• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

St John's annual poetry translation competition
By Oscar Barber

Teacher of Classics and German at St John's School in Leatherhead Oscar Barber has found that poetry translation is a fascinating, versatile and rewarding activity for his pupils. Here he offers an insight into St John's annual poetry translation competition — an ideal warm-up for the Stephen Spender Prize.

After completing a degree in Classics and Modern Languages, I trained as a teacher and am now teaching Latin and German in a Surrey secondary school. Having read and translated a large volume of poetry for my undergraduate studies, I was excited to have the opportunity to take on running the school's annual poetry translation competition. I have personally always found the tensions of poetry translation fascinating, and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to give pupils a taste of what 'real' literary translation is like.

We ran our in-house competition with a view to then submitting our winning entries to the Stephen Spender Trust Prize. We integrated the competition into teaching time: pupils began by looking at some of the more general challenges of translating poetry, and at the different degrees of proximity to the original text between which any translator must choose. This process included thinking about what makes translated poems sound more pleasing, so pupils started to grapple with the fine line between literal meaning and aesthetics, one which professional translators constantly tread.

Pupils then worked on translating a poem from French, German or Spanish into English. Here they were constantly making decisions as to the best way of rendering specific terms, and this gave them an interesting taste of the many shades of intellectual dilemma experienced by translators of all types.

They then wrote commentaries, in which they explained some of the most major challenges of translating their poem. Some pupils cited word order as a particular stumbling block, a point which alluded to the difficult balance to be struck between producing pleasant-sounding English syntax and preserving a resemblance to the original. Others mentioned the challenges of the language in which the original poem was written. This pointed to the importance of understanding any text to the fullest possible extent before translating it. The Department selected winners for each language from each year group, rewarding these with prizes, before asking winners to submit their entries to the external competition. At the end of the process it is clear that many pupils found it both intriguing and greatly rewarding to work with some challenging but fascinating translation problems.

For many pupils this was their first attempt at poetry translation, and they were certainly intrigued by the challenge, and fully engaged by it. It was fantastic to see them enjoying something new, outside the parameters of the normal curriculum. In terms of the wider school effect, the winners selected for each language from each year group were recognised formally in house assemblies, and congratulated by their house staff and peers; this felt like a fitting way of acknowledging some excellent attempts at something completely different from what is usually asked of pupils in the classroom.

Our Deputy Head, Dr Ewan Laurie, fed back on the competition to the effect that it was an excellent opportunity for pupils to build confidence and receive due recognition for their achievements.

Are you a translator interested in developing your classroom practice, or a teacher interested in hosting a translation workshop? If so, please contact