“Translation is NOT like Google Translate!” This line drew laughs from an audience of professors, doctoral students, and teachers on a recent Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania’s 37th Annual Ethnography Forum.
Four high school students, members of the Youth Research Club of Claremont Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, were presenting the findings of their investigation into the relationship between diversity and analysis in the classroom. In their talk, titled “Productive Diversity in Poetry Inside Out,” they explained that their research was not “data harvested in a lab,” but rather an exploration of the dynamic use of the Poetry Inside Out curriculum in Claremont Academy’s after-school Poetry and Art Club.
Currently in its third year, the research club has served as a multigenerational research site, bringing high school seniors together with Clark University undergraduates in a research seminar led by Clark professors Jie Park and Sarah Michaels.
This year the high school students and university students worked together to teach seventh- through ninth-grade students in the after-school club to translate poetry, while conducting their own independent research projects on that process. The high school seniors, Jenny Chen, Joe Damon, Debah Guwoe, and Jonathan Slay, focused on the impact of diversity on translation and interpretation. The Clark undergraduates, Shirin Esmaeili, Rachel Hedgepath, Margaret Foster, Celia Ringland, and Micky Strachota, investigated Poetry Inside Out as a space “where cultures meet.”
When one of the high school researchers announced the difference between the art of translation and Google Translate, she was referring to her group’s finding that each translator’s cultural background impacted his or her translation and his or her subsequent interpretation of the poem. The students’ research question was, “How do our differences impact the way we translate and analyze?” Their methodology involved asking participants in the Poetry and Art Club to reflect on their own cultural backgrounds and their experience translating.
After sharing a wide range of responses, one of the Youth Research Club presenters noted that they “were surprised by the variety of responses and how complicated students’ relationships to their cultures were.” They went on to share their investigation into the way that word choices made during translation impacted student translators’ interpretations of the poems, noting that the same poem generated multiple translations and interpretations, dependent on a diversity of cultures and languages. In the end, one of the high school student researchers concluded, “I hope that our findings lead educators to respect the diversity of their students.”
“How do we connect with students who still
feel isolated in their own languages?”
The Clark University undergraduates presented their work with Poetry Inside Out at the Poetry and Art Club as a means to break down barriers. They described establishing norms with the middle school students that honored language diversity, including the rule that students were allowed to speak the language they were “most comfortable with.” This rule, the undergraduate researchers argued, presented an opportunity to dissolve language hierarchies, even as it highlighted the complications of communication when adherence to one dominant language is not required. They left the audience with a question generated by their investigation: “How do we connect with students who still feel isolated in their own languages?” Poetry Inside Out, they suggested, might be a start.
The Clark students and the Claremont Academy students are themselves representative of the diversity they were researching; the high school students alone represented origins in China, Liberia, and the United States. In an interview after their presentation, however, their easy banter made it clear that their research using Poetry Inside Out had become a common language of sorts. When asked if they would recommend that other teachers and students use the Poetry Inside Out curriculum in their classrooms, all four answered with an enthusiastic “yes.” “It’s profound,” said one student. At first you don’t see how much there is to understand in a poem, but as you translate, you can build your own version, he explained. Another student added, “It’s not a one-answer thing.” “And you have to show your evidence,” said a third.
“It’s basically about who makes the better argument for the words,” said the fourth student, demonstrating the intense debate, discussion, and collaboration that comes with team research and with the Poetry Inside Out curriculum. As Professor Jie Park remarked in concluding the presentation, “Translation becomes a contact zone.” This multigenerational, multilayered set of research projects led by student researchers and translators amply proved her point.