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'Students become the makers of literature':
Stephen Spender Prize workshops for A Level students

In 2017 Gabi Reigh won first prize in the Open category of the Stephen Spender Prize, for her stunning translation of 'Calatorul' by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu. We were delighted that the experience led Gabi, a teacher of A Level English here in the UK, to run poetry translation workshops for her students to prepare entries to the youth categories of the prize.

I moved to England from Romania twenty-five years ago and have been teaching A Level English for more than half of that time. Having spent all my working life immersed in English literature, I started translating Romanian literature a year ago and found a great joy in reconnecting with the place where I grew up by immersing myself in its literary culture. I started to think about all the students I was teaching, many of whom had also been born outside of the UK or who spoke other languages at home, and wondered whether literary translation might also provide them with a connection between the two worlds they inhabited.

The Stephen Spender Trust Prize for 18-and-under seemed like a great focus for an extra-curricular workshop. There was a clear goal that the students were working towards – the translation of a poem and a commentary explaining the process – by a given deadline. The workshop was advertised to all students studying English and Modern Foreign Languages. In describing the benefits of attending the workshop, I explained to the students that the process of translation would enhance their analytical skills, develop their confidence in dealing with a foreign language and be an impressive addition to their UCAS applications, demonstrating that they are independent learners who are able to venture beyond the limits of the curriculum. I collaborated with teachers of Spanish, French and German, who provided lists of poets for the students to guide their research.

In the end, there was a mixture of students who attended the workshops and entered the competition. Students on French and German courses discovered nineteenth-century literature as well as contemporary poetry by Syrian refugees. Reflecting on the experience, a student who had translated a poem by Nikolas Lenau from German said that entering the competition 'was an invaluable experience for future translation tasks' and that it 'has reaffirmed [her] love for the German language'. There were also students who translated poems from a language that was part of their family's cultural heritage. One boy grappled with the formal challenges of translating a tanka poem from Japanese; a female student who had been born in Poland to a Polish mother and Turkish father was in the process of teaching herself Turkish, and translated a poem by the twentieth-century writer Nazim Hikmet. She described the process of translating the poem as 'challenging, but equally rewarding', as it gave her an opportunity to 'connect with [her] father's language' and lead to her 'looking at poetry in an entirely new way'.

As an English teacher, I felt that poetry translation played a significant role in developing these students' analytical skills. One common question that students tend to ask when we spend a long time discussing the language of texts is: 'But do you really think that the author really thought that much about every word?' One of the challenges of teaching literature is helping students understand that language is not transparent, but that every idea hangs on the writer's word choices. By becoming involved in translation, students become the makers of literature, they understand the subtleties of words and how they can shape meaning, and this indeed equips them to look at every text they study 'in an entirely new way'.