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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

14-and-under, commended

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org
Read the winning entries from previous years


Derek Lam

from ‘The Ballad of Mulan’


Tik tigh tik tik tok,
Mulan sews the cloth.
We do not hear tik tigh,
All you hear is a sigh.

What are you thinking, darling?
What are you thinking?
I have nothing to think, mum,
I have nothing to think.

Yesterday I saw the war poster,
The emperor needs soldiers.
There were a dozen posters,
Each with our dad’s name.

Dad has no big son,
Mulan has no brothers.
She will replace dad,
She will be on the line with others.

Go to the east market to buy a horse,
Go to the west market to buy a saddle grip.
Go to the south market to buy a bridle,
Go to the north market to buy the whip.

To say goodbye to her parents,
To spend a night at the yellow river.
To not hear the cries for Mulan,
But to hear the wild water of the river.

To say bye to her parents,
To spend a night up the mountains.
To not hear the cries for Mulan,
But to hear the gallops of horses.

Miles away from the winning battle,
To go off the mountain feels like flying.
The wind blowing on the watchman’s rattle,
The cold moonlight on his clothes shining.

Lots of people die in the battles,
But survivors take ten years to get back home.

To go back and see the emperor,
The emperor sits on the throne.
The emperor knighting the people,
To be rewarded so they can be well known.

‘What would you like?’ the emperor asks Mulan.
‘Would you like to be a famous man with high authority?’
Mulan replies, ‘Please will you let me borrow a camel,’
‘so I am able to go back home?’

Mulan’s dad heard she was coming back,
And quickly came out to greet her.
Her sister heard she was coming back,
And put loads of makeup on her.

Mulan’s brother heard she was coming back,
And so he sharpened the knife and cooked the pig and lamb.

To open my bedroom door,
To sit on my bed.
To get rid of my battle clothes,
And to change into an old dress.

To sit at the window and to comb her hair,
And to make herself pretty again.

To go out and see her partner,
Her partners were surprised.
Together fighting for twelve years,
But no one knew that Mulan was a girl.

Male rabbits have different paws,
Girl rabbits have big hazy eyes.
Two rabbits join together on the floor,
We do not know if they’re male or female such as I.

Translated from the Classical Chinese by Derek Lam
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The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

木 蘭 辭


唧復唧唧
木蘭當戶織,
不聞機杼聲
惟聞女歎息。

問女何所思
問女何所憶。
女亦無所思
女亦無所憶。

昨夜見軍帖
可汗大點兵;
軍書十二卷
卷卷有爺名。

阿爺無大兒
木蘭無長兄。
願為市鞍馬
從此替爺征。

東市買駿馬
西市買鞍韉
南市買轡頭
北市買長鞭。

旦辭爺孃去
暮宿黃河邊
不聞爺孃喚女聲
但聞黃河流水聲濺濺。

旦辭黃河去
暮宿黑山頭
不聞爺孃喚女聲
但聞燕山胡騎聲啾啾。

萬里赴戎機
關山度若飛。
朔氣傳金柝
寒光照鐵衣。

將軍百戰死
壯士十年歸。

歸來見天子
天子坐明堂。
策勳十二轉
賞賜百千彊。

可汗問所欲
木蘭不用尚書郎
願借明駝千里足
送兒還故鄉。

爺孃聞女來
出郭相扶將。
阿姊聞妹來
當戶理紅妝。

小弟聞姊來
磨刀霍霍向豬羊。

開我東閣門
坐我西閣床
脫我戰時袍
著我舊時裳

當窗理雲鬢
對鏡帖花黃。

出門看火伴
火伴皆驚惶 「
同行十二年
不知木蘭是女郎!

雄兔腳撲朔
雌兔眼迷離
兩兔傍地走
安能辨我是雄雌?


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Translation commentary


I chose this poem because it talks about a brave and courageous girl called Mulan who takes her father’s place in war. Only boys are allowed to fight at that time and I consider this a bit sexist. It talks about how she travelled to the war, what happened in the war and what happened when she got back home. This poem shows a girl can do as much as boys can do or even more. It must have been a lot of effort to disguise herself as a boy and be separated from her family for 12 years. It shows how much she cared for her family and the sacrifice she was willing to make for her relatives.

The hardest thing I found about the translation was that the poem is in ancient Chinese so the words sometimes don’t make sense. This is equivalent to an old English word such as hath = has. Also rhyming doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to, forcing me to turn to the internet to find some homophones!

The lines are either in the common four-line form or in an awkward two-line form. This sometimes collapses the rhythm of the poem but then it builds itself back up again in lines after it. But even though I had difficulties I really enjoyed translating this poem.

Derek Lam