Shadow Heroes: Arabic Translation (and More) in the Classroom

Yesterday in Words Without Borders, Gitanjali Patel and Jessie Spivey of Shadow Heroes — an organization that runs creative-translation workshops for students in the UK — addressed what they called the myth of the “good translation”:

From a January 2020 workshop led by Nariman Youssef and Sawad Hussain. Photo credit: Shadow Heroes

They write, in the joint essay:

At Shadow Heroes, we believe in the potential of translation to reframe both what we learn and how we learn. Our workshops, mostly delivered to students aged 15–18, seek to de-center Western Europe from language learning, and break away from the hierarchies of value that this emphasis establishes. Working between languages opens questions for which there is no single solution, acknowledging the individual experiences that shape our way of thinking and making space for multiple ways of being “good.”

Shadow Heroes workshops introduce students to a range of languages and perspectives from outside western Europe; source languages include Turkish, Urdu, Indonesian, Japanese, and Arabic.

The Shadow Heroes workshop leaders also think creatively and engagingly about which texts they bring to young would-be translators. Students are not translating al-Jahiz or Mutanabbi, Mahfouz or Mirza Ghalib. Translators Nariman Youssef and Sawad Hussain, for instance, have focused workshops on Arabic comics; Ayça Türkoğlu has focused on Turkish pop songs; and Yuka Harada-Parr guided students in retranslations of the Japanese dialogue of a Dragon Ball Z trailer.

And outcomes are broad. One important result of the program, Gitanjali Patel wrote in May 2020, was that, a “recurrent piece of feedback was students’ intention to read more books in translation.”

Gitanjali Patel and Nariman Youssef both answered a few questions about the Shadow Heroes project.

How did Shadow Heroes come about?

Gitanjali Patel: Sophie Lewis and I came up with the idea in 2016 through a series of conversations about our own experiences of learning languages in England, and how we both only really understood the value of this type of education at university and through our work. Using translation as a social researcher in Brazil and the UK was a formative experience, highlighting power as a central consideration to any work with translation.

I really believe that translation has revolutionary potential, both in terms of developing students’ critical awareness of the world we live in, as well as increasing one’s capacity for self-reflection. It creates a creative space for addressing complex issues, such as race, class, gender, ability. It provides the opportunity to shift the centre, by choosing which languages, which writers, what texts to translate. Furthermore, translation is fundamentally cross-disciplinary, working across subjects, applicable to most subjects. We hope that as recognition for translation-based approaches grows, they will become central to the curriculum.

You’ve now worked in, I believe, 24 different schools. How are the schools chosen? Are you, through them, working with students from a variety of backgrounds?

GP: Yes, definitely. We aim to work mostly with state schools, some of which have a high percentage of EAL students, some of which have a high percentage of BAME students, or students on FSM. We also work with some private schools. In terms of choosing schools, we have worked with schools that have approached us and that we have approached. The key for me is having an engaged liaison teacher, with whom we can best tailor the workshops to the group in question.

How do you choose the languages with which you’ll be working? And what do you look for in your collaborators?

GP: Since we are still a fairly young organization, we haven’t yet specified what languages we want to work with. That being said, our focus is on decolonising MFL, and so our priority is training translators working with non-Western European languages. If we work with languages such as French or Spanish, we will use texts from Haiti or Equatorial Guinea, rather than France or Spain.

In terms of collaborators, we are pretty open, although we are keen to work with translators who work with translation as an anti-colonial practice, translators who see the potential of translation for activism and advocacy, translators who use their work to challenge the status quo.

Nariman . . . Shadow Heroes has the potential to address so many important things, all at once (bringing professional working translators into the classroom; de-centering “school” languages; celebrating & making creative use of heritage languages; making translation fun; making translators real; opening new literary worlds). What have been a few concrete moments in the classroom that surprised you, made you feel “yes, this is working”?  

Working with Deena Mohamed’s “Qahera.” Photo credit: Shadow Heroes.

Nariman Youssef: When students went to town with super domesticated translations that made Deena Mohamed’s Qahera teenage characters sound like they were kids in a North London school. I’m not usually a fan of translating into regional slang, but in this case, it meant relatibility and bringing something of themselves into the exercise.  When at the end of the workshop with a class of boisterous teenage boys, we asked what they had learned and one said that “you can translate the same thing in so many ways.” That was a “wow, you were paying attention!” moment for me.

Gitanjali, what about you? What have been some of the best moments of Shadow Heroes in the classroom (and beyond)?

In the classroom:

There are so many. I think the way students push the boundaries of the translation tasks and develop solutions that are both brilliant and counter-intuitive. No task ever plays out in the same way. Another moment was after one workshop when two boys left the classroom saying, “we’re gonna get that prize [International Booker] for our Arabic translation, miss.” Neither of them had knowledge of Arabic prior to the workshop. I loved Yuka Harada-Parr’s workshop on translating Japanese anime where the students translated and dubbed a Dragon Ball Z trailer. I was also really moved when one student said she learnt resilience from the workshop series.

Outside the classroom:

Co-developing workshops with other translators, discussing ideas and coming together over a common goal. These collaborations have been so inspiring, rewarding, affirming. Seeing our first collaborator-led workshop in action, and the class response, is definitely a moment that will stay with me. Similarly, discussions with our recent translator trainee cohort (Naima Rashid, Harriet Phillips, Reem Abou-El-Fadl and Khairani Barokka), around how one’s cultural biases influence our creative instinct, have shaped thinking which I will apply to both my teaching and translation practice.

Nariman, of course there’s what the student gets out of it. What does a translator get out of being part of Shadow Heroes? 

NY: Translation is not a field of instant (or even delayed) validation. Mostly we do the work and leave it in the proverbial drawer for months or years, or we send it out into the world and hear nothing (or just murmurs) back. So classroom work offers a nice change. You know immediately when you’ve done something right (or wrong) and, when it does work, you leave with a sense of having definitely done something good with your day. There’s also so much pleasure in the moments when one or two students begin to discover that they’re actually having fun. Am I witnessing a translator discovering themselves as one? There’s something like recognition in that, and a reminder of why we choose to do what we do. I also picked up quite a bit of young people slang that I’d never heard before.

What sorts of accommodations do you make for students when you bring Arabic into a classroom where there may be some who read it, some who speak it, most who can do either? Do you use an 3arabizi alphabet?

NY: Most Shadow Heroes workshops are designed to not require specific language skills. We came to the classroom prepared with gloss (word-for-word) translations, with the occasional transliteration/3arabizi for words that present particularly interesting translation challenges. In this setup, the slight advantage experienced by students who may read or speak Arabic comes as a bonus, as perhaps a taste of what it’s like to have an unspoken privilege.

Find out more about Shadow Heroes at