Judging The Times Stephen Spender Prize for the first time, I was struck not only by the evident enthusiasm for poetry from an impressive array of languages, but also the willingness of contestants to stretch the possibilities of English and find new ways of saying. Many contestants translated well-known poems; though translating a ‘classic’ presents difficulties of its own; not least of which is the rich shadow-life such a poem already has in English. Others made a point of quarrelling with existing translations, and hoped to communicate what made the poem tick in a fresh new way. Others again set out to reveal a more private passion, a relatively unknown contemporary poet, who was being fetched into English for the first time.
A facet of this competition which was difficult to gauge in advance was the commentary on the submitted translations. Quite a number of submissions failed to take full advantage of this opportunity, simply offering a biographical account of the poet in question. But at their best, these commentaries revealed a rich understanding of the mechanisms of the original poem as well as the thought processes which had led to certain lexical or technical decisions. I was, however, unprepared for the often moving biographical testimony, which showed just how important a particular poem had been at a pivotal moment in someone’s life, sometimes accompanying them through many years as a kind of touchstone.
I also learned a good deal about how English accommodates certain voices most easily and struggles with others. Rhyme is a case in point. It was almost always possible to tell on reading an English poem in free verse whether the original had been rhymed or worked closely with rhythms. Of course it is not always necessary to rhyme a poem in English in the same way as it has been rhymed in the original. Indeed there are occasions when to follow the original would mean sabotaging the poem in English – a language in which it is far harder to rhyme unobtrusively. However simply abandoning any attempt at rhyme often means sabotaging the poem in a different way. The English felt broken, lacked the essential tension that had given the original its power. There are no ready answers, but I for one missed a more thoughtful use of para-rhyme, that staple of contemporary English poetry.
The judges agreed quickly on the 14-and-under entries; the 18-and-under category impressed with the confidence of the winning submissions. The boldness to be simple is something that experienced translators often struggle with. The boldness to be radical, as the wonderful haiku versions of Horace, is exceptional. Hardest was, perhaps inevitably, the Open competition. I was sorry that I could not persuade my fellow judges of the merits of Mike Mitchell’s brilliantly sassy translation of Helmut Krausser’s ‘The Denotation of Babel’, a real discovery for me, and regretted too that my own enthusiasm for a haunting version by Angus Turvill of the Japanese poet Nomura Kiwao’s ‘A Gentle Hinge’ was not shared by my colleagues. However, the painstaking sifting and re-reading of the final round allowed translations of real stature to emerge, on which we had no difficulty in reaching agreement. These were poems that obeyed the first and perhaps the only binding rule of translation: that they work as poems in English. The first line of Gordon Wallace’s Dante (my own personal favourite) resonates with me even now. But all of these prizewinners and commended entries have taken that essential step. Cut adrift from their original context, they have found a new and vital life, a new home.