Shadow Heroes - RSA

Shadow Heroes


  • Picture of Gitanjali Patel FRSA
    Gitanjali Patel FRSA
  • Education
  • Skills

Gitanjali Patel FRSA believes that translation is a force for change, as well as an untapped resource for teaching students how to harness their linguistic abilities to become critical, yet responsible, global citizens.

Earlier this year, five translators delivered five original workshops in two north London state schools – William Ellis and Camden School for Girls – as part of a Shadow Heroes series supported by the RSA’s Catalyst fund. Our aim was to demonstrate the power of translation in teaching critical thinking and as a socially inclusive endeavour, highlighting the fun, varied and cross-disciplinary nature of working with languages. Following on from our earlier introduction to the series, here are some of our reflections. 

Shadow Heroes workshops aim to introduce students to a range of languages and perspectives from outside western Europe, and this series was no exception. Our opening workshop, got students thinking about how our different perspectives, interests and worldviews influence the way we read and interpret, and what effect this might have on our translations. A second workshop on translating Arabic comics, led by Nariman Youssef and Sawad Hussain, introduced concepts of foreignisation and domestication, helping students to make self-aware decisions as they adapted translations for different audiences. Next, Ayça Türkoğlu’s workshop used Turkish pop songs to offer an in-depth look at voice, idiom and onomatopoeia. This emphasis on the complexities of translating voice continued throughout the series. Yuka Harada-Parr guided students in their retranslations of the Japanese dialogue of a Dragon Ball Z trailer, and the final session, on translating slang, drew on the skills built during previous workshops to highlight the power structures evident in the language(s) we use.

The workshops drew on contemporary fiction, film, music and art from across the world. Each looked to shift the idea of language as simply a system for communication and emphasise its grounding in people and societies, cultures and politics. Feedback showed an enthusiastic response from students and teachers at both schools to a broader presentation of language learning. When students were asked to choose their favourite workshop at the end of the series there was a near even spread across the five, and 98% of the students rated the workshops eight out of 10 or above. The topics of the workshops – whether Japanese role language or the social critique manifest in a contemporary Brazilian rap song – sparked curiosity, as well as providing an opportunity for students to share knowledge that might not otherwise be drawn on in the classroom, and to reflect on political and social parallels in the UK.

Throughout the series, sound repeatedly emerged as a point of discussion and springboard for creativity. From exploring different translations of sound effects in Arabic graphic novels, to debating how the onomatopoetic sound of a Turkish sip might remain sexy in English, it became clear that what we say is tied up with how we can say it. Students particularly enjoyed the use of music within the series and this was evident in the zeal with which they performed their own translations. What stood out was the power of voice, both to convey humour and to make a memorable social critique.

Feedback from schools was also positive. The workshops were “well pitched and challenging”, according to Horace, our liaison teacher at William Ellis School, “drawing students away from the literal to think about meaning rather than words.” Hedia at Camden School for Girls observed that “students got to experience creative writing in a way that they rarely do in lessons.” In a curriculum that is ever more focussed on getting the ‘right’ answers, we believe that the flexible thinking inherent in translation is vital for encouraging young people to think outside the box, to reflect on initial ideas to find improved solutions, and to stretch themselves without being afraid of making mistakes. As one student fed back, the workshop series taught resilience.

The close reading that forms an integral part of the translation process creates a space to work through opinions and test our own assumptions. The workshops provided a space in which students could address unconscious biases, and discuss them in a safe and inclusive environment. One example of this was a students’ response to an excerpt from Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories. An initial reaction that a translated metaphor “didn’t sound good in English” provided an opportunity to think about how to carry meaning from one language to another, listening to expression from another culture with an open mind, and appreciating the way that English is continually being shaped by other languages.

Another recurrent piece of feedback was students’ intention to read more books in translation. Currently, translations only make up less than 6% of fiction published in the UK (a figure that becomes more striking when compared to that of non-Anglophone countries), and the limited range of languages that dominate within this figure. A new generation of readers, inspired to seek out a more diverse array of voices on the bookshelves, might serve as a force for change. Shadow Heroes is delighted to be collaborating with three publishers at the forefront of this changing tide – Pushkin Press, Darf Publishers and Granta – to award students translated works of fiction as a prize for their own compelling and sensitive translations. We will also be giving students a booklet of all their translations from the course of the series.

We would love to hear from teachers and educational practitioners who are interested in getting involved with future iterations of our project, or who have questions about this one. Whether you have expertise you’d like to share or questions about what’s next please contact Gitanjali at [email protected], or via MyRSA.


Gitanjali Patel is a translator and social researcher. She is the co-founder Shadow Heroes, an organisation which uses translation as a means of engaging secondary school students in critical thought. They can be found at @shadow_heroes.


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