In a splendidly wide-ranging year for the Times Stephen Spender prize – with entries offering gnomic four-line Welsh folk verses alongside novel-length Vietnamese epics and entrants’ ages stretching from 10 to 93 years – the true victor emerged as a familiar Spender favourite, the two-thousand-year-old verse of Latin poet Ovid. The judges often debate the importance of choosing the right poem to translate (not to mention the difficult but essential task of putting aside our own preferences – and prejudices – about such chosen originals). But although a translation can only be as good as its source text, it is also the case that complex, multi-faceted texts, such as Ovid’s sinuous Amores, can prove treacherous for the unwary or inexperienced translator, slipping through their fingers as they try, in vain, to pin it down. Bearing this is in mind, the achievement of our overall prize winner, 18-year-old Imogen Halstead, is only the greater, tackling Ovid’s notoriously difficult metrical, mythological and literary in-jokes and references with an ease and maturity beyond her years. She provided one of the best entries of this and indeed any year, outclassing, as our final judging shows, even the many fine adult entries.
Ovid triumphed again in the 18-and-under category where Daniel Galbraith’s almost equally fine version of Amores 1.5 admirably captured the playful sensuality of the original. As in previous years, classical entries here remained the most consistently impressive, with Rupert Mercer’s refreshingly teasing Catullus VIII and Arabella Currie’s inventive versions of Ancient Greek lyric particularly outstanding. It was reassuring, too, to see translations of little-known, non-examination texts such as Oliver Moody’s lively version of the late Latin ‘Copa Surisca’ alongside Old Norse (another entry from the versatile Galbraith), while Iwona Luszowicz’s beautiful rendition of Brecht’s German and Katharine Gray’s assured translation from Japanese – skilfully replicating the original’s strict syllabics – offered welcome attempts at contemporary texts.
There were also some very interesting choices from our youngest entrants. Scarlett Koller’s translation of Charles d’Orléans’s ‘Rondel’ impressed with its attempt at the original’s rhyme scheme. We also enjoyed the verve of our youngest entrant Paula Alonso-Lalanda’s ‘Let’s Go to the Market!’, as well as the maturity of Thomas Hughes’ version of French poet Aliette Audra, all of which offered fine attempts at capturing the integrity of their original poems.
The Open category also fielded some excellent versions of lesser known texts. Alongside Timothy’s Allen’s gripping Vietnamese tale, we were also very taken with Jane Draycott’s stately rendering of the Pearl poet’s Middle English and Emily Jeremiah’s delicate interpretation of Eeva-Liisa Manner’s ethereal Finnish (I also admired Adrian Pascu-Tulbure’s compelling translation of George Topârceanu’s Romanian and Roger Cockrell’s of Joseph Brodsky’s Russian, although both failed to make the final cut). In contrast, Duncan Forbes took a well known, almost clichéd text, Hadrian’s poem to his soul, and made it new again with great verve. But with few outstanding entries, the competition was indeed open this year with a core of around 30 or so entries that caught our notice to varying degrees. Often the commentaries produced the most heart-stopping moments as entrants related how their chosen texts had reverberated for them through the years, whether from remembrance of a lost love or a grief that still haunted them decades later. Others translated poems for a family occasion, such as a child’s wedding, or to bring their own pleasure in a work to a new, wider audience. All revealed the passion that our entrants feel for their poems year after year, making the task of judging so rewarding. As previous Spender winner Jane Tozer wrote on translating the Anglo-Norman romance Tristran – just one of many worthy entries which caught the eye but, regrettably, narrowly missed out: ‘Memories that once howled wolfishly now sing like Muses’.