagery. Analysing different translations of the poem followed, and the pupils were struck by how ‘free’ certain approaches were. To refocus attention, we had a quiz in which the pupils guessed whether quotes referred to Paris or London, which brought into sharp relief some differences between foreign and native views. In our last activity, the pupils drew upon the knowledge gained throughout the session and applied it to their own translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Métropolitan’,a nineteenth-century account of riding the Underground.
What we got out of it
Having the luxury of working with a bilingual group meant that the pupils could distinguish between different registers in both French and English, which allowed us to discuss the poems in significant detail. We spent a lot of time on textual analysis and approaches to translating poetry, which opened up conversations concerning what they might privilege in their own translations. For example, one group strongly felt that a prose translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Cygne’ went against the poet’s original intentions, yet they subsequently experienced a struggle between fidelity, sense, and creativity when they were translating Rimbaud. Furthermore, throughout the two hours, the pupils become more confident both in expressing themselves in English (their second language) and their close reading skills. In each of the activities, we continually questioned how a unique and recognisable sense of place could be created through poetry.