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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2009

Judges’ comments

Commentaries on the 2009 competition by Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Karen Leeder and George Szirtes.

Susan Bassnett

Judging this prize is a great challenge and also a great pleasure. There was a wide range of poems submitted this year, in ancient and modern languages, some very well known, others translated for the first time. As judges, we have the difficult task of narrowing down the entries to a short list; this year we all agreed before we came together on the winning entry for the 14-and-under category, a charming rendering of a well known poem by La Fontaine, and on the winner of the Open category, a fresh, new version of Francesca’s address to Dante when he meets her on his journey through Hell.

But although we reached consensus on those poems and on our final list, we had some lively discussion about many of the other entries, and, as is to be expected, sometimes we had to agree to disagree. One poem I particularly liked was a translation by Marwin Kalo of one of his grandfather’s poems about the Aral Sea, which we all agreed merited a commendation. I also admired Richard Morris’ translation of St John of the Cross’s Verses Written in Ecstasy from Deep Contemplation, in which the translator has managed to find superb solutions to a deceptively simple poem full of complex layers of meaning and formal devices.

The commentaries are an important aspect of this prize, shedding light on the strategies employed by the translator and often reflecting the reasons for choosing a particular poet or poem. This year a lot of entrants stressed how much they had enjoyed the process and also how much they felt they had learned, which is, after all, what the prize was established to achieve. Interestingly, there were some very thoughtful commentaries about rather weak poems, though it was wonderful to note how many times translators said they felt passionate about the poem they had chosen.

As in previous years, there were some splendid translations of classical poetry, which again reflects the high quality of teaching in this field. Sadly, and no doubt a reflection of the decline of modern language learning in schools, a low level of linguistic competence was apparent in some poems. I would not want to impose the rote learning of irregular verbs that my generation was forced to undergo on today’s pupils, but without some knowledge of grammar and syntax it becomes impossible to understand a poem, let alone translate it. Many of the young translators openly admitted in their commentaries that they were at sea with the poems they had chosen, even though they enjoyed the struggle.

In contrast to previous years, a great many entries used rhymed verse forms. Sometimes it was used brilliantly, but sometimes it descended into doggerel. Rhyme in English is very tricky, because it can seem deceptively easy but actually requires great skill and a lot of practice. The extent of the use of rhyme raised the question of how much contemporary poetry some of the translators are reading. The best advice I was ever given about writing and translating was to read, and read and read, advice that I pass on to my students. The more one reads, the more one opens doors to possibilities for one’s own writing.

I learned a great deal from reading these poems, and have noted several poets whose work I now intend to seek out. Reading the entries has also raised some interesting questions: why do some great poets fail to come across in another language, why have certain writers such as Baudelaire become unfashionable to a degree that they are almost untranslatable, why does surrealist poetry read so awkwardly in much English translation, what intrinsic qualities in a poem enable a translator to bring it back to life hundreds, if not thousands, of years after it was composed? Perhaps the simple answer to such questions is that what makes a poem translatable ultimately is the skill of the translator, its re-creator, the person, young or old, who can excite, move or entertain a new world of readers. This prize demonstrates annually how many people are capable of doing just that.

Edith Hall

As a first-timer on the judges’ panel I was delighted to be taken on a roller-coaster through poetry from Japan to Mexico, Chile to the Caspian Sea, and metres from the classical elegiac to the most avant-garde free verse forms. In the fascinating commentaries, I learned about Chinese rhyme conventions, Polish portmanteau words, and Arabic sibilance. I was reminded of the intense melancholy of Rilke and the pungency of Jacques Prévert. I discovered, with astonishment, that Leo Tolstoy was beaten by Sully Prudhomme to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A huge fan of the Aesopic tradition of animal fables, I loved several of the versions of La Fontaine found in the youngest age group, although the prize-winning The Cricket and the Ant stood out for its excellent rhyming and intuitive sense of the sardonic and taut French original. In the adult category, I was in no doubt that my favourite translation, on every criterion, was The Damned from Dante’s Inferno, Canto 5; what most impressed me was the interplay between the brilliantly chosen restraint of the six-line stanza and the accelerating emotional and physical contact between the couple suffering punishment for adultery. The week after the judges met, I visited Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, and found that the opening stanza of the prize-winning translation had stuck in my memory.

Despite the prize going this year to a translator of one of the world’s acknowledged greats, I would still encourage entrants to consider less well known works, and to use the required commentary in order to explain their significance to the judges. There were almost too many versions of works by some poets, especially in French (all that Baudelaire!), and it would be wonderful to see more attempts to translate from, for example, African-language poets or modern Greek: there was not a Cavafy in sight.

When it came to translations from Latin and Greek in the adult category, I was just a little disappointed. The suave, upwardly mobile Horace was an unlikely choice for someone wanting to write in the idiom of Eminem. The lyrics of Sappho and the theatre verse of Aeschylus are two of the most difficult types of poetry in literary history; a rather different challenge is posed by the often indigestible hexameters of Hesiod’s Works and Days and the mysterious archaic Battle of the Frogs and Mice. The less recherché authors Homer and Ovid, on the other hand, produced some fine work in the 15–18 age group. Teenagers hear the playfulness of Ovid loud and clear, although are less sensitive to his sorrowful undercurrents and the lapidary concision of his Amores. It was sensitivity to both tone and metre that won the day for the translation of the closing lines of The Iliad. Here the sombre content – the funeral of Hector – was beautifully conveyed in the ineluctable roll of the dactylic hexameters, one of the most difficult metres for young translators. The decision to separate the lines into groups successfully conveyed the sequential stages of the funeral. The selection of this passage could scarcely have been more ambitious, and yet the power and pathos of the original rings through the translation authentically.

Karen Leeder

This year, remarkably, there was a large degree of immediate unanimity among the judges. In the 14-and-under category we were delighted to see a larger entry than ever before and arrived quickly at our winner: Johanna Reimann-Dubbers’ translation from French of The Cricket and the Ant by La Fontaine. It is tricky to catch the playful tone of these fables, and in keeping the lines taut and the rhyme scheme buoyant, without being over obtrusive, Johanna arrived at some wonderfully poised solutions. Her concluding couplet, ‘I sang whenever I had the chance.’ / ‘You sang did you? That’s nice. Now dance.’ was one of my favorites in the competition as a whole. I was particularly struck by Robert Longman’s beautifully simple rendering from Spanish of If My Voice Dies on Land, and his modest commentary gave a good insight into the real work, as well as the enjoyment, involved in the process of translation.

In the 18-and-under category the judges wrestled with a more diverse long list of contenders from classical and modern languages. As in the 14-and-under category many had outstanding qualities but failed to sustain the tone across the poem as a whole or lost grammatical confidence here and there. In Naomi Ackerman’s translation from Ancient Greek of an extract from The Iliad, we found a worthy winner; but I was very taken by the discipline of Yick Kay Fung’s translation from Classical Chinese of Phoenix Hairpin by Lu You and Jennifer Cearns’ rich translation of the German Expressionist classic Dead in the Water by Georg Heym. Among the commended entries let me single out Saskia Volhard Dearman’s translation from Spanish of Ode to Coastal Flowers by Pablo Neruda. Neruda is such a difficult poet to translate; the mixture of rhetorical pathos and simplicity sits uneasily in English but this version is a spirited attempt and has some beautiful lines. The lightning as ‘a citric spark’ will stay with me for a long time.

In the Open category all the judges were immediately impressed by Paul Batchelor’s translation from Italian of Dante’s The Damned. Last year in my report I wrote about the importance of finding some way to account for the metre and rhyme scheme of the original in a translation. However, English simply does not rhyme with the same facility and unobtrusiveness as many other languages, so it is not often that a translation can work with a one-to-one correspondence in this regard. Half rhymes are often a good solution (a glance at good contemporary poetry in English is instructive here) and blank verse is a possible option, though the muscularity and musicality of good blank verse is much harder to achieve than many entrants seemed to think. Paul Batchelor’s was a persuasive solution to this problem. In exchanging Dante’s terza rima for a form borrowed from George Herbert’s Easter Wings and often used in English by Derek Mahon he showed sympathy with the original and a good sense of what English can do well. I was also pleased to see two Rilke translations make it through to the final deliberations. Rilke is another poet who can too easily sound overblown or shrill in English on account of his intricate rhymes; and Michael Swan and Timothy Taylor demonstrated very well the different routes one can take. Once again I was delighted to discover new poets: the Belgian poet Herman de Coninck in Stefanie Van de Peer’s subtle translation from Flemish and the young Portuguese poet Daniel Jonas in Ana Hudson’s translations, though in the final whittling down I was unable to persuade my fellow judges. A voice to watch, however. There were also versions of old favorites including A. C. Clarke’s brilliantly audacious rendering of The Double Room by Baudelaire into Scots (which missed out on a prize by a whisker) and John Turner’s moody version of Prudhomme’s Sonnet for Autumn, which demonstrated the richness and economy that can make English truly sing: ‘What the sap has willed, the sap achieves’.

George Szirtes

Never will a writer be read more closely than by his or her translator. The best translators seem to have an extra ear – indeed have to have an extra ear – for the literary dimensions and possibilities of their own language. Translation can draw the poet out of someone who may not have realised the poet in themselves. The response to poetry is in us all but it takes an extra talent to turn response to invention, to hear and speak echo in a fresh voice.

There will always remain the question of the faithful translation. The difficulty is deciding what it is one should be faithful to. A poem is a complex whole made up of many elements, not one of which has an exact equivalent in another language. Yet we hope for recognition, for some ideal combination of surface and depth fidelities. The ideal doesn’t exist. But living translations do: echo on echo on echo.

As a first-time judge of this competition I was immediately struck by the sheer sophistication and skill of some of the youngest entries though there were many variations on a theme among them. Grasshoppers hopped and ants crawled everywhere in regulation La Fontainean fashion. Some of the translations had real wit and sharpness, the winner of the class, Johanna Reimann-Dubbers, above all. And there was much beside La Fontaine from Latin and Spanish and Russian. The best had an ambitious period-feel verging on pastiche and almost carried it off, form and all.

The middle-category of 14–18 was a little disappointing as the judges’ discussion showed. Promise everywhere but rather less fulfilment, rather less sheer élan. Rather less bite. One could be charmed, however, by versions of Ovid (who, like La Fontaine gets in everywhere) and I personally was taken by versions of Neruda (by Saskia Volhard Dearman), George Heym (by Jennifer Cearns) and the classical Chinese poet, Lu Yu, whose Phoenix Hairpin was translated gracefully but not over-prettily by Clara Yick Kay Fung. The winner thundered up on the inside, a splendidly ambitious Homer from The Iliad, the very end of the book, by Naomi Ackermann.

The greatest range was, as might be expected, in the Open category where the shortlist tended to be dominated by French and German poets, though the winner turned out to be Paul Batchelor’s marvellous new take – not terza rima – on Dante, via George Herbert’s Easter Wings. Novelty isn’t the point. New life is: the way a text swings into the ear with all the sense of discovery. This worked. Some good, welcome Dutch too, and a robust, brilliantly larky Béroul. Rilke, as ever, fascinates and shines through. As did, for me, another original take, this time on Baudelaire’s prose poem, ‘The Double Room’, slapped and tickled into broad Scots Burns measure by A. C. Clarke, an act of such verve and imagination that it delighted and moved me. Not orthodox translation, of course, and maybe a little far out at the edge of the field, but I’d walk there any time.