Poetry in Translation, a unit created by Queens teacher Carol McCarthy, draws on the unique abilities of her multicultural classroom. In her introductory lesson plan, Carol calls upon her students to investigate poetry through the lens of their individual cultural backgrounds. Students translate the work of poets from their native country or ethnic heritage, then write and translate their own poems. Students probe poetry in translation in other lessons as well, including "Translating Poets of the Holocaust Era," "Haiku," "Women in Poetry," and a comparative lesson focusing on two translations of Beowulf. Against this backdrop, Carol employs a series of classroom learning activities and Internet research that helps each student to find their place in a poetic tradition.

Unit Length: 8 Class Periods

Learning Objectives

The purpose of this unit is to motivate students to participate in poetry in translation projects that will utilize a variety of learning modalities. The students who attend Flushing High School are multi-cultural. This factor lends itself to the study of poets from numerous cultural and socio-political backgrounds. It also promotes the nature of collaborative learning and the sharing of new and unfamiliar voices and concepts. The nature of poetry as a genre lends itself to the project. Each poem is a self-contained unit which can be studied on a number of levels. Students will undertake the following tasks individually and also have the opportunity to collaborate in small groups. Each student will select a poem from his/her cultural background and research the life and work of the poet, explore the work in the original language and find or write a translation of the particular work. Thus far poetry in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Turkish, Russian, French, Bengali, Hindi, and Persian will be included. A variety of research tools will be utilized to do this. The technology component will assist with research and add to the richness of the material by providing textual and visual links to the poet and his/her work. A series of task-oriented rubrics will be constructed for assessment.


Performance Tasks and Outcomes

Research the poet's life
Find examples of the poet's work in the original language and in translation
Investigate the socio-cultural context of the work
Collaborate with group to find and share material
Report findings and present to class
Use technology to undertake a webquest that includes:

  • Downloading text
  • Illustrating the project with a work of art or an archival image
  • Creating a series of hyperlinks
  • Using a variety of graphics
  • Understanding the basic steps in designing systems
  • Learning how to effectively search for and gather information on the web
  • Learning how to solve problems effectively
  • Learning self-management and how to work successfully with others


Expected Outcomes  

Students will learn to plan and organize.
Polish research skills.
They will become better problem solvers.
They will recognize inter-disciplinary connections as a result of the research.
Better communication and collaborative skills will be goal-oriented with opportunities for revision and re-evaluation.
Students will recognize cultural connections and differences and see how poetry can cross barriers and brings the global community together

Technology Required

Audio Recorder
Internet Access
Microsoft Paint or Other Drawing Application

Lesson Plan 1: Poetry in Translation: Introductory Lesson


  1. To introduce the concept of poetry in translation to an 11th grade class. (Can be adapted for Advanced Placement as well.)
  2. To distribute a list of suggested poet.
  3. To present students with a series of performance tasks which they will complete in relation to a research project.

Classroom Work:

After a discussion of various cultural backgrounds which will be placed on the chalkboard, students will name poets associated with their particular culture and, if possible I will elicit favorite poets and add them to the board. A supplementary list will be distributed including the following poets:

Marjorie Agosin
Anna Akhmatova
Rosa Alcala
Claribel Alegria
Charles Baudelaire
Joseph Brodsky
Paul Celan
Lorna Dee Cervantes
Bei Dao
Shirley Geok-Lin Lim
Zbigniew Herbert
Miroslav Holub
Nazim Hikmet
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
Czeslaw Milosz
Taslima Nasrin
Pablo Neruda
Nuala Ni Dhomnhonaill
Jiri Orten
Octavio Paz
Ranier Maria Rilke
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Andrea Zanzott

This list is an ongoing instrument which is meant to be amended and developed as the process develops. Students will be free to add poets of their own choice as the term proceeds.

Students will be asked to perform several the following tasks:

  1. Select a poet of particular interest.
  2. Research the poet's life.
  3. Find examples of the poet's work in the original language and in translation.
  4. Write a translation of one of the poems selected.
  5. Compare the student translation to one done by another poet.
  6. Find cultural material, via a search engine, related to the socio-political milieu from which the poet comes.
  7. Illustrate with original art.
  8. Write a poem in his/her language and translate the poem into English.

Students will be given several weeks to complete this project and will be checked with regard to progress periodically. A bibliography and documentation of sources will be required.


Students will participate in the City College Poetry Contest in the category of Poetry in a Language Other Than English. This will give them the opportunity to share their talents with others and involve themselves with the community beyond the school.

Extra Credit Enrichment Project:

For extra credit students will be asked to find examples of prose essays written by the poet of their choice. This will lead to the writing of a personal memoir. Samples of memoirs will be given out in class to study the genre. These will include memoirs and letters written by poets such as Rilke and Akhmatova and by others such as Primo Levi, Ernest Galarza, and Sandra Cisneros.

Lesson Plan 2: Women in Poetry: Voices, Translations

Poems Used: Original and translated works by the following poets:

"Refugee Ship" by Lorna Dee Cervantes
"The Language Issue" by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
"Pantoum for Chinese Women" by Shirley Geok-lin Lim


  1. Students will examine the work of three contemporary women who represent various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
  2. They will look at the original and the translation for the works of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and those who can write Chinese will translate Geok-lin Lim poem into modern Chinese.
  3. Students will identify elements such as form, diction, figurative language, and poetic devices used.
  4. Students will write a poem in the style of one of the poets.
  5. Students will recognize and list major themes shared by all three poets.
  6. The poems will be compared and contrasted for similarities and differences.


The following quote will appear on the board: "At present, the phenomena of butchering, drowning and leaving to die female infants have been very serious." -From The People's Daily, Peking, March 3, 1983. tudents will be asked to discuss the quote, its meaning and implications for women in the Republic of China today. How does this tie in with similar issues in other parts of the world. Discuss related topics and chart on board. What can women from such diverse backgrounds have in common? Discuss and put student observations, culled from collaborative interaction on the board.


  1. Distribute poems -- Read each silently and orally. Present each poem at least twice with different readers.
  2. Identify the major themes introduced in each poem.
  3. Find and list examples of figurative language. Write in notebooks and on the board. Make a separate list for each of the three poems.
  4. What observations can be made about the form of the Shirley Geok-lin Lim poem? What are the characteristics of a pantoum? List on board:
    Traditional Malayan form: originaged in the 15th century.
    Composed of several stanzas of four lines each.
    Follows the pattern of using lines 2 and 4 of each stanza for lines 1 and 3 of the next stanza.
    The first line of the poem should be the same as the last line.
    Every line in the poem is used twice.
    Rhyme is optional
  5. Does the poem meet these criteria? Why or why not?
  6. How has the culture and ethnicity of each poet influenced her work? What are the issues of major concern to each poet?
  7. Explore the feelings that evoked the strongest response from you. What were they and why were they so strong?

Technology Component:

  1. Find other works and translations by on of the three poets.
  2. Find a work in the original language: Spanish, Irish, or Chinese and attempt to write his or her own translation.
  3. Research one of the poet's life and cultural background. Find out what societal, cultural, political forces influenced the work. What role did the issue of gender play in the work?
  4. Find a sample of the poet reading her work.
  5. Write a poem in your own language that reflects a theme explored in the work of the poets studied.
  6. Illustrate your poem with appropriate symbols or art.

Lesson Plan 3: Translating Poets of the Holocaust Era

Poems Used: Original and translated works.

"Fugue of Death" by Paul Celan
"A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" by Czeslaw Milosz
"Babii Yar" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko


  1. Students will read poems by three poets who lived through or wrote about the holocaust era.
  2. Internal and external conflict in each poem will be explored.
  3. Form, figurative language and major themes will be explored.
  4. Students will find cultural, historical and political links on the Internet to demonstrate and understanding of the background and forces that influenced each poet.
  5. Poems will be compared and contrasted.
  6. Students will write a poem influenced by a major event such as genocide or any type of social injustice that has affected their culture or changed their perspective on life.


Students will take an online trip to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and investigate the artifacts, art, diary entries to be found on the second floor which features the Holocaust Memorial material. Each will print out information and write a preliminary report on some particular aspect of the holocaust. These will be presented in class and precipitate a preliminary discussion that will set the stage for the study of the three poems noted above.


  1. Poems will be distributed and read orally.
  2. What is the major theme explored in each?
  3. Who is the speaker in each poem?
  4. Describe the setting.
  5. Find several examples of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, personification, alliteration, oxymoron, apostrophe and synesthesia.
  6. What do you notice about the form, rhyme, and verse?
  7. What effect does the form have on the content?
  8. What does each poem reveal about the cultural, political and social context of the work?
  9. Write a brief prose version of each poem. Tell the story in your own words.
  10. Find the original language version of the poem.

Technology Component:

Find biographical background on one of the poets and report on how his background influenced his work. Find the poet reading his work. Find another poem by the same poet and if possible record the English version in your voice.

Lesson Plan 4: Haiku

Poems Used:

Traditional haiku by poets Issa, Basho and Chiyo, translated by Harry Behn and others.
Modern haiku by poets including W.F. O'Rourke and Etheridge Knight.
Selections from The Sea and the Honeycomb: A Book of Tiny Poems, edited by Robert Bly.


  1. Students will learn the form of the traditional haiku and demonstrate their mastery of the form by writing original haiku in the style of Issa, Basho or Chiyo.
  2. They will find one or more translations of the work of an early writer of haiku.
  3. Students will write original haiku, both traditional and modern style. Completed work will be illustrated with original art or traditional Chinese art foudn online.
  4. Students will enter their work in the Japan Society Haiku Contest.

Motivation: What makes haiku different from other poetic forms?

Discuss: Format for a haiku: three lines, seventeen syllables, sharp images, references to nature, a sharp turn or sudden insight or contrast.


  1. Read several samples of traditional haiku poetry.
  2. Make several observations about the poems: List the following images on the board: kite/hovel, flower/filled well, balloon/child leaving zoo, birds without necks, washing dihes/pan of stars, convicts/lizards on rocks.
  3. View short film on haiku, in class as a summary.
  4. Demonstrate understanding by writing one traditional haiku and two modern-style haiku.
  5. Enter Japan Soceity contest.


Technology Componenet:

Students will do online research on the following:

  1. Gather information on the background and historical context of the life of a traditional writer of haiku such as Basho or Issa.
  2. Find three to five haiku not read in class and illustrate with traditional Chinese art found online or create your own art work to illustrate each selection.

Comparative Translation Lesson: Beowulf

Poems Used:

Edwin Morgan's translation of Beowulf
Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf


  1. Students will be given passages of Beowulf from the beginning, middle and end of the saga, as well as the original Anglo-Saxon. They will examine the original and the two translations.
  2. Students will make several observations with regard to diction, point of view, voice, structure and figurative language.
  3. They will compare and contrast the two translations.
  4. They will find and identify elements of poetic language including: metaphor, simile, synesthesia, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, alliteration, and hyperbole.
  5. Students will identify the characteristics of the epic and show why this is a traditional epic in form and presentation


Students will be asked to free-write on the nature of heroism and the qualities that a hero should have. They will then cite examples of heroic persons they have heard about from literary sources, including mythical heroes. They will then be asked to cite examples of contemporary heroes.


Students will compare and contrast the passages from the Morgan and the Heaneay Beowulf. They will identify literary elements, elements of plot, theme, explore the characterization and draw conclusions as to the nature of a true hero. They will explain why Beowulf can be regarded as a classic and archetypal hero.

Writing Enrichment:

Create a contemporary epic with a heroic figure who passes through a series of trials and challenges. Present the hero with insuperable odds that must be overcome. Write this contemporary epic in the colloquial language of your hometown.

Unit Evaluation

Student Response:

Students were very receptive to the work on poetry in translation. The unit proved to be a natural complement to their various backgrounds and as such there was very little resistance to teh work that was covered. Many students were not expecting to explore poets of their own cultural background and when presented with the work they became very enthusiastic and willing to participate. Many had no idea they were capable of writing poetry and many were delighted to indulge in the poetry that had been writing for many years in their native homes.

Importance of Technology:

The technology enabled students to research their poets, get original sources, art, cultural and biographical background. It was very useful to those who wished to go further and adequate for those who did the basics.

Planning Time:

I tried to incorporate as much as possible within the parameters of preparation time given at school. I needed additional time, many hours all tolled, to explore and incorporate new units into the curriculum. After the initial work and technology incorporation it becomes very simple to implement new components.


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