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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Judges’ comments

Read the winning entries
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2011 competition by Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Patrick McGuinness and George Szirtes

Susan Bassnett

This year’s entries, as ever, included some magnificent translations by people of all ages, from under-14 to over 75, along with some first-rate commentaries. Interestingly, a lot of entrants chose to translate into rhymed verse forms. This works well if the translator/poet can use rhyme in a versatile manner that shows he or she is comfortable with it, but though there were some fine examples of rhymed verse, there were also some cases where the use of rhyme damaged the impact of the translation, making it read like doggerel. My advice to anyone wanting to translate into English rhyme forms is not to do so unless you feel very, very confident that the result will work effectively. Just because there is a form of rhyme in an original does not mean that it will translate easily into rhyme in another language where stylistic rules are different.

There were some very courageous entries this year: translators tackled some of the best known and most difficult poets such as Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda. I particularly admired Adam Elgar’s translations of Gaspara Stampa (commended) and, in the under-18 category, Isobel Gooder’s ‘Good Advice for Lovers’ by Victor Hugo, also commended, and Charles Devas’ rendering of Lorca’s ‘The Faithless Wife’.

There were several extremely good Anglo-Saxon translations this year. Andrew Wynn Owen’s ‘The Whale’ won the under-18 category, while Meghan Purvis’ ‘The Collar’ from Beowulf was our unanimous choice as winner of the Open category, with a second poem commended. Whether this reflects a renewed interest in Old English poetry remains to be seen, but the translations were exceptionally strong. Classical languages also scored highly, and several entries explored dramatic works. We all admired John Turner’s ‘Sagesse III, XII’ based on Verlaine and Dante.

Judging a competition such as this inevitably raises questions of whether there are limits to the freedom a translator may take with an original. Martin Bennett’s translation of ‘Toto Merumeni’ is significantly subtitled ‘After Guido Gozzano’; a comparison with the original shows the strategies used by the translator to create a fine poem in English that retains much of the original without slavishly following it.

For a poem to live on in another language it has to be re-created. Often that means rethinking the poem, deciding what can and cannot be retained, perhaps changing the structure, reworking patterns of sound and rhythm, sometimes substituting images for ones that will have the desired effect. Ezra Pound, poet-translator of genius, was once castigated for his ‘unfaithfulness’ and replied saying that anyone could produce a literal version using a cheap crib. What might be attacked as unfaithfulness in the translation of poetry may result in a poem that does more justice to the original poet than any close following of the original.

When judging, we look carefully not only at the translations but also at how the translators explain themselves in their commentaries. The quality of work submitted this year was so high that our list of commended entries is longer than usual. What this competition continues to show is that there are dozens of writers, old and young, experimenting with language and producing beautiful, memorable works of art. Stephen Spender would have been delighted.

Edith Hall

Every year I read the entries to the competition in a different mood. This year, I had spent July campaigning against the threatened closure of my Department of Classics, where Greek and Latin have been studied for over a century. The proposal was made suddenly at the end of June, on the ground that the department is not expected to make a financial profit next year. It has therefore been more than usually heartening to spend time in the company of hundreds of people who enjoy translating poetry from all kinds of contemporary and ancient languages, for all sorts of reasons, none of them financial.

2011 proved to be the year of Anglo-Saxon, which furnished the texts of the winning entries in both the Open category and the 18-and-under. Meghan Purvis’ evocation of what she calls the ‘violent, feudal, and supernatural’ world of Beowulf in her arrestingly modern version of ‘The Collar’ proved our undisputed Open winner. I will remember for a long time the image of Hygelac’s men sleeping with him still, ‘downed scarecrows / guarding a field of corpses’. But the masterful alliteration and visual power of Andrew Wynn Owen’s rendition of ‘The Whale’ from the Exeter Book would have won him at least a commendation in the Open category.

I am pleased to say that the ancient languages of Greece and Rome attracted fine entries, too. Amongst the 18-and-unders, Sappho prompted Holly Whiston’s brave attempt to make a familiar love song (Sappho 31) speak to contemporary teenagers without betraying the poem’s archaic simplicity. On the other hand, the world-weary wit of William Kennaway’s precociously knowing Petronius struck us as remarkable in a translator still in secondary school. As a theatre enthusiast, I was delighted with the taut speakability of Henry Stead’s excerpt from his version of the grim Senecan Medea. I hope that it will encourage others to submit translations from verse drama, a category of translation in which poets such as Ted Hughes and Tony Harrison have recently shown English can be most effective. But there is room in this competition for all genres and moods; if the emotional darkness of Seneca made us flinch, Patricia Roseberry had us in fits with her hilarious take on the drunken ravings of the narrator of Baudelaire’s ‘The Murderer’s Wine’.

The success of a translation in this competition often lies in the choice of original poem. The runner-up in the Open category, with Gozzano’s cynical ‘Toto Merumeni’, showed impeccable judgement; the poem is just long enough to demand a range of solutions to a variety of verbal problems. The same goes for one of my personal favourites this year, Jane Draycott’s updating of the 13th-century English lyric ‘The Man in the Moon’. Some stunning entries seem too slight in comparison with more substantial examples. Here I think of Angus Wrenn’s lapidary version of Antoine Tudal’s ‘In the rue Nollet’, and Sean Scrivener’s tense ‘The Bow’, a rendering of a Spanish version of a medieval Arabic poem. On the other hand, excerpts from epics or long narrative poems have to be chosen carefully if they are to convey an effect of aesthetic wholeness.

Patrick McGuinness

While there were some disappointingly samey class-exercise-style versions, often of the same poem, the first thing I noticed was the sheer range and variety of languages, genres and periods from which entrants had translated. The pile of papers was a melting-pot of cultures; leafing through it was like walking through an exciting multicultural street or visiting a busy international music festival. What excited me was the spectrum of fidelity and freedom translators I saw. There were graceful, precise, faithful but not grindingly servile translations, and there were also smart and confident versions that took the originals as a starting-point and showed them a different kind of respect by going off at their own tangents. Good poems can take a bit of rough treatment. They aren’t there to be stared at behind glass, they’re there to be taken off the shelf and handled (though all breakages, as they say, must be paid for…).

In this context, I was especially drawn to translations that showed inventiveness in updating not just context or setting but register and tone. There’s a phrase one often sees in translations: ‘After Baudelaire’, ‘After Rilke’, ‘After Li Po’, etc. For me the most impressive entries in this year’s competition were the ones that seemed to know what was meant by that innocent-seeming word ‘after’. They certainly didn’t understand the same thing by it (how could they?), but they had all decided how, for their own purposes, they would negotiate what we might call the ‘afterness’ of translation. Did they take it to mean a long way after? A long time after? Going ‘after’ in the sense of pursuing? Or taking ‘after’, perhaps in the sense of resembling, the way you’d ‘take after’ an ancestor?

There were many excellent translations, and some brilliant ones. Many were so good I honestly wondered why I was judging, and from what perspective of qualification. But what makes the Spender prize unique is the way in which it requires the translators to think through their choices and account for them. The commentary is important – knowing what you’re doing and why makes you do it better – and I’m convinced it’s why so many of these translations were so good. This is a prize named after a very fine poet, and one who in his poetry and translation knew what it meant to be ‘after’: he understood his relations with his present and his past, with his own culture and with those of others. His work, which is limpid, passionate and generous, is nonetheless unafraid to subject the emotions to the mind’s enriching scrutiny. It seems to me that the prize’s requirements honour that spirit, and that they bring out the best in the translators too.

This exciting after-ness of translations is especially evident in the winners of the Open and the 18-and-under. Both are from the Anglo-Saxon, and both are inspired not just in their diction, rhythms, register, sound-patterning and lineation but in all the specific, detailed and immediate choices that make translation succeed or fail. Above all, however, the translators made the poems feel ancient – which is what they are: heavy with age in the best, most resonant way – but never archaic. Foreign? Well, Anglo-Saxon is and it isn’t. In the past? Yes and no. But like these translations, we too are part of the after-ness of these poems, however thrillingly close their translators have brought them to us, and however richly contemporary they have been made to feel.

George Szirtes

We take a great deal on trust in translations providing we feel the trust has been earned. That trust is earned partly through the ear and the nerves. There are also the competing appeals of brilliant texture and wit as opposed to sonority of feeling. You can’t help but notice brilliance, of course. Energy matters, but also the sense of deeper comprehension as though the translator were reaching under the words as well as running fingers over them.

In that respect the youngest category was a little disappointing this year but there was a delightful and, to me, unknown poem, by Mohammed Ebnu, ‘Hijos del sol y el viento’, translated out of the Spanish by Anamay Viswanathan, that was as graceful and intelligent as Giles Robinson’s version of Prévert’s ‘Breakfast’ (complete with product placement!) was inventive and witty, so the prize was shared. Charlie Mack’s Rimbaud was ambitious and felicitous in many places and Derek Lam’s ‘Ballad of Mulan’ from the Chinese ran well.

In the other two categories it was the year of the Old English. The 18-and-unders were very strong. ‘The Whale’, translated by Andrew Wynn Owen, was beautifully handled, its alliterations unfussy and tidal, the difficult task of holding together modern, colloquial and standard diction mastered with great skill. ‘I sing of a fish with all my wiles / in woven words, of the wondrous whale’ is a terrific beginning and so it goes on. Three others tied for the runner-up spot. It is lovely to have a translation from the French Surrealist Robert Desnos as good as ‘As’, by Joel Farrance, clever, light yet passionate. Phoebe Power’s ‘Blood Orange’, from Prévert again, is sensuous and rich, and William Kennaway’s brisk version of Petronius is full of life, a very skilful piece of work.

There were some terrific things in the Open category. I recognised two of the pieces so I told the other judges that I would have to sit them out and say nothing, which is what I did. It turned out that they liked both and one of them they liked best of all. It was Meghan Purvis’ ‘The Collar’ an excerpt from Beowulf, her other entry from elsewhere in the same text. It is lyrically chiselled and poignant, full of colour. As with ‘The Whale’ it struck a note that was at a marvellous angle to the original while being close to modern speech. Martin Bennett’s ‘Toto Merumeni’ by Guido Gozzano was dazzling (he was good in all three of his translations including a lovely Apollinaire ‘Bestiary’) and third was Henry Stead’s choral extract from Seneca’s Medea, punchy, sharp, visceral, the lines broken up in pauses as if, appropriately, spat on the page.

There was charming work by Iman Ahmedani, and outstanding translations by John Turner, Ian Crockatt, Steven Bliss, Patricia Roseberry (‘The Murderer’s Wine’), John Burrows, Kate Armstrong, Samantha Schnee, Adam Elgar (a group of fine Gaspara Stampa poems), Sam Riviere (who gave us Mandelstam, Rilke and Li Bai), Jane Holland and a previous winner, the excellent Jane Draycott. It would have been great to give them all prizes.