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Polish Spotlight workshops 2017–18

Workshops in Hull, Aylesbury and Amersham, facilitated by Anna Blasiak
Workshops in Crewe, facilitated by Maja Konkolewska
Workshops in Sussex, facilitated by Michał Rusinek

Workshops in Hull, Aylesbury and Amersham, facilitated by Anna Blasiak
Chicken on the Loose: Translating Picture Books and Poetry

Anna Blasiak, a translator from Polish and Translators in Schools graduate, ran a series of 'Polish Spotlight' workshops in 2017–18. Some workshops were to multilingual groups of primary-school children and others to groups of bilingual Polish-English speakers at Polish Saturday Schools. Here she describes her experience:


Translating a picture book

The first workshop format I devised and led was aimed at primary Year 5 (age 9–10) pupils, and enabled them to translate a classic of Polish children's literature, Kurczę blade by Wanda Chotomska, into English. As part of the introduction to the workshop the children were asked to list all the languages they spoke, even if just a little. I wanted to encourage them to appreciate language-learning and to be proud of any foreign words they might know. We then moved on to discussing what a translator is and does, and analysing some egregious – and often hilarious – examples of 'translation gone wrong'. Next, as a way of thinking about how translation works and its importance, we looked at some advertising slogans from French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The children were encouraged to pick out aspects that would make the translation challenging – the presence of rhyme, for example, or alliteration. And so the creative juices were flowing and ready to tackle the Polish picture book.

Our work on Kurczę blade began with specially prepared wordless versions of the book: the children were asked to reconstruct the story based on the illustrations alone. Many of them were surprised at how easy they found this activity. We then discussed the book's mood and atmosphere, and identified any pages that seemed particularly dramatic, or in which the action was not clear. The pages of the book were shared out among the class, and small groups of children added their own captions to their particular section of the book.

The next stage was the children's first encounter with the text in Polish, which I read out loud. Most of those in the class spoke no Polish at all, but the beauty of this model is that anyone of any linguistic background can get stuck into the activities. I provided the class with a Polish-English glossary, redistributed the sections of the book so that the groups were working on different sections, and the children got to work on translating. Initially this led of course to a stilted word-by-word translation, so the next stage was for them to create sentences that 'sounded better' in English. To assist them in this process we discussed basic issues such as sentence structure and grammatical differences between Polish and English. Once they had edited their translations accordingly, they all read their translations out loud.

Before they started working on the next stage – producing a polished, nuanced translation – I pointed out several translation challenges specific to this text, such as rhyme and rhythm. I also drew their attention to the fact that not only the Polish title but in fact the entire story is based on an idiomatic expression: 'Kurczę blade' literally means 'pale chick' but colloquially something like 'Oh blimey', so we discussed the use of idiomatic language and how to translate popular expressions. We also brainstormed ideas for the book's title at this point. After spending some time carefully perfecting their final versions of the translation, the children read their parts out in sequence, recreating the complete story in English.

I concluded the session with a surprise for the children: I told them that a professional English translation of the book had actually been published, and we then read this version together. In those workshops in which time allowed, we discussed how the 'official' version compared to our version. This gave me the opportunity to emphasise that there is in fact no one right way to go about translating anything, and that multiple potential versions of a text are valid, giving the children the license to make their own creative decisions.

I was very impressed by the children's inventiveness, especially once they got over their initial fear of translating something from a language they didn't speak. When they got the idea of the whole process there was no stopping them! Their enthusiasm was especially apparent when we discussed things all together as a whole group, and when brainstorming. When working in pairs they sometimes needed a little more help from me, especially when creating their word-by-word translation with the aid of the glossaries. But I was very impressed, at the next stage, with their ability to step away from this initial draft and create their own versions, many of which rhymed.

Translating poems and entering the Polish Spotlight prize
At the Polish Saturday School in Amersham we also translated some short poems and entered them into the Stephen Spender Polish Spotlight prize. The poems I had selected for them to work on were quite varied in complexity: 'Fotografia' by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, 'Biezpierśna jeszcze dziewczynka' by Krystyna Dąbrowska, 'Lodówka' by Michał Rusinek, 'Samochwała' by Jan Brzechwa, and 'Abecadło' by Julian Tuwim. I consulted the group's teacher as to which poem to allocate to which group or individual according to their strengths and abilities.

We approached these translations in a different way to our work on Kurczę blade: this time the original poems were accompanied by cribs – 'literal' versions of the poems – that I had prepared for the students' reference. The idea was that the students use these guides as starting points from which to set off in their attempt to arrive at fluent, polished translations. All of the poems except one contained rhymes, something that presented the young translators with an additional challenge in their work.

Some of the students needed a little bit of help, but others were very comfortable with the task from the start, and took quite substantial creative liberties in their translations – something that I certainly encouraged. They were also excited about their translations being submitted to the competition, and I was delighted to see so many commendations amongst the participants when the results were announced!

© Anna Blasiak 2018

The workshops were hosted by Gillshill Primary School in Hull, Irena Sendlers Polish Saturday School in Hull (both November 2017), Haydon Abbey Primary School in Aylesbury (June 2018) and Amersham Polish Saturday School (September 2018).


Workshops in Crewe, facilitated by Maja Konkolewska
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!"


Workshops in Sussex, facilitated by Michał Rusinek
Praise poems and bird feeders: N'Dbele-Polish fusion in Sussex

In October 2018 Christ's Hospital School in Sussex hosted a day of creative translation workshops for primary pupils from local schools. Renowned Polish poet and translator Michał Rusinek travelled from Krakow, while celebrated Zimbabwean poet Albert Nyathi joined us from southern Africa, creating what we believe to be the first ever N'Debele-Polish fusion event. While Nyathi treated his groups to booming recitations of praise poetry, Rusinek introduced the children to the idea of translation through some discussion of 'untranslatable' words from a book that he had recently translated into Polish. From the German 'Fernweh' ('an ache for distant places, the craving for travel') to the extraordinary Yaghan term 'Mamihlapinatapai' ('the look shared by two people who have reached an unspoken understanding and now desire the same thing but each wish that the other would offer it first'), the pupils were encouraged to think about the uniqueness and flexibility of different languages, and what is involved in moving from one idiom to another.

Next Rusinek introduced one of his own poems, which has been animated by his sister Joanna. 'Karmnik' ('Bird Feeder') is an eight-liner about a cat who likes to hide in the bird feeder, waiting 'for the tasty birds to come'. Although none of the participants knew any Polish, the animated film and Rusinek's readings in Polish helped them to gain an initial feel for the poem – was it rhythmic? Did it rhyme? Was the mood light or dark? Finally, Rusinek showed the pupils a rough translation of the poem into English and then set them to work in groups. Their task: to turn this rough version into an English poem that conserves some of the features of the original.

Having started with an awed silence when faced with a poet from the other side of Europe, speaking a language they were completely unfamiliar with, by now the children were babbling excitedly as they worked together to transform this poem. The results were outstanding, with one even selected by the judge of the national Polish Spotlight competition for a commendation in the 10-and-under category. Each group showed great ingenuity and creativity, producing new English poems full of wit and verve, and the enjoyment in this shared creative activity was palpable. That pleasure was soon passed on to others, as the participants all had the opportunity to perform their translations, along with those of Nyathi's praise poetry, in front of an audience of parents and teachers to close the day.

The Stephen Spender Trust is grateful to Christ's Hospital School for hosting the day and to the Polish Cultural Institute for supporting Michał Rusinek's visit to the UK.


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).