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Literary Translation for Primary Pupils: A taster session for Year 4
By Veronika Haacker-Lukacs

Objective: To familiarise pupils with what literary translation is, and sensitise them to its importance
Age group: Year 4 (age 8–9)
Participants: Approximately 28
Duration: 45 minutes

What we did

The state-run West Oxford Community Primary School recently invited me to run a workshop for Year 4 pupils on what literary translation is and why translated books are important.

Like many other schools in the UK, West Oxford Primary is a multilingual school, with large numbers of pupils speaking English as an Additional Language. I introduced myself to the pupils as a local mum and literary translator, emphasising that at home we speak three languages: English, Hungarian and German. As an ice breaker, I asked the children if they spoke any other languages at home, and if so, which ones. The result was impressive.

We then talked about what translation was in general and where in their everyday lives they might encounter translations. Some pupils mentioned translated signs or menus when overseas. We also discussed the difference between translation and interpreting. We went on to brainstorm texts that are translated such as travel guides, manuals, medical, legal etc. texts, and books of all kinds.

At this point we turned to literary translation, defining 'literary', and exploring what sort of texts belong here and what the difference might be between translating such texts and, for instance, medical texts.

The discussion was followed by an activity where the pupils had to decide whether the books I showed on PowerPoint had originally been written in English or were translations. If the latter, did they know what the original language was? I had collected ten books, mostly translations but some others originally written in English, which I knew would be familiar to this age group. I was amazed how knowledgeable some of the pupils were! They were able to spot a few of the translations and with the most famous ones they could even name the original languages, for instance with Asterix and Pippi Longstocking. I also highlighted the names of translators, not really expecting pupils to remember them, but rather to stress that besides the authors, translated books owe their existence to translators as well.

This exercise fed into a discussion about how we might know that something is a translation. Pupils said that the name of the writer might sound foreign. From this we explored other clues: inside the book the original title might be given, and there might be a named translator somewhere in the book. I mentioned that translators were often not credited on the cover where the author's name is displayed, and this practice could be harmful in that translators might go unnoticed and hence undervalued.

We continued with a discussion about the importance of translations (they connect us to the wider world, celebrate similarities and differences across the globe, foster understanding and acceptance) and translators (they can be bridges between 'us' and 'the other', and are passionate about the languages and cultures they translate). For the next activity I piled some books on desks and prompted pupils to work in small groups to spot the name of the translator and perhaps the original titles and languages as well, and feed back to the whole class. This time the books were all translations: some from English into a foreign language, others from foreign languages into English.

After discussing their findings, we briefly recapped the main characteristics of literary translation, namely it was 'sense for sense', and I showed them two translations of an excerpt of a Hungarian children's book: first a strictly word-for-word version, and then a 'proper' translation. I asked the pupils to compare the two, to highlight the differences and to decide which they preferred and why.

What we got out of it

The children were inquisitive and thoroughly engaged during the workshop. Most of them were aware that some books were translated, but they were still surprised that so many books they knew and liked were not originally written in English – that the original cover might be different from the one what they knew, or that the cover might be the same but the title on it written in a foreign language. They enjoyed discussing how literary translation was different from commercial translation, and also why reading translations mattered. One of my favourite parts of the workshop, which went down very well, was the hands-on exploration of books to discover which ones were translations, from which languages, and by whom. The workshop gave pupils an opportunity to think about multilingualism, the wonderful books produced in various languages and why it is important to read them, and the translators who bring these books to life.

Are you a translator interested in developing your classroom practice, or a teacher interested in hosting a translation workshop? If so, please contact info@stephen-spender.org