Rimbaud’s ‘Corbies’ that gather ‘About the stiff of last week’s dead / By thousands in the fields of France’ (John Turner); a powerfully rendered passage from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (Edwin Gaarder); and a brilliant attempt to relate Ovid’s account of creation in the Metamorphoses to the Big Bang (Ian Mims) are among the exercises, outside of those by the prize winners, that stuck in my mind this year. Once again ingenuity (Catullus in text-message form) rubbed shoulders with both impudence (‘Colombina / [Likes it in her]’) and pathos (‘An old couple – Two old weather-worn, discarded, broken toys’). The vivacity of several attempts in the 14-and-under competition put the stodgy literalism of many of the efforts of the adult age group to shame, while the notably high quality of the Latin translations in the 18-and-under section suggested that Classics continues to be a potent field of study in some schools, at least. Effective translation from Spanish remained a particularly elusive goal: some attempts read as if Grand Opera had been reduced to Gilbert and Sullivan.
As for the commentaries, they were as unpredictable and compelling as ever. For one candidate, translation was an act of solidarity with a marginalised indigenous people; for another, it constituted an attempt to bring Finnish to wider attention. The lack of a Belarusian dictionary was complained of; long-lost love was touchingly commemorated. Poetry demonstrated its power to survive even the obscenities of the concentration camps and the terrors of the Kobe earthquake. Differently impressive were the subtle characterisations of individual lyrics and the trenchant discussions of the issue of form that accompanied some entries. Notable sensitivity, and critical acumen, was exhibited by some in their thoughtful selection of passages for translation from much longer works. There was much becoming modesty and the occasional glimpse of ill-advised self-confidence.
Particularly taken by the translation by Jane Draycott of Middle English passages from Pearl, I was struck by how a mundane contemporary event – the ‘loss’ of a child on departure for university – could summon resonant new music from an old, usually rather musty, song. Elsewhere, I found attempts at translating narrative verse particularly welcome, not least because they challenged the tedious modern monopoly of lyric. Philip Higson’s version of Rollinat’s ‘La Vache au Taureau’ (‘The Cow Put to the Bull’) may have failed to find widespread support, but I admired its deft deployment of rhyme in the act of telling a basic, age-old story. Once again, I somewhat grudgingly recognised that quality of original text did have a bearing on one’s response to translation. Even the fond kiss of a besotted translator repeatedly failed to magic a plain, dowdy original into seductive translated form.
Poetry may not travel as comfortably across linguistic and cultural boundaries as do art and music, but translation is an indispensable servant of its aspiration, at least, to do so. As the best of these entries demonstrate, it can sometimes survive the journey in tolerable shape, although somewhat culture-lagged, no doubt, a little tongue-tied, still struggling with the currency, and not altogether comfortable with the mores. And even when it arrives more dead than alive, as, sadly, happens not infrequently, its attempt can still have something of the heroic about it. It is therefore good to know that competitions like the Spender Prize still offer the incentive of a passport, and gratifying to see how many apply for one, year after year.