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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

18-and-under, commended

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Oscar Davies

Open Windows

Morning. Voices pierce my sleep.
Ghosts glimmering upon my eyelid.
A lone bell swinging in Saint-Pierre church.
Shrieks of swimmers. Closer! Further! No, through here!
No, through there! Crows cawing cacophonies.
George calls Jeanne no longer. Singing of the cockerels.
A shovel scrapes the roof.
Horses hooves clattering along the alley whilst
squeaking sickles grate the grass.
Thuds. Creaking. Screaming. Tilers tiptoe over tiles of terraces.
Hubbub of the harbour, burping of the boilers.
The military band billows waves of fanfaronade.
Clatter on the quay. French voices – merci, bonjour, adieu.
My red robin arrives, scolding my indolence.
The distant din of hammers in the forge.
Water laps, steamers puff for air. A buzzing flea
Enveloped by the huge howl of the sea.

Translated from the French by Oscar Davies

Fenêtres Ouvertes

Le matin - En dormant
J’entends des voix. Lueurs à travers ma paupière.
Une cloche est en branle à l'église Saint-Pierre.
Cris des baigneurs. Plus près! plus loin! non, par ici!
Non, par là! Les oiseaux gazouillent. Jeanne aussi.
Georges l'appelle. Chant des coqs. Une truelle
Racle un toit. Des chevaux passent dans la ruelle.
Grincement d’une faux qui coupe le gazon.
Chocs. Rumeurs. Des couvreurs marchent sur la maison.
Bruits du port. Sifflement des machines chauffées.
Musique militaire arrivant par bouffées.
Brouhaha sur le quai. Voix françaises. Merci.
Bonjour. Adieu. Sans doute il est tard, car voici
Que vient tout près de moi chanter mon rouge-gorge.
Vacarme de marteaux lointains dans une forge.
L’eau clapote. On entend haleter un steamer.
Une mouche entre. Souffle immense de la mer.

Victor Hugo

Translation commentary

Victor Hugo has always interested me, both as a novelist and a poet. In a search to see what happened in the last decades of his life, I came across ‘Fenêtres Ouvertes’ (1877), a particularly profound work written during his exile on Guernsey. It seemed to me that there was possibly a darker and more austere shade to this poem, and I hoped to heighten this arguably other-worldly tone in my translation, in particular demonising the recurring theme of birds and even departing from the sense of Hugo’s French at points. My reading of the poem emphasises the fact that Hugo was exiled – in a sense, mourning the friends and country he had lost.

In terms of language, I noticed quite a few present participle phrases such as ‘en dormant’, and ‘en branle’, as well as third person plurals such as ‘gazouillent’ or ‘marchent’, and due to their similar appearance on the page (although ent is not sounded) it seemed appropriate to put them as present -ing words, whether actual participle or not. There is a slight graduation however, with more of these coming near the beginning, and the frequency steadily diminishing, as we focus on the concept of death, with the final ‘Adieu’. I noticed that these verbs are mainly describing cold objects by the end, as if the life implied by –ing has been replaced. It was hard to know how to tackle such particularity, but I tried to give a sense of depersonalisation to my ending.

Beyond this, I concentrated heavily on sound effects – my use of alliteration is deliberately pronounced, in part to offset my decision not to maintain the rhythm and pattern of the original. I did however end with a rhyming couplet and made sure my poem echoed the length and shape of the original.

Oscar Davies