Poetry and Translation

According to the 2001 census, 30% (2.2 million) of London's residents were born outside England. School teachers and headmasters are faced with the challenges of working in a city where over 300 languages are spoken.

The borough of Tower Hamlets in East London is home to a huge Bangladeshi community. Over a third of Tower Hamlet's population is Bangladeshi, of whom half are under 20 years old.

Bangla poet and storyteller Shamim Azad, together with poet and translator Stephen Watts, spent a five day residency with pupils at Thomas Buxton Junior School in Tower Hamlets. The residency focused on the role of language and translation in a school where the majority of pupils speak English as an additional language. Twelve Year 6 pupils spent time with the poets looking at the importance of translation in every aspect of their lives. Using Bengali poems and stories, as well as the pupils' own experience, they were able to explore issues of language, communication and self-identity.

The Residency:

Context and Exploration

Stephen Watts and Shamim Azad began by discussing with the pupils the impact of different languages in their lives, focusing on Bangla and English. The group discussed which participants’ families used Bangla, who, why and when. Where might we see Bangla written in our daily lives? What were the advantages of being able to read both languages? When might we use Bangla rather than English, and vice versa? What language do we dream in?

This led to Stephen creating a flipchart of words and phrases in Bangla that were recognizable and used by the pupils and their families. These words were then incorporated into their writing, creating ‘hybrid’ poems, so that the students would interchange between Bangla and English freely, just as they might intersperse the two in conversation.



The sessions developed through the sharing of stories from the past. Shamim Azad spoke about her childhood, and about the history of the Bangladeshi community, how and why they came over to England. Reference was made to Caroline Adams’ book, “Across Seven Seas”, which documents the lives of a number of Sylheti sailors who were amongst the first of the post-war migrants to reach London. Each of the pupils were then invited to retell stories which they had been passed down by their families, whether they be myth or memoir. Some of the pupils chose to write fragments of these stories or myths, helping them to explore language and culture by drawing on their own experience and their families’ to create a sense of their own unique identity.


Reading and Writing poems in translation

Bengali poems by Sufia Kamal and Shamsur Rahman were read and considered in their original language and in their English translation. Shamsur Rahman’s poems celebrated the ‘Shaheed Minar’, which refers to the Language Movement of 1952 when a number of students were gunned down during demonstrations in Dhaka, inciting huge political and cultural change. The ‘Minar’ is a street sculpture that was erected in Dhaka as a memorial, and has been replicated elsewhere including a site in Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, East London. Here we see a fusion of Bengali history and its importance and impact in England today.

The poets worked with the pupils to bring about an understanding of the implications and significance of translation - in context, application and practice. The pupils then had a chance to translate their own poems into Bangla. This enabled them to think about what makes a poem ‘Bangla’, or what makes a poem ‘English’. Do they lose anything in translation?



The twelve pupils chosen were in their last year at primary school, and the residency provided a bridge for them during the difficult transitional period between primary and secondary school. They were able to take the time to reflect on who they are and where they come from, giving them confidence in their identity before moving on to a higher level of education.

It’s important to remember that the pupils who participated in this residency were already bilingual. Although English may be the language they use most often in day-to-day life, their Sylheti tongue comes just as naturally. Although Sylheti has never been recognised as a language in its own right, and is often considered a dialect, it is very different to standard Bangla, so the pupils were working with new words and sounds all the time. However, the idea of interweaving different languages was not a new concept for them.

Shamim Azad used one of her own bilingual poems during the residency, in addition to those by Sufia Kamal and Shamsur Rahman. Stephen Watts, too, shared a short poem of his own which includes a few Bangla words. By using their own work, the poets were able to build a connection for the pupils between the words on the page and the person who writes them. A writer is usually an elusive figure to children, tangible only through the story they tell. Here, Shamim and Stephen were able to encourage the idea of bilingual poetry as real life poets in their very classroom!

It has been noted that translation is a part of every day life for these pupils, and should be encouraged on a regular basis. The skill of translation and its expression through poetry should not be crammed into a five day residency, but should be part of an ongoing project all year round. As Stephen Watts pointed out, poetry and translation is not just valid, it is in fact vital.

The Poets:

Shamim Azad

Shamim Azad is an actively bilingual poet and storyteller of the Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain with a wide range of teaching experience and variety of interests including the area of community art and literature. Her residencies include Tower Hamlets Summer University, Sunderland City Library and Arts Centre, East Side Arts, Magic Me, Half Moon YPT, and with Creative Partnerships in East London.

Shamim's work uses aspects of the Asian folk and oral traditions, ie. traditional stories with chants and body movements, poems, percussion instruments, tabla and songs. On longer residencies, Shamim compiles and produces anthologies in Bangla and English, develops oral histories and prepares inter-generational projects for publication. She also runs INSET sessions, and sessions aimed at families.

Shamim has published 7 books including novels, collections of short stories, essays and poems in both English and Bangla. She has also been included in various anthologies including British South Asian Poetry, My Birth Was Not In Vain, Velocity, Emlit Project and Mother Tongues. She has performed at a wide variety of venues including the Museum of London, Cambridge Water Stone, Liberty Radio, Battersea Arts Centre, Lauderdale House, the Commonwealth Institute, the British Council of Bangladesh, Takshila in Pakistan and New York. She has worked with the well known composer Richard Blackford, choreographer Rosemary Lee, visual artist Robin Whitemore and others. 

Sheffield's Off the Shelf Festival of Writing and Reading 2003 described Shamim as "one of Britain's best-known Bangladeshi writers".

Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts was born in London in 1952. His mother's family came from the Italian Alps and he has strong cultural roots there and in Scotland. He is a poet and editor, much involved in translation studies. His own poetry has been published as The Lava's Curl (1990, repr. 2002) and Gramsci & Caruso, Selected Poems 1977-1997' (2003). Also, a bilingual selection of his work in Czech translation is available. He has co-edited Voices of Conscience : Prison Poems (1995), Mother Tongues : Non English-Language Poetry In England (2001) and Music While Drowning : German Expressionist Poems (2003) and has compiled a very extensive bibliography of 20th century poetry in English translation

The School:

Thomas Buxton Junior School

The majority of pupils at Thomas Buxton Junior School speak English as an additional language, with about half at an early stage of development when they enter Year 3. Most of the pupils speak Sylheti. According to a recent Ofsted report, a strong focus on English as a subject sent the average grade up from a D, in 1999, to an A* in 2001. At Thomas Buxton, pupils begin with standards in reading and writing which are well below the national average. By the time they reach Year 6, they have made a significant level of progress, particularly in developing their skills in English.