Breaking the ESL Student’s Imagination

The creation of vivid, readable, and faithful translations of literary works into English calls not only for considerable expertise in the original language, but also for consummate writerly skill in ...

The creation of vivid, readable, and faithful translations of literary works into English calls not only for considerable expertise in the original language, but also for consummate writerly skill in the so-called target language—usually, one imagines, that of a native speaker. So what could anyone expect to achieve by teaching literary translation to students of English as a second language? Students who typically want little more from ESL programs than the fastest route to passing the standardized test required to enroll at American colleges? Quite a lot, it turns out, including an authentic love for the language and a voice of their own that can become a source of pride. —Ed.

I teach ESL classes at Massachusetts International Academy, an intensive-language preparatory school outside Boston that caters to Chinese students. Through my years at MAIA, I have taught beginner to advanced-level language classes. This year, based on the success of a creative writing club I started there in 2012, I decided to teach an elective class on literary translation. International students, particularly those from China, generally pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) with flying colors, but when it comes to writing academic essays, feedback from college professors commonly indicates that their writing lacks clarity, evidence of critical thinking, and descriptive language.

I have thought about this issue for years, ever since I took ESL classes myself at their age. Like them, I wanted to get to college—and fast. Like them, I was puzzled by the structure of the essay form and wondered what in the world a thesis statement was, or why I’d have to go on and on in support of my claims when a quote from an expert would do that job just as well, if not better. What eventually helped me overcome my own language barriers, I came to realize, was not simply a desire to master critical thinking or academic writing skills, but a discovery of the beauty of language and how malleable and accessible it is when looked at from the inside out, qualities that the process of translation truly exposes.

Growing up in Tiranë, Albania, in the ’80s, I had a love and curiosity for languages from early on. Like most Albanians, I learned Italian from watching children’s programs, movies, and TV shows produced in that larger country across the Adriatic. From the ages of eight to twelve, I took private English lessons. In high school, I majored in Russian, a language that, in the eyes of a corrupt Ministry of Education, was reserved for those whose parents couldn’t afford to enroll their kids in English, the popular choice, or even Italian or German, next in line. Had I been able, I would have chosen English too, but being thrown into Russian, a language I knew nothing about and whose alphabet was so different from my own, my mind twisted and bent to learn new verb tenses and conjugation forms for nouns and adjectives. I found all this exposure to languages fascinating, and it doubtless influenced how I thought, but little did I know how much the very act of speaking English would affect me until I moved to the United States, at age 18, after my father won a US visa lottery. Suddenly, I was confronted with the reality of being forced to study in a language other than my mother tongue. Would I be able to say all I wanted and meant to say in an actual group setting? Did I even realize what I was in for when I’d open my mouth and this other language would name and clothe my thoughts? Like most people who’ve had to switch to speaking another language as an adult, I discovered in my early 20s that the language I had begun to speak, think, and write in was, slowly but surely, stirring my sense of identity.

I took a semester of ESL before entering college. Like many second-language learners, I was timid to express myself for fear of making mistakes, or of not sounding like a native speaker. I often felt embarrassed, and that feeling followed me for a while, until I became an English major my sophomore year. Taking literature and creative writing classes showed me what it meant to have a voice and express it through words. I began to write poems in English. Several years later, in my early 30s, I pursued an MFA degree at Boston University. It was there that I discovered and fell in love with literary translation, in a seminar led by Rosanna Warren. So much of what we did in class—engaging with original texts, getting a message to arrive in English as articulately, smoothly, and naturally sounding as possible—was what I had already struggled with and deeply enjoyed in my own revision process as a writer.

So, I reasoned earlier this year at MAIA, what if I combined my skills as a teacher of academic writing, grammar, and vocabulary with my strengths as a writer and literary translator? Could I offer something different to these students that would, even minimally, push them toward more tangible linguistic success? I never dreamt to turn them into poets, but what they produced doesn’t need to be labeled to demonstrate how much we all learned in the process.

My first literary translation class at MAIA has 15 students. I begin with an exercise on diction to make them aware of connotation and denotation and how these terms work in context. We compare two translations of the same poem and I have students list all the different word choices. This gets us talking about which word is more effective in each instance, or which one makes a particular message come across more concretely and more vividly than another. Students begin to see why it’s important to choose words carefully. In selecting texts to translate for this class, we tend to stick to poems, where language is at its most concise and there are frequent opportunities to play with an image or a description, hence generating numerous possibilities for learning new vocabulary.

Once students are comfortable discussing diction, I teach them about trots, literal or word-for-word translations. They quickly become aware that the reason why Google Translate could never replace a trot is because Google Translate cannot recognize all the grammatical and syntactical structures of every language. When using the service, one cannot know who exactly is acting on whom, in what tense, et cetera. All these small yet crucial syntactical functions would already be lost, and we haven’t even started to translate. Modeling a trot of my own from an Albanian poem, I briefly introduce the students to how Albanian grammar works. For example, nouns are always followed by adjectives; names are conjugated and accordingly take on specific suffixes that in English correspond to the addition of the article “the” or prepositions like “of” or “to.” Once they understand how to complete a trot, they create their own from a Chinese poem.

The author, standing, with her students, from left, Yingyan Wang (Cheryl), Yafeng Chen (Finn), and Jiaxi Liu (Kris). Photograph by Scarlett Qiu

In teaching literary translation, I also expose students to some relevant theory. Because entire articles on this topic are difficult to digest even for native speakers, I select quotations and we discuss them in class. One of my students’ favorite is Richmond Lattimore’s appeal to translators to “not be afraid of your author,”1 because many of my students were initially apprehensive about attempting to translate the work of revered figures like Li Bai from classical Chinese, a language much more nuanced and filled with connotative meanings than simplified Chinese. And now they’d have to translate into English, a target language they’re still coming to grips with. Yet our goal is not to create flawless translations, but to arrive at an English version of the original through which students discover new words and gain a stronger command of English grammar as a direct result of the translation and revision processes.

Neuroscientist Mariano Sigman has devoted years to studying how the language we use can tell us who we are and what state our mental health is in. Think, in this light, about a second-language speaker struggling to express herself. What does that experience tell her about who she is? It tells her that she’s inadequate, inferior, incapable, a loser. I know this because I was once there myself as an 18-year-old. Not every second-language speaker feels exactly like that, but they can relate to feelings of frustration at not being understood. What if there were a way to fall in love with language when studying it for academic purposes, even if one’s major had nothing to do with language or literature? What if this process could help ESL students get a glimpse of not only who they are but of who they are capable of becoming as they witness themselves attempt something they deemed impossible until now? What if it could equip them with the ability to speak for themselves?

Language is such a large part of who we are. All of us want to be understood, even more so when speaking in a language other than our mother tongue. In The Poetics of Translation (1993), Willis Barnstone describes reading as “a form of translation” and translation as “a form of intense reading.”2 Similarly, he speaks of writing and translation as being one and the same: “The very essence of the activity of writing is that at every millisecond of the writing process the writer is simultaneously interpreting, transforming, encoding, and translating data into meaningful letters and words, and at every millisecond of the translation process the translator is the writer, performing the same activities.”3 This explains why my ESL students embraced literary translation. The practice, in a rather organic way, leads them to acquire vocabulary more naturally and more memorably, as well as to discover courage and confidence in using language to express ideas and feelings. Because students in this class are constantly deliberating between which word to choose, learning to use a thesaurus and to let go of a Chinese-English dictionary, they discover how to be more independent language learners and speakers. Isn’t that where we want them to be? Wasn’t that all I wanted when I first started taking ESL classes? It certainly was, and I’ve fought to preserve that independence every day since.

Here is one student’s translation of a poem:


“Maple Bridge Night Mooring”

Zhang Ji (Chinese poet, Tang Dynasty)

Translated by Jiawei Li (David)

The moon sets, caws echo, mist creeps up around.
Maples by the side of the river, fisherman’s lantern blinks, sleepless with grief.
Beside the Gusu city lies a Hanshan temple.
At midnight, a chime lingers on the ferries.

Some new vocabulary David learned translating a poem that is only four lines long included caw, creep up, lantern, grief, chime, linger, ferry. In an earlier draft, the last line read: “At midnight, a chime reaches the ferries.” I had questioned his choice of the verb “reaches,” asking if he could find something better. Using a thesaurus, he’d arrived at “linger,” which accurately translates that lovely auditory, visual image of the last line. The line naturally lingers in the reader’s mind long after the poem is over, which is why that choice of word was so effective and why David didn’t have to memorize it like most ESL students do with vocabulary. He had made it his own and won’t forget it.

Another student translation:


“Twenty Poems after Drinking Wine, no. 7”

Tao Qian (Chinese poet, Han Dynasty)

Translated by Kaipei Wu (Walker)

The chrysanthemum is wonderfully sublime in Autumn,
I pluck the petal imbued with dew.
Chrysanthemum freshens the wine,
The wine drives me far away from trifles.
I finish off a glass of wine,
then my cup fills up by itself.
The sun falls down, all living creatures get still.
Homing birds chirping, and flying toward the grove.
I convince myself singing heartily under the east window,
to live my life tentatively in an unrestricted way.

The words Walker discovered through his translation—sublime, pluck, imbued, dew, trifles, chirping, grove, tentatively, unrestricted—are all poignant, descriptive words.

In an audio recording assignment, when asked what was one thing that worked well in this class for him, Haoran Zhang (Steven) responded: “One of my favorite part is that I can know the meaning of vocabulary completely … and how to use them precisely.” To the same question, Kerui Xie (Ray) answered: “Before this class, I cannot imagine I can translate a poem. It’s so cool after I learn diction and after I translate a poem. Even though the translation is not perfect, but I am really proud of it.”

When speaking about a linguistic challenge she faced when translating Meng Haoran’s poem “Awake in Spring,” Shuyi Tan (Lesley) points to the last line of the poem, which literally translates as “Do you know how many flowers have fallen down?” She revised that line to “I wondered how many flowers had whirled down” after discovering the word “whirl,” which more accurately conveyed the richness of the original, vividly connoting a powerful rain storm blowing petals away. Lesley went on to make a compelling point comparing the process of searching for the best words in a thesaurus to “searching for the most cost-effective product.” She says, “You can imagine how it feels like to find the right words when you compare it to shopping online and finding the best price for something you’re eager for.”

The students of the first class in literary translation at MAIA, from left to right: Geli Zhou (Gary), Yafeng Chen (Finn), Ruoyi Bai (Ada), Yingyan Wang (Cheryl), Jiaju Tan (Tom), Shuyi Tan (Lesley), Jiawei Li (David), Kaipei Wu (Walker), Dongliang Guo (Wilson), Boyuan Wang (Bryan), Tuokuan Fu (Jackie), Zhen Zhang (Lucas), and Kerui Xie (Ray). Photograph by the author

When we moved from Chinese-to-English translation to translating from a language the students weren’t familiar with, things got even more wildly rewarding. I presented the students with a trot for Sappho’s poem “Fragment 31,” from the Ancient Greek. This was a trot I had studied with Rosanna Warren when I translated the same poem in her class. There are two fantastic things working for this poem: one, it’s a story of love, passion, and jealousy we all want to talk about; and two, it is filled with charged, vivid language in every line. Each word is so loaded, one can easily fall down the thesaurus rabbit hole, delighting in so many other new words. Lesley said she learned more than 30 words in English by translating this poem alone. This is her version:


“Fragment 31


Translated by Shuyi Tan (Lesley)

He seems to enjoy God-like status in my heart
Whoever sits facing you
Who listens closely to your luscious speaking
And intoxicating laughter.
My heart is thudding against my ribcage.
The moment I gaze at you
I become inarticulate.
My tongue is tied in a knot.
Blazing fire under my skin courses through my flesh.
Darkness permeates my sight.
What I hear is thunderous noise.
Breaking out in brimming cold sweats,
I’m struck by a shiver.
Anemic as moribund grasses,
It seems that life is just bleeding out of me.

Another student’s version:


“Fragment 31”


Translated by Haoran Zhang (Steven)

Almost equivalent to the Gods for me
is the man who is talking face to face with you,
sitting closely, listening to your sweet whisper.

My heart feels like flying away from my chest
—your laughter is like the songs of Sirens.
Even a moment, when I’m looking at you
although I have thousands of words, I can’t speak.

I am tongue-tied,
fire is racing under my skin.
My eyes are filled with darkness and fear,
thunders are roaring in my ears.

Cold sweat flows all over my body, trembling seizes me.
What a violent sense of envy!
As for me, my life is almost lost.

Xinyi Shan (Sunny) came up with “I am greener than the whole grassland” to convey envy. Yingyan Wang (Cheryl), with lines like: “You lean close to him with charming voice / and slavish compliance” and “My tongue trembles into fragments.”

Because the students were becoming more independent in their translations, I decided to challenge them further by getting them to write their own poems, addressed to someone of their choosing. I gave them some half-lines with loose thematic links and instructed them first to fill in the blanks. Once they did that, I asked them to approach what they’d written as if approaching a text they had to translate. My instructions were simple: “Figure out how best to say what you’ve already said, revise using a thesaurus, and if some lines don’t work for you, delete them. If you want to add other lines that aren’t in the formula, add them.” Not everyone moved past the formula, but even those who didn’t were surprised to see that they could write something memorable.

Yafeng Chen (Finn) wrote a letter to soldiers. Here’s a passage from his poem:

I will always remember you, and you will never leave us,
Because the motherland has been traded off with your hot blood.

Dongliang Guo (Wilson), who had expressed anxiety about this class because he had never written a poem in his life, starts his poem:

Dear Grandpa
Today you look the same as you were in my mind.
Though your laughter is dimmed,
Your smiling face is a seal in my soul.
If you don’t believe me,
You should come and talk to me in my dream.
Every bird flies in the direction of the end of the day,
And you too were raptured to heaven.
Have you ever thought about what Shakyamuni looks like?

This is Wilson’s last stanza:

By the way,
You will never need to worry about your grandchild’s life abroad.
Now he is stronger than that little boy you knew,
And he is matured, enough to overcome any snag.
This is not the only thing that I want to tell you.
But would it be the same if I see you in heaven?

The essential challenge was no longer to learn vocabulary, but to find the confidence to express oneself in a language other people could relate to. Although Wilson had sheepishly called his first draft “stupid,” I know he was proud of his final draft.

One of the poems that took me by surprise was David’s, in which he broke away from the formula and created something uniquely his. He said he kept Sappho’s “Fragment 31” in mind as a guide to find the most energetic lines and words.


“Dear Lesley”

Jiawei Li (David)

Today you look like a snowflake, elegant and delicate.
Why does God hide paradise in your eyes?
Your mellifluous voice intoxicates me.
If you don’t believe me, ease your pace.
If the moon casts its light,
If the breeze cuddles the flowers,
If ripples quiver across the surface of the pool,
They all testify my words.
Every bird flies in the direction of freedom,
And you too, someday will soar in your life.
Do you ever think about death?
Flowers always flourish when spring returns,
Beauty must ebb and fade as time goes by.
When spring returns next year, don’t be sentimental with the past.
And when the drizzle begins to dance on the palm of your hand,
May the iridescent rainbow always find you.

Here I was witnessing what can happen when a student is pushed to take agency in how he discovers and learns the target language. Getting students to actively engage their imagination when considering word choice in a target language helps them confidently navigate that language. What if we gave ESL students not only the tools to achieve language proficiency, but spurred them to recognize the beauty and malleability of language, what joy it is to get messy in the process of figuring out how grammar works, when most grammar classes take the fun right out of learning another language?

This reminds me again of my teacher, Rosanna Warren, who has also been a mentor and someone I look up to as having her finger on the pulse of poetry. In an interview with Andrés Hax for Asymptote, she describes grammar as “an ethical structure and a dynamic structure. What’s fundamental about reality? It’s: Who is doing the action? Who is suffering the action? Who is participating in the action? Where is it happening? All this really matters politically, morally, emotionally, and erotically.”4 One day in class, she mentioned something I’d written down in the margins of George Steiner’s After Babel: “Grammar is a mapping of the world” and “Language is a third universe between reality and imagination.” Who’s to say the students and I didn’t find ourselves just a little closer to home, where home is a space where language barriers have finally been shattered?

Early in the semester, when Guanting Wei (Tim) handed in a first draft of his translation of Li Bai’s poem “Thoughts on a Quiet Night,” his first line read: “Bright moonlight sprinkles on the window in front of my bed.” I remember giving him back the draft with my comments the next day. I had circled the word “sprinkles” and told him that it didn’t quite work in an English speaker’s imagination, because in English we could say moonlight falls or shines or does anything but appear watery. But in the Chinese imagination, moonlight has precisely that watery quality. I didn’t know that until Tim presented in class on a challenging word choice he had to make. He pointed to this very example, concluding with: “Ms. Gjika broke my imagination.” In reality, he had broken mine, because I had never imagined or could conceptualize moonlight as watery. At the same time, I felt terrible at first hearing those words, because the verb “break” sounds so negative I thought all my teaching had been in vain. But he assured me it was a good thing and, connotations be damned, I didn’t argue with him any further. icon

  1.  Richard Lattimore, “Practical Notes on Translating Greek Poetry,” in On Translation, edited by Reuben Arthur Brower (Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 49.
  2.  Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 7.
  3. Ibid.
  4.  “An Interview with Rosanna Warren,” by Andrés Hax, Asymptote (accessed November 27, 2016).
Featured image: Detail of a trot created by Jiawei Li (David) for his first translation. Photograph by the author