ATA, Perspective

Kids! They Translate Into Promise: CAT’s Poetry Inside Out Program

By Ines Swaney

Put a bunch of fifth-graders into a bilingual immersion school, introduce them to poetry, and then teach them to translate it, and what do you get? The sky’s the limit.

Shortly before the start of the ATA Conference in San Francisco, I was asked by Kirk Anderson of ATA to be part of a unique presentation sponsored in part by the San Francisco-based Center for the Art of Translation (CAT). I was to be part of a two-person team scheduled to speak about languages and the translation profession in general to a fifth-grade class at Monroe Elementary School in San Francisco, which has a K-5 Spanish/English immersion program. My partner in the presentation was Tony Beckwith, an ATA colleague from Austin whom I had never met.

Our presentation would take place during a special class period known as “PIO”—Poetry Inside Out, the innovative program developed by NCTA member and CAT President Olivia Sears. In PIO, kids of various backgrounds—many Hispanic, but also Asian, African-American, and Caucasian—are taught poetry, which they learn to translate before beginning to write poems of their own.

Originally the plan was for Tony and me to speak for about five minutes each, followed by questions and answers. Then, if time remained, we would have the opportunity to listen to and enjoy some of the poetry the students had been translating. To begin, Tony pointed to various geographical regions on a world map. Although Tony was born in Argentina, at a young age he moved with his parents to Uruguay. When my turn came, I also used the map to explain that I had been born in Venezuela to parents who had arrived from Hungary.

By a show of hands, we learned that many of the children in this class came from families where a language other than English is spoken at home. Tony and I each commented that our respective home situations while growing up had been similar to theirs, because English was the language predominantly spoken at home by Tony’s family in Argentina and Uruguay, and Hungarian was the language spoken at my home in Venezuela.

Throughout our presentation the children often raised their hands and asked questions, sometimes thoughtful and intelligent, sometimes funny. Tony and I explained the differences between translating and interpreting, the subtleties involved in accurately conveying meaning in another language, how much we enjoy working between English and Spanish and the variety of situations we find ourselves in professionally. For a few minutes we also demonstrated to the students the skill of simultaneous interpreting.

Simultaneous excitement

As Tony proceeded to explain some details about the profession, I interpreted his comments simultaneously into Spanish while noticing the kids’ undivided attention. Most, of course, understood the two languages that could be heard at virtually the same time. We pointed out that speaking more than one language is a definite asset that will undoubtedly enrich any field, occupation or career these kids were to pursue in the future. “Baseball player,” said one kid; “veterinarian” said another, when asked what they’d like to be when they grew up. I then went on to explain how being bilingual would make them more valuable as individuals and employees, and how knowing a second language would enrich their professional prospects in the specific careers they had mentioned.

An audible “Ooooh!,” conveying admiration, could be heard in the classroom when Tony mentioned that he had recently served as Spanish interpreter in Miami for the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate hosted by Univisión. Likewise, the children appeared to be impressed when I confessed to being the Spanish-language recorded voice of the California Lottery. Just by calling the toll-free number 1-800-LOTTERY from any phone from within California they would be able to hear me.

Perhaps that explains why we were made to feel like celebrities at the end of the presentation. Inspired by one student, most of them asked both of us for our autographs. At least one of the boys said to Tony, “when I grow up, I want to do what you do!” From looking at the faces of the rest of the students, we could see that new horizons had been opened to them.

The presentation that we had planned for just five minutes each lasted over an hour, thanks to the enthusiasm and interest on the part of the students. For both Tony and me, being part of this year’s pro-bono activity on behalf of the American Translators Association was one of the highlights of the Conference.