• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

18-and-under, commended

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

Isobel Gooder

Good Advice for Lovers

A fine ogre from the backwoods, a true Muscovite,
Was deeply in love with a fairy, and the urge
That he had to marry this lady grew
Till it drove this poor rude soul quite crazy.
One fine winter’s day the ogre grooms his shaggy hide,
Shows up at the fairy's palace, and, bowing,

Announces himself to the gatekeeper as Prince Ogrovsky.
Now the fairy had a son, nobody knew by whom.
That day she happened to be out and as for the bairn,
A fine fair fellow, fed on cream and brioche,
The gift of some Ulysses to this Calypso,
He was playing by the doorway with his hoop.
He and the ogre were left alone in the antechamber.
How do you pass the time when it’s snowing in December,
And when you have no one to talk to?
So, to kill time, the ogre began to eye the kid.
It proved quite simple. Yet it’s going a bit fast
Even for an ogre and a Muscovite,
To bolt, just like that, the kids of those you're courting.
An ogre's yawn is the next thing to feeling peckish.
When the lady returned, no child to be seen; inquiries were made.
The fairy noticed the ogre with his enormous mouth:
Have you, she shouted, seen my beautiful boy?
The simple-minded ogre just said: I ate him.

Well, it was tactless. You who seek to please,

Consider what became of the ogre in the face of that mother,
Furious that he’d made a meal of her first-born.
The moral of the story is: love, but be careful;
Adore your sweetheart, and keep your wits about you;
Do not, like this Russian ogre, eat
Her cherub, or upset the apple cart.

Translated from the French by Isobel Gooder

Bon conseil aux amants

Un brave ogre des bois, natif de Moscovie,

Etait fort amoureux d'une fée, et l'envie

Qu'il avait d'épouser cette dame s'accrut

Au point de rendre fou ce pauvre cœur tout brut :

L'ogre, un beau jour d'hiver, peigne sa peau velue,

Se présente au palais de la fée, et salue,

Et s'annonce à l'huissier comme prince Ogrousky.

La fée avait un fils, on ne sait pas de qui.

Elle était ce jour-là sortie, et quant au mioche,

Bel enfant blond nourri de crème et de brioche,

Don fait par quelque Ulysse à cette Calypso,

Il était sous la porte et jouait au cerceau.

On laissa l'ogre et lui tout seuls dans l'antichambre.

Comment passer le temps quand il neige en décembre.

Et quand on n'a personne avec qui dire un mot ?

L'ogre se mit alors à croquer le marmot.

C'est très simple. Pourtant c'est aller un peu vite,

Même lorsqu'on est ogre et qu'on est moscovite,

Que de gober ainsi les mioches du prochain.

Le bâillement d'un ogre est frère de la faim.

Quand la dame rentra, plus d'enfant. On s'informe.

La fée avise l'ogre avec sa bouche énorme.

As-tu vu, cria-t-elle, un bel enfant que j'ai ?

Le bon ogre naïf lui dit : Je l'ai mangé.

Or, c'était maladroit. Vous qui cherchez à plaire,

Jugez ce que devint l'ogre devant la mère

Furieuse qu'il eût soupé de son dauphin.

Que l'exemple vous serve ; aimez, mais soyez fin ;

Adorez votre belle, et soyez plein d'astuce ;

N'allez pas lui manger, comme cet ogre russe,

Son enfant, ou marcher sur la patte à son chien.

Victor Hugo

Translation commentary

Reading the poem for the first time I thought it the perfect challenge for translation: the interplay of wit and colloquial idiom makes for a subtle uncertainty of tone. I found the poem in an anthology of French poetry selected by Quentin Blake, Promenade de Quentin Blake au Pays de la Poésie Française. In his foreword he talks about his drawings in relation to the text: the power of the words is such that each poem touches us directly, as if new, regardless of historical period. That's why his accompanying drawings take their shape from the world of today. I have tried to do the same in my translation – Blake prompted me to look for idioms from the here-and-now in order to capture the life of the poem.

Without a doubt, the idioms were the hardest to translate. For example, ‘tout brut’ – the French catches the note of sympathy with irony. The hardest phrase was ‘croquer le marmot’. Hugo plays with two meanings: first, the literal boredom of being kept waiting with nothing to do, and secondly, the transition from metaphorical to literal in eating the child. My next problem was ‘bâillement’, a word that has several paragraphs dedicated to it in Robert’s dictionary. Partly, it is stifling a yawn of boredom, partly a jokey transition to opening your mouth wide — for other purposes.

In the 19th century Hugo mimics the fable form, as old as Aesop but re-invented by La Fontaine in the 17th century as social satire. I did not want to lose the simultaneous humour and gravity of the words by maintaining a rhyme scheme. The lack of rhyme creates an air of black comedy. It veers between that and the absurd; a complexity that is more veiled in the original.

Isobel Gooder