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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2012

Sasha Dugdale’s report

There was a great deal of consensus over the winning poems and the poems we wanted to commend. Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski's translation of Tarkovsky's 'Field Hospital' seemed to us all to be lucid and poetical, as well as intensely and fiercely focused. Alexandra Berlina's translation of Brodsky's fine poem found wonderful solutions to impossible problems and had the metaphysical elegance of the original, and Chegra's 'The Prayer of the Touch' was a wonderful and convincing performance in English. Overall we were excited by the variety of poetry, the translators' willingness to depart from the 'canon' of Russian greats, and the inventiveness of many of the translations. Much was excellent and it was heartening to see the breadth and variety in the translation community.

I would like to see more informed departures from the text. The lion's share of translations were pretty literal, cleaving as close as possible to the Russian. But Russian lyric poetry is as much about sound and music as it is about sense and there is room for translation which recognises that, without of course compromising any subtlety of understanding.

Catriona Kelly’s report

In my experience, there are a number of different things one looks for when judging a competition like this. It's important that translators have departed from the original only on purpose. The mini-commentaries that we asked competitors to write were sometimes very useful in pointing to cases where someone had for good reason decided on a version that engaged with the Russian only loosely. It's obviously equally important that the version in English has a command of sound patterning (whether metrical, rhythmic, phonic, or all at once). It need not imitate the original directly, but it needs a comparable level of sophistication. And even that isn't enough without what Alexandra Berlina's version of Brodsky's 'You can't tell a gnat…' charmingly named as 'zoom and zeal'. It was those last qualities that made the poems we've awarded prizes and commendations stand out – for instance, the intensity of Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski's rendering of Arseny Tarkovsky's 'Field Hospital', or the knowing irony of Igor Irteniev's 'Camellia' (which parodies a Soviet-style homily to a streetwalker). These texts have their own integrity: obviously, no Anglicisation of Chegra's 'The Prayer of the Touch' is going to follow the original in echoing Orthodox chant, but the version by Iryna Shuvalova has a striking incantatory force that makes it live in its new world. There were plenty of good things in some of the other submissions as well: it was only an unexplained oddity or two that separated a few of the also-rans from those at the front. Here's hoping for an equally hard-fought race next year.

Glyn Maxwell’s report

Our panel did not set out to find a wide spectrum of forms, or of approaches to translation, or of Russian poets from the legendary to the lately, but I'm pleased that is precisely what we got. Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski's version of Arseny Tarkovsky's 'Field Hospital' sits lightly, plainly, truthfully on its lines, nothing is ostenstatious, the breaks are exact. It reads like a brilliant English poem set in even worse weather. Irina Shuvalova's rendering of Sergey Chegra's 'The Prayer of the Touch' impressed me above all because the breaths in it function as breath does under the pressure of prayer, falter and flow giving way to one another, crying out over the silence. And in 'You can't tell a gnat...' Alexandra Berlina captures remarkably that splendid fusion of wisdom, wit, craft and daring we know as Joseph Brodsky. I very much enjoyed the commended poems too, and was especially happy with 'happiness, of which there's none' in Katherine Young's Inna Kabysh poem 'This is life: the summer house...'

Sasha Dugdale Catriona Kelly Glyn Maxwell