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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
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Stefanie Van de Peer

by Herman de Coninck

At the first copper in the garden
four walnuts fall on the table with a dry
thud, like wooden music notes. Do mi sol si.
Spider webs stretch their patterns of expectation
in the rhododendrons. So almost. So close.

The way it can still feel like summer in October.
I feel. I feel like. I feel like shimmering,
as long as a hot tin roof in the sun.
So now. So when.

I am already busy remembering, though
it is still so today; so pleasantly so.
Here and there, purple is invented
and vases to put it in.
A branch. Singular. So little. So much.

The way the giant treasures a picture
the size of a stamp, of his giantess.
So big and small is everything.
So everything.

Translated from the Flemish by Stefanie Van de Peer


Met het eerste koper in de tuin
vallen vier okkernoten als houten muzieknoten
met droog gedokker op tafel. Domisolsi.
In de rododendrons spannen spinnewebben
hun verwachtingspatroon. Zo bijna. Zo nabij.

Zoals het nog nazomert diep in oktober.
Ik heb. Ik heb zin. Ik heb zin in
zinderen, zo lang als een zinken dak in de zon.
Zo nu. Zo wanneer.

Ik ben al bezig met herinneren, maar
het is nog zo vandaag, zo graag.
Hier en daar wordt paars uitgevonden
en vazen om het in te doen.
Een takje. Enkelvoud. Zo weinig. Zo veel.

Zoals de reus die een postzegelgroot
fotootje bewaart van zijn reuzin.
Zo groot en klein is alles.
Zo alles.

Herman de Coninck

Translation commentary

Herman De Coninck wrote poetry because it consoles. He was a poet of simple things, of everyday life and all its shortcomings. He sees miracles in the small things, and reminds the reader of the joy in appreciating them. He has a fresh, childlike outlook on life that makes us realise the god in small things. Every time I read his poetry or his other writings, I find myself wonderfully amazed and relieved by the simplicity of life. This particular poem illustrates this superbly. Ordinary words express big feelings brought about by the ability to observe little miracles. In his poetry, De Coninck thrives on wordplay. In ‘Psalm’ this wordplay translates well in most instances, as both Dutch and English are Germanic languages. But as Dutch is more synthetic and English more analytical, the economy of words, the productive power of composites (e.g. verwachtingspatroon becomes ‘pattern of expectation’) and the changing of function of nouns into verbs in the original is not always easy to bring across in translation. For example, nazomert is a verb created out of nazomer, a noun denoting late summer. Moreover, in ‘four walnuts fall on the table with a dry / thud’ the sounds and wordplay with okkernoten and gedokker is lost because of onomatopoeic restrictions. The sentence structure or vocabulary also sometimes needs to be changed in order to make the poem sound natural. This can defeat the intended wordplay, alliterations or similes, as in ‘I feel. I feel like. I feel like shimmering, / as long as a hot tin roof in the sun.’ However, I still like to believe that the poem in English sounds every bit as wonderful and wondrous as the original and I hope the wordplay in translation also give us the opportunity to be surprised.

Stefanie Van de Peer