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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

14-and-under, first prize

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Henry Miller

Ovid at the Races

I’m hardly a fan of racing, the thrill of which I’m sure
Will entertain you for a while, but for me it’s not much more
Than some fool’s opinion on the breeding of a horse
Who tethered to three others runs up and down a course.

I know you like the races, to me that much is clear
And while I enjoy the loud and dusty atmosphere,
I don’t care for the races, the reason I am here
Is to make it clear to you, it’s you that I hold dear.

I know there is one man, your favourite racing driver:
All I’ll say is, ‘Lucky guy!’ and wish him my good favour.
But truth be told, I envy him and all the while I wonder,
What if I was in the race, your dashing brave contender?

I imagine for a moment it is I who holds the whip
Waiting in the starting box, facing down the dusty strip.
The gates open and suddenly I’m brutally flung forth
With drivers either side, I speed down the narrow path.

I come around the corner; the strait of sand before me
I’ll whip with all my strength and soon all of you will see
Me atop my chariot, passing drivers blue and red
My horses’ hooves pound the sand and soon I’m far ahead.

Near the end of the strait, I come to that sharp meander
There is no room for error; there is no room to blunder.
I twist and pull the reins with the right amount of stress
My inner wheel clips the post but I make it nonetheless.

But despite all the ecstasy, the excitement and the thrill
Should I see you in the crowd, my heart will force me still;
I’ll drop my reins, slow my steeds, and all will disappear,
All I’ll want to see is you; for it’s you that I hold dear.

Translated from the Latin by Henry Miller

Amores 3.2

Non ego nobilium sedeo studiosus equorum;
cui tamen ipsa faves, vincat ut ille, precor.
ut loquerer tecum veni, tecumque sederem,
ne tibi non notus, quem facis, esset amor.
tu cursus spectas, ego te; spectemus uterque
quod iuvat, atque oculos pascat uterque suos.
O, cuicumque faves, felix agitator equorum!
ergo illi curae contigit esse tuae?
hoc mihi contingat, sacro de carcere missis
insistam forti mente vehendus equis,
et modo lora dabo, modo verbere terga notabo,
nunc stringam metas interiore rota.
si mihi currenti fueris conspecta, morabor,
deque meis manibus lora remissa fluent.


Translation commentary

I chose to translate this particular poem because I see two sides to it. One of them portrays Ovid as calm and collected: he’s not interested in the races, preferring to accompany a girl he admires who in turn is in love with a racing driver. He day-dreams of himself as a racer, so that she might love him instead – these meanings are quite obvious. However, I can see the poem also describing Ovid the lover as nervous: he wants to tell her how he feels but he is afraid she will not be impressed by him. His day-dream is a metaphor for the immensity of the task he has set himself of speaking to her, but he knows he is unequal to both tasks – speaking to her and the racing – for as soon as she looked at him, he knows he will ‘drop his reins’, and fail. I think Ovid meant to combine both the obvious and underlying meanings here to try and express a complex mix of emotions.

The most prominent issue I faced when translating this poem was which form to use: a spondaic form of long and short syllables, or a more English stressed metre, which, as well as conveying Ovid’s (in the story) nervousness and the excitement of chariot racing, would also be more interesting to a modern English audience. In the end, I chose the latter, but only after an original attempt which followed the former option. This original draft was sluggish and less interesting, but more closely matched the meanings and phrases in Ovid’s original poem.

When rewriting my draft I also had to consider whether to match exactly Ovid’s meanings to convey the poem or to expand on the story to better convey Ovid’s meaning to a modern audience. Again, I chose the latter, which made my translation longer, but at the same time more engaging as an English translation of the poem.

Henry Miller