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The Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Judges’ report

We were delighted to see so many entries for the inaugural year of the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender prize, with some excellent translations among them. Certainly, there were reminders of the formidable challenges that Russian poetry presents: from ellipsis to syntactic inversion, to different types of paronomasia. But we admired the bravery of many competitors, whether they were tackling work by poets who seldom get entry rights to the English language (Bulat Okudzhava, Elena Fanaylova, Maria Virkhov, Vadim Mesyats, Maksim Amelin and others) or giving a fresh view of acknowledged classics such as Khlebnikov, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Nikolay Gumilev or indeed Joseph Brodsky. A more modest place was occupied by some other poets, such as Pasternak, Blok, Annensky, Klyuev and Brodsky’s Leningrad contemporaries: Bobyshev, Losev and Rein, for instance; but no doubt, with a different batch of entries, things will change. Different translators had refreshingly different voices, showing a capacity to be polemical, scathing, poignant, querulous, buoyant – sometimes all together in small compass. The poems that we liked were extremely varied in terms of the date of composition, of style and of the techniques of versification used (free verse, accentual verse and approximate rhyme all figured alongside classical metres and rhyme schemes).

The poems that stood out were those which were able to put across the quiddity of an individual text. As well as the poems that have been formally recognised by awards, we would like to mention also Judith Pulman’s suggestively allusive version of stanzas from Brodsky’s ‘The Butterfly’, Ilya Bernstein’s vigorous rendition of Daniil Kharms’s children’s poem ‘Ivan Ivanovich Samovar’, Alistair Noon’s subtle interpretation of Mandelstam’s ‘A Menagerie’, and John Dewey’s sonorous Anglicisation of a high-Romantic philosophical poem by Fyodor Tyutchev.

We’d like to finish with a plea for more cross-cultural dialogue. A few attractively energetic translations were spoilt by misreading of the Russian, and sometimes translators could have done with a broader knowledge of poets they were translating (so as not to overlook characteristic chains of figuration, for instance). On the other hand, some promising versions suffered from errant English stress and scansion or from wayward register. In both cases, we had the sense that discussion with a native speaker of the other language would have helped. We would also urge entrants not to be like the protagonist of the old joke about the entrant to a creative writing course in Moscow back in the Soviet days who, when asked what he had read, replied with affronted dignity that he was a writer, not a reader.

We look forward to many more years of the competition. Our congratulations to the winners this year.

Sasha Dugdale Catriona Kelly Paul Muldoon