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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Judges’ comments

Read the winning entries
About the judges
Commentaries on the 2010 competition by Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Karen Leeder and George Szirtes.

Susan Bassnett

Judging this prize is a great pleasure because the entries are so diverse and one never quite knows what to expect. This year, as ever, the range of poems chosen by translators was vast, and included familiar works and writing by poets who were completely new to me. The commentaries are often illuminating, and I was struck by the fact that two translators compared translating poetry to Sudoku, highlighting the problem-solving aspect of the task. A number of translators highlighted their own involvement with a particular poem or poet, often describing how they had first encountered certain poems, sometimes years before, and why those poems had a particular resonance for them. Close personal engagement with a poem and empathy with a poet can result in powerful translations.

Translating poetry is a complex task; you have first to acquaint yourself thoroughly with the poem, to understand its structures, its rhythms, its wordplay, all its different patterns, and then seek to reproduce the poem for readers in a totally different culture. Reproducing a poem in its entirety is impossible. Shelley compared the process to transplanting a seed in new soil, so that a similar yet different plant will grow elsewhere. James Holmes, who both translated poetry and wrote about translation, suggested that the translator of a poem establishes in his or her own mind what he called a ‘hierarchy of correspondences’, in other words, a set of priorities of what to keep and what to discard. The priorities of many of the translators in this competition could often be clearly seen: in some cases colloquial language was used to render the colloquialisms evident in a Latin poem, in other cases the translator explained why a decision had been taken to alter patterns of rhyme. Some of the fine Welsh translators acknowledged the impossibility of rendering the ancient Welsh form cynghannedd, others wrestled with Dante’s terza rima and produced some very good unrhymed translations of difficult passages from The Divine Comedy.

Some translators opted to produce poems with heavy rhyme schemes. Sometimes this works, but unless a writer feels at ease with rhyme, the result can appear stilted or even come across as doggerel. The winning entry, a version of Victor Hugo’s ‘The Retreat from Moscow’ uses rhyme very skilfully, and impressed us all. Indeed, we found ourselves in agreement on the winners in all three sections, and only disagreed as to which poems to commend. I particularly liked Anita Debska’s translation of a poem by the Polish Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, ‘Love at First Sight’, and Ian Crockatt’s translation from Old Norse of a passage from the ‘Orkneyinga Saga’.

We were impressed by the bold choices and translation skills of the younger entrants, though this year we noted with regret that the demise of grammar teaching in modern language classrooms means that often a potentially good translation was marred by basic errors due to inadequate understanding of the language. Once again, we discussed the disparity of quality between translations of poetry in classical languages with translations of poetry in modern languages, which appears to reflect the way in which those languages are taught. Failure to understand exactly how a poet has structured a sentence means that a translator is likely to misread what that poet is seeking to achieve.

Carping about grammar aside, the quality of the entries was impressive and our final list of winners and commended entries is only the tip of an iceberg. What this competition shows is that there are some very talented translators and some fine poets of all ages engaging actively with the complexities of translating poetry. Long may they continue!

Edith Hall

It was the greater variety of the translations in the Open category which made judging it such a delight this year. When I opened the plain cardboard box of stapled sheets of A4, I heard the rival voices of poets from archaic Greece to modern Korea, in forms from the epigram (there was a touching version of Martial’s funereal 5.34 by Jason Warren) to the acidic prose poetry of Francis Ponge translated by Conor Kelly. An almost uncanny unanimity greeted the winning entry, ‘The Retreat from Moscow’; its driving rhythms powerfully suggested the chaos of retreat and the rattling horses’ hooves. It is no slur to record that my ten-year-old, coerced into hearing me recite my longlist, instantly identified Hugo as the winner and asked to hear him again. Nineteenth-century narrative poems are not today the most fashionable medium; it is wonderful that they can still produce a version of such genuine conviction and style.

For me it was a close call for second place. In his witty version of the Archpoet’s ‘Confession’, Duncan Forbes conveyed the wry individual humour underneath the near-doggerel of the insistent mediaeval Latin rhyme scheme. But I am haunted by the mysterious grief in Jane Draycott’s extract from Wulf and Eadwacer, where she achieved a near-perfect marriage of emotion, content and form. Indeed, poems from the Middle Ages and in the languages of northern Europe made a great impression this year: my own shortlist included a tight, pungent rendering of ‘Rognvaldr’s Nine Skills’ in Old Norse by Ian Crockatt. There were also some good versions of poetry in Welsh.

Classical Latin poetry – or rather, Ovid – won hands down in the younger age groups. I was pleased to see brave experiments: Tim Price converted Catullus 54 into Haiku form, while others added amusing contemporary references to Lynx aftershave or M&S groceries. But Henry Miller’s pacy take on Ovid’s racy Amores 3.2 was uncontested winner in the under-fifteen category. Although far from a faithful translation, this is a well considered and structured version in which the emotional suffering of the young man in love can be heard authentically beneath the playful surface. In the 15–18 category, it was the turn of an Ovidian woman in love, in the first of his ‘Letters from Heroines’, where Penelope addresses Ulysses. The intelligent commentary increased my admiration for this authoritative, elegant reading of an important poem (the earliest ever reading of the Odyssey in which Penelope is actually allowed to express anger with her wandering spouse). It is a sign of the times that I wrongly assumed that its advanced gender politics must mean that the translator was female!

The most successful poems, as ever, were strikingly independent in their creation of a new artwork, while simultaneously disciplined in their thinking about metre, rhythm and structure. This year’s most recurrent fault was hyperbaton – word order in the English translation so distorted as to be off-putting. Translators in all categories need to trust in their own languages and literary sensibility, even when dealing with the greatest poets who have ever lived.

Karen Leeder

This year, again, there was a large degree of immediate unanimity among the judges. The 14-and-under category was dominated by entries in French and Latin and we arrived quickly at our winner: Henry Miller’s assured and witty translation of Ovid’s Amores 3.2, ‘Ovid at the Races’, which showed an admirable grasp of the technical business of metre and a real feeling for the dynamics of the poem. I was delighted to see that, even where there were sometimes mistakes in comprehension, contestants were responding to the spirit of the poem. There was a fine rendering of Catullus, for example by Sam Peters, that had the lyric subject sipping not just any wine but ‘M&S wine’; and Dominic Hand’s beautiful version of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen IV’ with its dense use of masculine rhymes was memorably lyrical.

In the 18-and-under category the judges wrestled with a more diverse longlist of contenders. 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 Patrick Heaton’s ‘Penelope Ulixi’ from Ovid’s Heroides we found a worthy winner, which took inspiration from Carol Ann Duffy’s treatment of the figure of Penelope but found a voice of his own. This poem headed up a very impressive list of entries from Classical languages which demonstrated a metrical and lexical confidence often lacking in the entries from modern foreign languages. I was also taken with Iona Hannagan Lewis’ emotional version of ‘Rhyfel’ by Hedd Wyn, which tried to recreate the complex Welsh rhyme scheme in English; and enjoyed Amelia Hassard’s ‘Get Drunk’ by Baudelaire which, after a slightly slow start, found a wonderfully confident voice: ‘time to get drunk […] on wine, on poetry, on virtue, on whatever’. One of the great pleasures of this section was a strong showing in German which showed students engaging with the whole range of what is on offer: from the classics of the eighteenth century, including an assured version of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s ‘In the Grass’ by Lucy Garrett, to modernist icons like Gottfried Benn or Hermann Hesse and contemporary work by poets still to make a name for themselves in English. Emily Carpenter’s version of ‘The Erl King’ did a great job of capturing the eeriness of Goethe’s poem in taut masculine rhymes without becoming doggerel in English and Claire Ewbank’s ‘Grodek’ by Georg Trakl had the confidence to stick close to the poet’s dark assonance and disjointed syntax without trying to smooth it over.

In the Open category all the judges were immediately impressed by a clutch of translations and after that it was a matter of teasing out their particular strengths and weighing up different approaches and solutions. John Richmond’s ‘The Retreat from Moscow’ by Victor Hugo is not the kind of poem I generally like; but his was a bravura performance, whose rich vocabulary and unobtrusive couplets won me over with their sheer sweep and pace. Striking this year were a number of poems translated from Chinese which brought welcome interventions from quite different traditions. Here, as a reader without Chinese, I was looking out for voices that persuaded of themselves, no matter how strange, and in a haunting version of Xia Yu’s ‘Strawberry Pie’ Chen Dandan created a voice I could trust.

Beyond the shortlist and commended poems we also discussed quite a range of other entries which did not quite make the final cut. There were impressive versions of old favorites, including John Turner’s colloquial version of Verlaine’s ‘Streets 2’, or the strong angular version of Baudelaire’s ‘Albatross’ by Cedric Watts. But I was delighted to see new poets like Ulrike Draesner’s tricksily demotic ‘Twin Spin’, a version of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the age of gene manipulation, brilliantly brought to life in Tom Cheesman’s versions. And this year there were new languages too: Peider Lansel’s ‘Tamangur’ in Iain Galbraith’s memorable version from Romansch.

This is my last year on the panel. I have enjoyed my time hugely and learned a good deal about the way different poets – and even different languages – respond to the challenges of translation. I have also learned a good deal more about the strength and versatility of English as a poetic language. I come away heartened by the energy and verve I have seen among the translators over the last four years and bowled over once again by the way English stretches and flexes to accommodate different traditions and allow different voices to sing within it.

George Szirtes

Reading translations of poems is not very different from reading poems. If it isn’t a poem we seem to be reading, the chances are the translator has missed something. Questions of fidelity to the original are supposedly at the core of the matter, and in many ways are so, but reading a translation by a poet we don’t know is like reading an entirely new poem, and we are or are not captivated by it. The poem in the receiving language has to make itself a poetic space so that, while undoubtedly not of it, it is nevertheless in it.

In the 14-and-under section it was fascinating to see last year’s favourite original poet, La Fontaine, being overtaken by this year’s, Catullus, who produced surprisingly sophisticated elegance in some and exhorted others to experiment with tone. It is also quite something for someone under fourteen to come to terms with Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ (what became of childhood boredom or listlessness?) but at fourteen, perhaps, you are not a child any more and the translation by Dominic Hand felt mature and authoritative. If it was beaten by Henry Miller’s translation ‘Ovid at the Races’, it was by a short head. The verse here gallops along in firm Victorian manner and Sam Peters’s commanding, contemporary-sounding Catullus 27 was a length or so behind it.

The 18-and-under section was not quite as bright as it was last year. More Baudelaire here in Amelia Hassard’s translation of ‘Get Drunk’, which certainly got some of Baudelaire’s dark brio and a welcome translation from the Welsh of Hedd Wyn’s ‘Rhyfel’ by Ioana Hannagan Lewis, but the winner was out of Ovid again, from the Heroides, by Patrick Heaton. The best, as before, were very good, but there were fewer of them.

The Open section, however, was very good and I had many more poems marked as excellent than could possibly be accommodated on an agreed list. For lack of space I can do no more than mention some of them. Cedric Watts’s version of Baudelaire’s (Baudelaire again!) ‘The Albatross’, A. Franklinos’s version from the Greek of George Seferis’ ‘Interlude of Joy’, Leonard Lavery’s translation of Robert Desnos’s ‘The Voice’, two translations of Léopold Senghor by William Oxley, Patricia Hann’s Jules Supervieille, a group of poems from the Yiddish translated by Norbert Hirschhorn, John Turner’s Verlaine (so hard to do!), Joanne Cooper’s Noriko Ibaragi from the Japanese, A.C. Clarke with Baudelaire’s ‘U-Turn’ (another original take by her, as I remember from last year), Michael Swan’s version of Hendrik Nordbrandt’s Norwegian poem, ‘A Dream about My Mother’, two excellent Rilkes by Ian Crockatt, a lovely ironic Cavafy by Sylvia Moody. And a lovely translation from the Romansh of Peider Lansel by Iain Galbraith.

The winners and commended are all marvellous pieces of work and it was very hard deciding the top three. As implied at the beginning, it helps to have a proper poet’s ear for what is telling. I am delighted for John Richmond, Duncan Forbes and Jane Draycott. These are serious works. Close behind them come poets like Michael Foley, Mario Petrucci and Carol Rumens, all major figures.

We don’t know the names of the translators when we read of course, nor can we tell a translator by his or her style, but poetry will out. And so it has. It is also very good to see translations from the so-called minor languages. More of these please. We know the poetry is there.