Propositional "Translations" of Poetry


This close reading activity challenges students to “translate” poetry into propositional statements in order to make students more attentive to the nuances of language.

The students are assigned a poem and then broken into groups. The instructor, Odile Harter, prompts the students to transform the register or diction of the poem, either drastically or subtly. She often gives them "rules" for translation, such as only using words of one or two syllables. After completing the translation, the class comes back together and reads each group’s product aloud. They discuss what gets lost in translation, which parts are particularly challenging to translate, etc. This activity helps students read for form as well as for content.

It is often useful to be restrictive about the translation rules. Possible rules include: limiting the number of words per sentence; writing much more than the original poem, with a minimum number of words; using only words that would be used in text messages to friends; etc.

The activity lends itself to an excellent discussion, particularly because it is a small-group activity. Students often realize they each read the text differently and then discuss what the poem is really saying. In effect, the students engage in peer teaching by debating translations and discussing how to interpret poems and how to defend and/or modify interpretations.