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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

14-and-under, commended

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William Yates

The Horse and the Wolf
by La Fontaine

A certain Wolf, in that sweet season when
The Zephyr wakes the grass from icy night
To green again; when birds once more take Flight
And seek the light, and creatures spring from Hole and burrowed den –
Wolf saw a Horse that was set out to graze
Partaking of the spring’s first lush, green grass.
Amazed, the Wolf said “Fortune, let it pass
That life’s hourglass in yonder Horse I’ll stop through cunning ways;
For wit alone will aid me in this quest –
He is no sheep, and if I wish to slit
His brawny chest, then force alone’s not fit
To vanquish it – to win this battle wit will serve Me best.”
He sidled up to Horse with fawning tone,
The manner of a doctor to apply:
“Does aching bone,” he said “sore ail you?
Why, physic am I,” said Wolf, “And potent Herbalist well-known.”
“I have an abscess on my foot,” said Horse,
“How awful!” said the Wolf with wicked smile.
“I shall, of course, examine it a while – ”
And with his guile the Wolf did try to his foul Will enforce.
He went to touch the Horse’s angry boil
And licked his lips: he would enjoy his food
After such toil! But then, a change in mood
From kick crude by canny Horse to lupine jaw – Wolf foiled.
Wolf muttered to himself, ashamed.
He said “If butchering’s my game,
Then Herbalist I’ll feign no more,”
And slipped away with aching jaw.

Translated from the Russian by William Yates

Le Cheval et le Loup

Un certain loup, dans la saison
Que les tièdes Zéphyrs ont l'herbe rajeunie,
Et que les Animaux quittent tous la maison,
   Pour s'en aller chercher leur vie,
Un Loup, dis-je, au sortir des rigueurs de l'hiver,
Aperçut un Cheval qu'on avait mis au vert.
   Je laisse à penser quelle joie !
Bonne chasse, dit-il, qui l'aurait à son croc.
Eh! que n'es-tu Mouton ? car tu me serais hoc:
Au lieu qu'il faut ruser pour avoir cette proie.
Rusons donc. Ainsi dit, il vient à pas comptés,
   Se dit écolier d'Hippocrate;
Qu'il connaît les vertus et les propriétés
   De tous les simples de ces prés,
   Qu'il sait guérir, sans qu'il se flatte,
Toutes sortes de maux. Si Dom Coursier voulait
   Ne point celer sa maladie,
   Lui Loup gratis le guérirait;
   Car le voir en cette prairie
   Paître ainsi, sans être lié,
Témoignait quelque mal, selon la Médecine.
   J'ai, dit la bête chevaline,
   Une apostume sous le pied.
Mon fils, dit le Docteur, il n'est point de partie
   Susceptible de tant de maux.
J'ai l'honneur de servir Nosseigneurs les Chevaux,
   Et fais aussi la Chirurgie.
Mon Galant ne songeait qu'à bien prendre son temps,
   Afin de happer son malade.
L'autre qui s'en doutait lui lâche une ruade,
   Qui vous lui met en marmelade
   Les mandibules et les dents.
C'est bien fait (dit le loup en soi-même fort triste)
Chacun à son métier doit toujours s'attacher.
   Tu veux faire ici l'Arboriste,
   Et ne fus jamais que Boucher

La Fontaine)

Translation commentary

Before this effort I had not done much formal poetry translation, so I didn’t really know where to start, and as a result the first step was finding the poem on the internet and looking at how some translators had tried to translate the poem, which I had found while looking through some French poetry for a homework assignment and particularly liked because of its lyrical tone and descriptive language. That is not to say that I did nothing more than rearrange somebody else’s work – I merely tried to get an idea of how it would be best to approach the translation. It helped that I knew the story of the poem before I started to translate it, because this allowed me to concentrate on what I wanted to be the most important part of the translation, which I felt was getting this to sound like a real poem and not like a translated French poem. As a result of this, the final product sacrifices a little technical accuracy for the sake of a more poetic translation. This was a deliberate and important choice, as doing this allowed me to use a more interesting rhyme scheme, a wider vocabulary and a translation that I felt was overall better than a more rigidly translated poem. I did not use the same rhyme scheme as the original poem, but I hope that the rhyme scheme I chose did manage to convey the same energy as the original. I suppose the hardest thing with this translation was trying to work in the little asides from the horse and the wolf, and it was not easy to leave out things like the ‘servant of Hippocrates’ line for the sake of a deliberately elaborate metre and rhyme scheme. In short, while this translation may lack a little technical accuracy, I hope that it makes up for it with a translation that is almost as pretty to listen to as the original.

William Yates