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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

18-and-under, commended

Read the judges’ comments
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Claire Ewbank

The Rats
by Georg Trakl

In the yard the autumn moon shines ashen.
From the roof-edge surreal shadows are cast.
A silence lives in the empty windows;
Quietly there, the rats appear

And hurry whistling to and fro
And sniffing, a stale stench
Follows them out of the lavatory,
Through which ghostly moon-shine trembles

And they bicker in their gross-greed
And they fill up the house and barns,
Flooded with corn and fruit.
Biting winds whine in the darkness.

Translated from the German by Claire Ewbank

Die Ratten

In Hof scheint weiß der herbstliche Mond.
Vom Dachrand fallen phantastische Schatten.
Ein Schweigen in leeren Fenstern wohnt;
Da tauchen leise herauf die Ratten

Und huschen pfeifend hier und dort
Und ein gräulicher Dunsthauch wittert
Ihnen nach aus dem Abort,
Den geisterhaft der Mondschein durchzittert

Und sie keifen vor Gier wie toll
Und erfüllen Haus und Scheunen,
Die von Korn und Früchten voll.
Eisige Winde im Dunkel greinen.

Georg Traklm

Translation commentary

I decided to translate this poem because its subject matter fascinated me immediately – it is a poem that leaves room for your mind to wander and yet paints stark images that cannot be ignored. I was captivated by the way the German language managed to portray imagery simply through its sound.

I wanted the challenge of continuing this atmosphere into the English language and continuously thought about the sounds of each word and phrase, and the attitude they should reflect; hence the frequent sibilance such as ‘shines ashen’ and the consonance of ‘gross-greed’.

To portray the mysterious silence and speechlessness of nature Trakl didn’t employ speech in his writing, showing the great power that the world holds in a way that talking humans never can. Therefore it was only through much deliberation that I chose a way in which to translate ‘keifen’ in the third stanza. In previous translations I saw that ‘squeak’ was used, fitting with Trakl’s continuation of nature’s inability to speak and yet I felt that ‘bicker’ was a correct imitation of the way in which rats would act. Finding a balance between the two was a constant challenge I faced whilst translating.

Another problem faced was the translation of the word order and structure. An example of this was in translating the first three lines of the second stanza. I felt it was necessary to change the word order and sentence construction and I chose to place ‘sniffing’ in such a position that it could read as the verb of the rats or the ‘stale stench’.

I did not include Trakl’s ABAB rhyme pattern in my translation because I found that finding rhymes made the word choice too limited. I think that the sounds within my translation itself create sufficient imagery in the way Trakl intended.

Claire Ewbank