The 14-and-under category produced a small number of excellent entries of very different kinds. Scarlett Koller’s translation from French of the highly-wrought ‘Rondel’ by Charles d’Orléans showed great ingenuity in this most challenging of forms, the roundelay. But equally, the judges were beguiled by the genuine sense of fun and freshness of Paula Alonso-Lalanda’s translation from Spanish of ‘Let’s Go to the Market!’ by Gloria Fuertes. The commentary which accompanied the poem explained that Paula’s classmates had enjoyed the poem’s craziness. The judges did too. It is excellent to know that pleasure in sound and wordplay is reaching the classroom in this way.
The 18-and-under category demonstrated an extraordinary strength this year, across the board, but especially in the classical languages. It seems that as the A level modern languages boards banish literature from their syllabuses one by one, this is where the passion for poetry has taken root. All the judges noted the way many entrants had been demonstrably touched by a particular poem from a distant culture, but importantly had been determined to make it their own in a modern idiom (even to the point of a memorable SMS version of Catullus in the Open category by Daniel Watkins). But the commentaries also demonstrated that this is where the basic mechanics of reading poetry are still being reliably taught (rhyme, scansion, etc – things often disastrously amiss in the Open category).
I loved Daniel Galbraith’s translation from Latin of Ovid’s Amores I.V for its sheer sexiness, so cleverly caught in the sound-shapes of the poem. As soon as I had read ‘The shutters were half open-half closed, / With a quasi-lumberlight, a dusky light, a day-to-night light’, I knew this was a potential winner. I was particularly pleased to see Iwona Luszowicz’s translation of Brecht’s ‘In Remembrance of Marie A.’ in second place. This deceptively simple poem is extremely difficult to translate. I know because I have tried it. Iwona first heard the poem in the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others and tracked it down to translate it. What she perhaps doesn’t know is that it is also set to music and that despite the old man persona of the poem, Brecht wrote this when he was young and cheekily gave it an alternative title ‘Sentimental Song No. 1004’ (one more than Don Juan’s legendary conquests). Instinctively – and doubtless with much hard work too – she managed to capture the rhymes and rhythms of the piece and also that slightly tongue in cheek lyricism. One also has to admire a contestant who goes through at the end striking all their ‘long-losts’, ‘bygones’ and ‘erstwhiles’. Absolutely right: and very Brechtian to boot. The third place prize winner Rupert Mercer produced another wonderfully confident modern version of the classics, this time of Catullus’ half-serious half-mocking Poem VIII and an excellent commentary. Among the commended translations perhaps I could single out Arabella Currie’s wonderfully vivid translation from Ancient Greek of ‘Eclipse’ by Archilochus. I certainly missed this on a first reading, but coming back to it discovered a real poetic talent at work: ‘the sun in blackness like / a coin behind a thumbprint’. Someone to watch. I was also delighted to be introduced to the Afrikaans poet Breton Breytenbach, in Jenny Harris’s translation, though I couldn’t quite manage to persuade my fellow judges of its final merits.
The judges were delighted that, exceptionally, another of the 18-and-under Classical poems won through to triumph in the Open category too. Imogen Halstead’s translation of Ovid’s Amores I.I is certainly publishable – with a breathtaking metrical confidence. The Open is always the most difficult to judge, because this is where almost inevitably, and despite one’s best efforts, one’s own personal experience and taste come to bear. I was interested to note that it was almost always possible to tell after reading the English version what language the original had been written in. My own tastes have been schooled by the spare diction of the German and East European traditions and I know I find it harder to warm to the highly wrought voices from the Russian or the French, for example (perhaps also why I pushed for Peer Rumney’s rather bleak version of Petrarch to be commended). I am, though, always pleased to be proved wrong. This year it was Jane Draycott’s delicate and exquisitely rendered Pearl that grew on me especially and I was pleased to be introduced by Emily Jeremiah to the Finnish of Eeva-Liisa Manner and in Laura Napran’s sensitive translation to the Irish of ‘Snow’ by Cathal Ó Searcaigh. But the real surprise for me was Timothy Allen’s marvellously lyrical translation of an extract from Nguyễn Du’s ‘Broken Heart, New Lament’, the Vietnamese national poem. This is poetry from a tradition completely foreign to the English ear and with quite different demands. I enjoyed the way the translator had set about finding a solution for the ‘rhyming’ of sharp and flat tones which simply has no meaning in a non-tonal language. The beautifully unobtrusive sound structure of the poem and its air of mystery, strangeness even, mean that it is certainly a poem and a voice that deserve to be better known in English.