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Opening the Book:
Bringing Polish into the English Classroom

On a Sunday afternoon in May 2018, BBC Radio 4's 'Open Book' programme ended with an item that went straight to the heart of our work here at the Stephen Spender Trust. John Putt, English teacher at a secondary school in Crewe, contacted the programme's 'Reading Clinic' to ask presenter Mariella Frostrup for recommendations of non-English authors. Given that his classes are very multilingual, with speakers of Romanian, Polish, Slovak and more, he wished to explore how he could bring the literatures from his students' cultural backgrounds into his own teaching. We were delighted to tell John about the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, which gives a focus for precisely this sort of multilingual creativity. And just a few weeks later, we ran a day of special 'Polish Spotlight' workshops at the school, funded by the European Commission Representation in London. Here, workshop leader Maja Konkolewska shares her experience of the day:

Maja Konkolewska

In early July 2018 I had the great pleasure of designing a Polish poetry translation workshop and delivering it at Ruskin Community High School in Crewe, as part of the Stephen Spender Trust's 'Polish Spotlight' programme. The morning workshop involved twelve Year 8/9 students and the afternoon twelve students from Year 10. Each cohort consisted of six bilingual (English/Polish) and six monolingual (English) speakers. Throughout the day, the students worked in groups of four on 'List do Ludożerców', a poem by Tadeusz Różewicz.

We started off by discussing poetry in general. In their small groups, the students were asked to make mind maps of anything they could think of in relation to poems, and then to share their ideas with the rest of the class.

The next step was the introduction of Tadeusz Różewicz and the poem itself. After hearing a few facts about the author, the students listened to the poem in its original language. As I read the poem out loud, they followed the text on their worksheets and then, in their groups, discussed the structure and flow of the poem. I was amazed by how observant the monolingual students were, and it was great to see them discussing the repetitions and lack of rhymes with the Polish speakers.

Having identified the text as an example of a free verse poem, we moved on to translation. In their groups, the students talked about translators (what skills do they need? what resources do they use?) and each group shared their ideas. We then moved on to the literal translation.

Each group did a word-for-word translation of the poem, using glossaries I had prepared for them. It was fascinating to see them noticing that this initial translation didn't make much sense. We talked about the lack of articles in the Polish language and how hard it is for Polish speakers to learn to use them correctly in English. After reading their rough translations out loud, the students decided they had to be improved. We then discussed the meaning of the poem and various literary devices used by the author. In their groups, the students identified metaphors, an oxymoron and repetitions within the text. We also talked about phrasal verbs, with the students coming up with English equivalents that could be used in their final translations.

It was amazing to watch the students go 'freestyle' and polish their translations. Although they were encouraged to work on the final translation in their small groups, each student had slightly different ideas and in the end we had twenty-four individual translations. While some of them were very close to the original, some became adaptations with a very strong message.

All of the students were encouraged to enter the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation as well as the special 'Polish Spotlight' prize and, to my delight, quite a few students said they were going to enter.

I had a lovely time working at the Ruskin Community High School, but it would not have been the same without the help of John Putt (English Teacher, Ruskin Community High School), Paul Kaye (Language Officer, European Commission Representation in the UK), Amanda Millican (EAL/MFL Researcher) and Agnieszka Leonowicz (Polish Teaching Assistant, Ruskin Community High School), who supported the students throughout the day.

The day of workshops was generously supported by the European Commission Representation in the UK. We were delighted that Paul Kaye, Language Officer at the EC, could attend the day. He had this to say: "This fascinating workshop brought together native English and native Polish pupils in the same school to tackle the translation of a Polish poem into English. It was intriguing to see different pupils approach the work from different angles, first producing a literal translation and then putting their own stamps on the final text."

Teacher John Putt commented: "Translating Polish poetry into English seemed like a daunting if not, in my eyes at least, impossible task. Yet, it happened very successfully at Ruskin with the energy, enlightenment and erudition of Maja, the workshop facilitator. Having got to know our pupils well she then got them working on a literal translation aided by the use of a short glossary she had prepared. When left to their own devices all pupils excelled at polishing the literal translation into one that made sense in English and retained the message from the original Polish. It was an eye-opening, inspiring and excellent learning activity. More poetry in translation please!"

The Polish Spotlight prize is generously supported by the Rothschild Foundation. Find out about the prize here.

Click here to listen to John Putt's original enquiry to Open Book's 'Reading Clinic' (from 19:00 onwards).