This is the second year of the Times Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, and as the entries poured in, it became apparent that there are a lot of people with a passionate interest in translation. I use the word 'passionate' advisedly, for in the commentaries provided by the translators often a sense of genuine engagement with a poem or with a poet shone through. Some of the entrants were very young, some had little knowledge of poetry other than that suggested by an inspirational teacher, others were long retired but still as enthusiastic about literature as ever.
The process of judging a prize such as this is quite arduous. Reading hundreds of entries carefully, examining the strategies employed by each translator, as we set the original alongside the translation and read each commentary takes a long time. In the end, though, we came together and found to our satisfaction that a number of poems featured in all our short-lists. Obviously, we each had poems about which we felt we wanted to argue for inclusion, and through the good-natured debate we arrived at what I believe is a splendid result. This year, thanks to the generosity of Matthew Spender, we had a new category, awarding a prize to the best poem by a translator aged under 14. That the winner should have chosen to translate from Anglo-Saxon was particularly impressive.
As with last year's entries, the quality of translations from classical languages was outstanding. Two of the winners in the under-18 class are translations from Latin, with another in the commended category. My personal view is that this reflects the quality of teaching in classical languages; there have been prominent public debates about the lack of grammar teaching in modern language courses and the emphasis on oral skills rather than on written, and this appears to be reflected in the entries we received for this competition. In contrast, pupils working on classical texts are taught the rudiments of poetics and they have a grasp of grammar and syntax which stands them in good stead when they start to translate. We debated, for example, the problem of one translation from a modern European language that read nicely in English but where the young translator had clearly never been taught anything about the use of the subjunctive. This may seem a pedantic point, but when dealing with sophisticated poetry it is absolutely crucial.
In the general category, many translators tackled difficult poems from diverse historical periods. We liked the Marie de France translation and commended a version of a poem by Villon. Translating poems from the more distant past is not easy, and translators have to decide exactly how far they can go in terms of modernisation of language. My pet hate, I must confess, which is shared by fellow judges, is the use of archaisms. Translations with 'twas' and 'verily' were out. Why translate anything into a fake language, is my view, and although archaising was a fashionable translation strategy in the nineteenth century, it rings very false today. Occasionally a translator would do something really daring, like putting a classical poet into contemporary rap-speak, and sometimes this kind of bold experiment can work well. Hopefully in future years archaisms will not return to haunt the judges.
The range of languages was again impressive. We had entries in Asian languages, in Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, entries in Hebrew, entries in ancient and modern European languages. We were all delighted that a translation from Welsh made the prize-winning list. The quality of writing in Welsh is very high, and one of the great injustices of the literary world is that the dominance of English tends to marginalize our knowledge of the poetry written in other languages of the British Isles. We would like to see Gaelic and Irish poetry translated in future years, along with more Welsh of this quality, please.
All in all, another excellent year that shows that translation is a vital literary activity in Britain today.