Poetry Profile: Translating Activism Workshop with Kalyani Thakur, Sipra Mukherjee, and Jo Dixon

5 May 18 words: LP Mills
photos: Satwik Paul

If you thought that we'd be sick of poetry after last week's festival, you'd be dead wrong. Today we're highlighting the incredible work of Kalyani Thakur, a Dalit poet and political activist from West Bengal, following her appearance at the Translating Activism workshop hosted by the Postcolonial Studies Centre at Nottingham Trent University. 

I arrive post-workshop to a room of busy scribbling. "I love the sound of writing" Jo Dixon, Research Assistant in Critical Poetics at Nottingham Trent University, announces to the room once everyone has finished. I have come today to listen to the work of Kalyani Thakur, a political poet of the Dalit caste in West Bengal, but also to hear about how her works have been translated into English by Sipra Mukherjee. 

The whole thing is very exciting - it feels almost illicit, as though I am peeking behind the curtain of cross-cultural exchange. Jo and Sipra discuss how languages differ greatly from one another, not only in terms of semantics but also the very connotation of the words used. For example, a translation of Kalyani's poem Beyara Somaj (which roughly translates to "The Headstrong Society") concludes with the words "For good." In English, this can be used to mean finality - to finish something off for good - but that connotation doesn't quite translate into Kalyani's native Bengali. Instead, Sipra explains, this final line is used to mean "to the benefit" of those involved, itself a more open and positive ending that the English equivalent. 

This workshop, and others like it, come at an important time. The world is, on the whole, preoccupied with misunderstanding. The language barrier is often used to keep people separated, and in a society as proudly multicultural as Nottingham, this should never be the case. While at this event, I met speakers of Portuguese, Bengali, Peruvian, and German, and each speaker brought with them their own cultural understanding of the world around them. The event's program even leads with questions like "how far does language connect us, and how far does it divide us?" and "how can poetry help us to connect with one another across experiences, languages and cultures?"

After the event had finished I had the chance to speak with Sarah Newport, one of the organisers of the event. She kindly offered to speak with some of the event's attendees in order to curate and publish samples of the writing produced during the workshop portion of the event. These pieces - including an asemic poem that uses "no specified semantic content" and relies predominately on pictographs, scribbles, and symbols - can be found below: 


by Jenny Smith

Head down society 
off to work anxiety
Tram passing quietly but
Howling on curves

Eyes of lace offices staring down at the bustle
Bored travellers dream idly of Hockley Hustle
Weekdays crossing and weaving,
Coming into Market Square.
Interlacing there

There's more to this city, it's a capital one. Proud Nottingham - Contemporary, its steady hand and lion heart. 
Rock city, Cave city. Street sweepers keep it pretty. 

Flashing lights cleaning up smart
Forget your phone; look up

Share a little conversation. 

Though condensation gathers on the panes and
light catches the spray.
The morning is yawning into the day.

Ringing Change

By Trevor Wright

Over time,
parched at the end of your tether,
wiping the smile onto our faces
became a segregate habit.
Learned under herds
whose scheduled trammel
denied us the expanse
to vent all natural fumes.

No longer
scattered, much more than
miscarried foot prints ever
the last to be quenched.

We step out
from the shadow of your shadows,
to draw our water
from a sweeter well.


Part of an ongoing impact and outreach program hosted by NTU staff, the Translating Activism workshop was one of the most unique and engaging poetry events I have attended in recent months. Enlightening, thought-provoking, and all-round fascinating, Kalyani's work was brought to a British audience who may have otherwise not had a chance to read it, and hearing the process by which Sipra translates a piece gave an enticing glimpse into a world few know much about. 

For more information regarding the Centre of Postcolonial Studies, see their website at 

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