The experience of judging the Stephen Spender Prize for the first time has been both fascinating and rewarding. There was an impressively wide range of interests and languages on offer, while the mostly thoughtful and incisive commentaries revealed an admirable enthusiasm for the task of translation, whether from students, professionals or promising first-timers. With such poetic diversity before us, it was imperative to judge the translation per se and not be swayed by any opinion of the original poem, putting aside our own, all very different poetic tastes. In addition we realised how difficult it is to decide the relative merits of, say, a short, simple poem against an extract from a longer and often more complicated work.
This was particularly the case for the youngest entrants; how to compare a beautifully executed version of a German nursery rhyme with a competent extract from Greek tragedy? It was heartening, however, to see so many entrants engaging with the poetics of their original, finding impressively creative strategies to reproduce semantic, structural and even phonic effects. In the end our prizewinners in the 14-and-under category both offer very different versions of classical literature, a rap Catullus and a stately Virgil, reflecting the unique possibilities that classical translation allows. Such freedom is further witnessed in Ella Kirsh's commended version of the Laocoon story from the Aeneid which makes a highly readable poem in its own right.
Extracts from classical epic also figured prominently on the 18-and-under prize-winners' list with Anna Thornton's translation of a passage from Ovid's notoriously tricky Metamorphoses one of my own favourites. In contrast, our winner, Alice Malin, gave us a welcome example of a short poem exquisitely translated from modern German, a language that has also been educationally sidelined. Indeed it was cheering to see so many entrants in this category choosing to enter poems far from their A level syllabuses, such as Laura van Hove's translations from Dutch.
In the Open category, despite many sure-footed entries, we found ourselves moving away from classical Greek and Latin to classical French and Chinese, with Jane Tozer's wonderfully feisty versions of Villon and Kit Fan's movingly elegant Du Fu proving that poetry sometimes needs to make us both laugh and cry. It was good, too, to see so many contemporary translations making an appearance on the winners' list, with excellent versions of German, French and Spanish including a highly original Erl King, a luminous Baudelaire, a sensual Lorca and a thought-provoking Pizarnik. I was also impressed by translations from modern Greek, including Bob Newman's version of George Seferis' technically challenging 'Pantoum', which, in a strong field, didn't quite make the final list. On a slightly less encouraging note, after the excellent efforts of school students in the previous categories, it was disappointing to note how few university students and younger translators had entered. Poetry translation it seems (or at least the entering of poetry translation prizes) is the preserve of the retired, perhaps reflecting the time-greedy nature of the task.
All in all I found that the judging process taught me much about my own profession. In particular I understood more fully how difficult a task we set ourselves and just how treacherous language can be; how a single jarring word can throw an entire piece out of kilter, emphasising the need, as in all literary endeavour, for constant editing and revision. That said, when everything chimes together – diction, tone, music - the result is inspiring, enriching our lives, as so many of the commentaries testified, as well as our literary tradition.