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Multilingual workshop with Year 9: Stacie Allan

Title: Translating London: Creating a multilingual and multicultural sense of place through poetry
Objective: To celebrate London in its linguistic and cultural diversity
Age group:
Year 9 (age 13–14)
Participants: 8
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes

What we did

This session was delivered as a guest workshop on a creative writing course run by English PEN in conjunction with the refugee charity Salusbury World. The course was part of a wider three-year project called Brave New Voices, which aims to bring literature to refugees and offer them an opportunity for self-expression. During the course, the pupils composed their own poems, which were later published in an anthology.

My workshop was designed to get the pupils thinking about their experience of living in London and how they might translate into words their personal view whilst also creating a sense of place that was recognisable as the city. As the group are not native English speakers, negotiating different languages is necessarily a part of their everyday lives. We began by discussing our favourite words (from any language!), considering the sense and sounds that they evoked. Next we discussed words that might describe London, including sights, sounds, smells, and colours as well as adjectives. These words would come in handy when the pupils attempted their own translations later in the session. Our first exercise was to analyse George Szirtes’s poem ‘Trojan Horse’, which explores the poet’s childhood as a refugee in London. With one stanza allocated to each group, this task engaged pupils’ reading skills as they considered how the poet translated his individual viewpoint and London as a place. Moving onto linguistic translation, I used accessible examples to introduce Lawrence Venuti’s theory of domestication and foreignization, which is particularly relevant for dealing with cultural material. The poem chosen for translation was ‘Charmes de Londres’ by Jacques Prévert. In their groups, the pupils first translated a stanza word-for-word and together we discussed the poet’s message. Then they were given the opportunity to draw upon their creative energies and adapt it to their own experiences of London.

What we got out of it

This session promoted multilingualism and self-expression, and these factors were reflected in the pupils’ translations: Prévert’s trees became palm trees, his bison tigers, and a whole range of languages featured in the adaptations. The pupils become more confident both in expressing themselves in English and in their close reading skills. I was kindly invited to the Brave New Voices party at the Free Word Centre for the launch of the poetry anthology. It was a wonderful event, and some of the Salusbury World participants read their poems aloud to the audience. The pupils’ compositions offer fascinating insight into living between languages, as well as depicting their courageous journeys and the establishment of their new lives in London.