One of the pleasures of judging a competition like this is that it reminds us that poetry is a world language by reintroducing us to compelling poems from a great variety of different cultures. Produced under very different social and personal conditions they nevertheless conform to a single constant truth, that poetry is a unique form of human understanding where the understanding is always inseparable from the form. The challenge to any translator is therefore to reproduce that informing life of the original by whatever equivalent means a different – and sometimes radically different – language is able to offer. And in the process of translation the structure and resource of both languages involved in this singularly intimate transaction are laid revealingly bare. There were very few entries this year that failed to register this challenge and attempt to respond to it. More common were those entrants who – particularly when translating from Spanish – were so dazzled by the colour of the saying, the vividness of image and phrase, that they scanted attention to the generative music and movement of the original text.
For the adjudicator another pleasure, all the more welcome because unlooked for, is provided by the commentary each entrant is invited to submit. Not only is this often a lucid reflection on the process of translation as experienced by the individual, it can also – and even more valuably – take the form of an explanation of the personal significance of the poem for the translator. At a time when poetry has become an increasingly marginalised art form, relegated primarily to the dreary confines of the education syllabus, to discover how poems can still form part of the most intimate weave of a person's life is to be surprised by joy as one experiences the youthful transformative energies of one of the most ancient art forms. And it is clear from the commentaries that the youngest entrant is quite as appreciative as the oldest of the unique and complex ministry that poems can still offer.
The weakest poems in this year's competition tended to be in the 18-and-under section, where insufficient attention was sometimes paid to the complex formal challenges that any translation presents. That said, this section also featured the single most welcome innovation, in the number of translations from Sanskrit that were entered. Several younger entrants, by contrast, were refreshingly alive to the play of language from which all poetry derives. As for the section for those over eighteen, it proved forbiddingly capacious, with entries ranging not only across the languages of Europe (the translations from the Dutch were particularly memorable) but also much further afield. A good dozen of these were of the very highest standard, and as many again were of publishable quality.
It is a kind of tribute to the standard of entries that the winners were agreed as much by preponderance as by unanimity of opinion among the judges. Some of my particular favourites failed to make the final cut. I was enchanted when a young entrant set a hen incessantly clattering, nattering and chattering; a translation of a passage from the Aeneid that had Dido trembling 'break-steel rigid, black-hole furious' at that rat Aeneas' imminent departure seemed to me to capture the raw violence of the anger; a latter-day Ophelia threatening to walk Russian streets 'like a bare-arsed tart' obviously had a whole lot going for her; and passages taken expertly from the Italian evoked a landscape by Paolo Uccello shimmering with the beauty that a beautifully moulded English had newly bestowed upon it. Judging a competition of this kind would have been rewarding enough had it made possible only encounters with translations such as these.