Learning resource: what is translation?

What Is Translation?


We begin our investigation with a simple question – what is translation? By the end of the session, the group will have had a go at translating a poem.


A download of this learning resource will be available soon.


For this workshop, you will need to find the original, the literal and the translated version of a poem in a language that preferably no-one speaks – or that most people do not speak – in your workshop. We recommend you use the amazing Poetry Translation Centre website for this.

Print out enough copies of all three versions for everyone in the workshop. Choose a language that you at least can attempt to read out (even though you might not say the words right!). If Turkish works for you, for example, try Karin Karakasli’s poem Washing Lines – here’s the original, the literal and the final translated versions.

Introduction activity

Introduce the discussion by saying – “If I say the word TRANSLATION to you, what comes to mind?” – and then write down everything that comes up on the board. You can use the mind map method for this.

Watch the video

Watch the video through without stopping it. It’s short enough that you could show it twice if you wanted to. Ask the group to jot down any words they like or want to discuss or any ideas that interest them. What do they like about the video? What didn’t they like?

Enquiries & Activities

1.  What is Translation?  Get the group to break into smaller groups of twos, threes or fours. In their smaller group, ask them to come up with an answer to the question – What is translation? They can use the translator Ros Schwartz’s words as a way in.  Give them 5 minutes for this and then ask them to come up with a definition that sums up what they think translation is. Bring everyone back to the group and hear the definitions. Get an enquiry going around translation from this.

2.  Meaning and Music   Ros the translator mentions meaning and music, but what’s the difference and why might they be important for a translator to know about? Write MEANING and MUSIC up on the board and mind map what these mean with the group. What kinds of text really only need the translator to convey meaning? And what kinds of text definitely need the translator to convey the music? Are there any cases where you might want both meaning AND music?

3.  Word check    Ros said some interesting words. How can writing be plodding and what’s assonance? What are puns and what does wordplay mean? Write the words on the board so everyone can see them. Give examples of each. What other words stood out to you? Nuance? If your group has another language, translate them into that language, or if you have another way of saying the same thing in English, have a go. Translation can be within the same language too!

4.  Finding A Voice   What does finding a voice really mean?  Why is it important to find a voice? Run a group enquiry on this. Now hand out the original of the poem you have prepared for this workshop. Check if anyone can understand the poem. Hopefully most people can’t! Ask what it’s like to see a piece of writing like this and not know what it means. Say that in this workshop we’re going to find the voice in the poem.  But first things first – get the group to try and translate it (even though they won’t know the language!). To do this, they just need to say it out loud to each other in their groups and then try and translate a line each (per group or person depending on numbers) – or a few lines, enough so that the whole poem can be “translated” in this session – based purely on what it sounds like. So the first line of Karin’s poem is “Yarın yeni değil” and that sounded to Emma in the PEN office like “Yarning my socks” in English. The point is have fun! So here we’re not worried about getting it right – just in getting what it sounds like right. Try and allow the group to be as imaginative as possible! What do the words look like and sound like to you in your language? It will be a really surreal poem you come up with – and you’ll all enjoy reading it back as a group poem (that’s a bit weird).

5.  First Draft   What’s a first draft? What’s the difference between a first draft when you’re writing something in your mother tongue (check everyone is familiar with this phrase) and when you’re translating something? Now hand out the literal translation of the poem you’ve prepared – the one everyone just translated in a silly way! Read this out loud – compare the literal translation to the versions the group just wrote (and made up!). Did anyone guess words right? Or at least did anyone get a sense of the poem right? Explore the difference between a literal translation and the final literary translation – what does “literal” mean compared to “literary”? What did Ros mean by “harmonious voice”?

6.  Have a go   Before giving the group the literary version of the poem you’ve printed off for them, ask them to take one line from the literal poem and try and make it more poetic. So here we’re looking to keep the meaning but add the music – to use Ros’s words. Have a go at that – giving everyone enough time, and going round the room to help – before listening to some examples. It would be lovely if you can allocate a line per person or group so you can translate the whole poem. Then give out the “literary” version of the poem as you have it and compare the difference. Congratulate the group – they have translated their first poem! Compare the difference between translating from one language to another and translating from a literal version to a more poetic version.

In your own time

Ros mentioned The Little Prince, a famous and beautiful book by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Research the writer, how he came about to write the book, find a copy of the book and read it, writing down any phrases you particularly like. If you can read it in the original French, even better! And even if you can’t read it in the French, have a go at reading it out loud with a friend. An amazing world of translated literature awaits you!


This learning resource was written by Philip Cowell. What Is Translation? is part of a series of five learning resources called Brave New Voices, funded by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The video animation was created by Valgas Moore and directed by Azhur Saleem. Thanks to Ros Schwartz for being so generous with her time!








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