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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

18-and-under, joint second prize

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Joel Farrance


Come, says the Englishman,
And the Englishman comes.
Como! says the porter,
And the traveller, suitcase in hand,
Leaves the train.
Come, says the Spaniard,
And the other one eats…

Comme, I say. And everything changes,
As in marble into water, the blue sky into orange,
The split hair, the suffering heart,
Into a web of fear.

When the Englishman says ‘as’
The world appears as he wishes.
But I only see As on cards.
The Ace of Hearts, if it’s February.
The Ace of Diamonds or Clubs –
In Flanders, a soldier’s life in the balance.
The Ace of Spades –
In the hands of the conquistadors.

If you want I’ll just say ‘thingummy’ –
The Englishman says thingummy,
So does the porter,
So does the Spaniard.
And so do I.
Or even ‘thingummyjig’.
I’m probably right to say,
You cannot sound
The depths of this poem.
You run aground.
And so do I.

Poem, I ask you –
I ask you for a bit of jam,
I ask you for a leg of lamb.
I ask you for a glass of wine,
So we can pass the time

Poem, I don’t ask you the time.
Poem, I don’t ask you
If your father-in-law
Is as woolly as a sheep.
Poem, I don’t ask much of you…

I don’t ask for charity,
I give you my alms.
I don’t ask you the time,
I give you mine.
Poem, I don’t ask if you’re well,
I assume you are.

Poem, I don’t ask you much –
Just a nugget of happiness
With the woman I love.

Translated from the French by Joel Farrance


“Come” dit l’anglais et l’anglais vient
“Come” dit le chef de gare et le voyageur qui vient dans cette ville descend du train sa valise à la main
“Come” dit l’autre et il mange

Comme, je dis comme et tout se métamorphose, le marbre en eau, le ciel en orage, le vin en plaine, le fil en six, le cœur en peine, la peur en seine
Mais si l’anglais dit as, c’est à son tour de voir le monde changer de forme à sa convenance
Et moi je ne vois plus qu’un signe unique sur une carte
L’as de cœur si c’est février
L’as de carreau et l’as de trèfle, miserai en Flandre
L’as de pique aux mains des aventuriers
Et si cela ne plait pas à moi de vous dire machin
Que machin dise le chef de gare
Et moi aussi machin
Et même machin chose
Il est vrai que vous vous en f ou tez
Que vous ne comprenez pas la raison de ce poème
Moi non plus d’ailleurs

Poème, je vous demande un peu?
Poème? je vous demande un peu de confiture, encore un peu de gigot
Encore un petit verre de vin
Pour nous mettre en train...
Poème, je ne vous demande pas l’heure qu'il est
Poème, je ne vous demande pas si votre beau père est poilu comme un sapeur

Poème, je vous demande un peu...?
Poème, je ne vous demande pas l'aumône, je vous l’a fait
Poème, je vous demande pas l’heure qu'il est je vous la donne
Poème, je ne vous demande pas si vous allez bien cela se devine
Poème, je vous demande un peu...
Je vous demande un peu d'or pour être heureux avec celle que j’aime

Robert Desnos

Translation commentary

I was not familiar with Desnos (1900–45) until my French teacher suggested some wider reading. Attracted by the surrealist surface of ‘Comme’, I decided to look at it in more depth. I found the theme of ‘Comme’ particularly apposite to the whole nature of translation, as in the poem Desnos ponders questions of language and the purpose of poetry.

Initially, the surrealist playfulness meant I found difficulty in judging the intended meaning of some phrases and words. In each case I tried to maintain the nature of the image, while giving an apt English equivalent. For example, I felt the line ‘le fil en six’ was a play on the idiom ‘couper les cheveux en quatre’ – thus ‘splitting hairs’ seemed the most fitting.

In relation to the poem itself, the most obvious challenge was trying to preserve Desnos’ exploration of the crossover between languages in the first passage, especially as it bases itself on his perspective as a French speaker. I ultimately decided to remain with this, rather than try to shift the perspective to an English speaker’s. This created a consequent problem: making a clear transition from similar sounding words in different languages, to the translation within the original. Desnos converts ‘comme’ to the English ‘as’, and then back to the French ‘as’ – meaning an ace. I was pleased to maintain the pun visually with my ideas of ‘As’ as seen on a playing card.

Wherever possible I tried to preserve the rhyme and imagery. I tried to reflect the original rhythm of the beginning of the poem, with slightly longer line lengths, though I added further rhyme in the last few stanzas, as it emphasised the shift in theme – from questions of language to poetry itself.

Joel Farrance