Judging this prize is as exciting as it is pleasurable. I enjoyed reading the hundreds of translations and commentaries, and enjoyed also the excitement of the final judges’ meeting and the revelation of the names of the winners. This year the judges came quickly to a consensus, though we all had our special favourites. I noted with particular pleasure some of the splendid Italian translations, three of which found their way onto our Open winners list. I also enjoyed those candidates who sent in two versions of the same poem, exploring different stylistic and linguistic techniques that made me look again the originals.
The commentaries are fascinating, because they reveal the processes by which translators arrive at their final version and provide an account of what they have learned through translating. Some translators take pains to explain their strategies, others confess to more intimate relations with a poet or a poem. It was very moving to learn how translating a particular poem had helped some people cope with bereavement or terminal illness, and testifies to the eternal power of literature to heal. There were a number of translations of poems about the Holocaust, written in many languages, some extremely powerful, and one of the winning entries, a translation from the Hungarian of a poem by István Baka, retells the painful story of Dido and Aeneas in a particularly memorable and utterly contemporary manner.
As with last year’s entries, there were some very strong translations of classical poems, especially in the 18-and-under category. I am convinced that this reflects some excellent teaching of classical literature and a revival of interest in the ancient world more generally. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of many of the translations from languages such as French, German and Spanish. Some of the translators had made a valiant stab at a poem, but had failed due to their totally inadequate knowledge of grammar and syntax. Time and again we rejected poems full of mistranslations, often of quite simple sentences. This, sadly, appears to reflect the absence of much serious grammar study in the GCSE or A level syllabus, a point that many teachers have made to me. The choice of what to translate was also a problem for some candidates, and several people, especially in the 18-and-under and 14-and-under categories, chose poems that were either far too complex for them to undertake or, in contrast, were extremely simple exercise pieces. Some of the weakest translations in all categories were of rather banal poems that did not offer much possibility of creativity to the translator. This is especially true of much of Prévert, though perhaps I am biased here.
Formal considerations also varied a great deal. A number of translators tried their hand at rhymed verse, though unless you have experience of using rhyme this is often a strategy that leads nowhere except to contrived, forced lines and clichés. Happily, there were also some examples of very skilful use of rhyme and rhythmic patterns. The winning translation of a passage from Dante’s Inferno deliberately avoided any form of rhyme and opted instead for a structure that, as the commentary states, ‘paragraphed the text as required by the logic and by the English’.
What is so valuable about this competition is that it demonstrates every year not only how many people there are actively engaging in translation from many languages, but also how important poetry is in a society that sometimes seems cynical and overly materialistic. I am humbled by the talent of both poets and translators and, as in previous years, excited by the new poets I have discovered through the judging process.