Judging a poetry competition is a tricky task, for it is never easy to distinguish between styles of writing and personal taste must also, inevitably, play a part. Judging a poetry in translation competition is even trickier, for now the judges must weigh the finished product with the original poem and assess what has gone on during the actual translation process, considering what strategies the translator may have used to achieve a result and to what extent the translation may be said to be an authentic rendering of the poet’s work. Judging this competition was particularly challenging, for there was such a broad range of languages and styles and so many entries of merit.
The judgement we reached was surprisingly consensual, and only after we had concluded our discussion did we realize that we had selected poems in six different languages, both ancient and modern. Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, Russian, Italian and Romanian are the languages of our wining entries, and we discussed poems translated from Chinese, Old Norse, and German as well before coming to the final verdict. Many of the translators were in their GCSE year, one exceptionally was only 9 years old, and despite their own admission in some cases that they had not spent many years studying their language of choice, the quality of entries was tremendous. At a time when there is so much anxiety about the future of foreign language learning in Britain, when so many young people are opting not to study any languages at all, the number of entries for this competition, the range of poems selected and the overall quality sends a very positive message of hope to beleagured language teachers everywhere.
The commentaries that accompanied the entries were also excellent. Some showed great sensitivity and awareness of the structure, language and tone of the original. Many discussed the difficulties they had encountered and some, very honestly, acknowledged the weaknesses of their endeavours. Interestingly, some of the best commentaries were those that accompanied translations from Latin and from Russian; one wonders here whether this is due to the fact that the teaching of those languages involves more explicit study of grammar and poetics.
Each of the judges had personal favourites. I was impressed by the creative solutions found by Timothy Wastell in rendering oral poetic devices in the Old Norse poem, ‘The Lay of Volund’, by the lovely, simple Spanish poems translated by the young Ana-Sofia O’Shaugnessey Gutierrez and by Ben Robson’s clever rendering of the Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’. I admired the bravery (if not foolhardiness) of young translators who attempted poems by Catullus or Leopardi or Neruda which have been translated many many times and who still managed to find some original, rather beautiful solutions to poems with which well-known translators have endlessly wrestled. Kit Fan’s translation of poems by Ya Hsien enabled me for the first time to read work by this important contemporary Chinese poet.
One of our winners chose to translate a poem by the Italian dialect poet Giacomo Belli into English dialect, managing by a series of skilful, creative tactics to provide an equivalent in English for Belli’s humour. Paul Howard also chose to alter the form of the original from the Petrarchan sonnet to the Shakespearian sonnet, a clever and yet totally appropriate way to anglicise the text and to pay tribute to the history of the sonnet and to its transition from Italian into English in the early Renaissance.
What do the entries for this competition tell us about the state of translation in Britain today and about the future? On the basis of the entries that I read, all 134 of them, I would say that there is cause for optimism, something I did not believe I would find myself saying just a few months ago. There are clearly some talented writers out there, some dedicated teachers and some young people with a genuine interest in the language of poetry. The winners have all produced work of exceptional quality, but the extent of the judges’ discussions and the long list we each had of poems that we believed showed evidence of merit confirm that much good work is being undertaken by writers with expertise in both ancient and modern languages.