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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
18-and-under, joint first prize

Read the judges’ comments
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Read the winning entries from previous years

James Martin

Night Impression

Night. Rain. A pale sky serrated
With spires and open towers by the silhouette
Of the tenebrous Gothic city in the distant gloom.
The plain. A gallows teeming with the shrivelled hanged,
Tortured by the greedy beaks of crows
And dancing their inimitable jigs in the black air.
Their feet are the food of wolves.
Some thorn bushes and holly trees,
Standing scattered in all the horror of their foliage,
To the right and to the left,
Against the sooty debris, like the background of a sketch.
Then, surrounding three prisoners – deathly pale and
Barefoot, the body of soldiers
March, and their straight, upright blades, like harrow rods,
Gleam against the lances of the downpour.

Translated from the French by James Martin

Effet de nuit

La nuit. La pluie. Un ciel blafard que déchiquette
De flèches et de tours à jour la silhouette
D'une ville gothique éteinte au lointain gris.
La plaine. Un gibet plein de pendus rabougris
Secoués par le bec avide des corneilles
Et dansant dans l'air noir des gigues nonpareilles,
Tandis que leurs pieds sont la pâture des loups.
Quelques buissons d'épine épars, et quelques houx
Dressant l'horreur de leur feuillage à droite, à gauche,
Sur le fuligineux fouillis d'un fond d'ébauche.
Et puis, autour de trois livides prisonniers
Qui vont pieds nus, un gros de hauts pertuisaniers
En marche, et leurs fers droits, comme des fers de herse,
Luisent à contresens des lances de l'averse.

Paul Verlaine

Translation commentary

I chose this particular poem to translate because its vivid imagery made such an impact on me; in its description of the picture or painting, it reminded me of shots from the old horror movies I used to watch as a child and which gave me nightmares.

The original poem has no regular metre, and thus, although it is technically composed of rhyming couplets, Verlaine deliberately uses the irregularity of the metre to play down the rhyme scheme, and edge even more towards awkward dissonance instead of harmony. In focusing most of my efforts on Verlaine's powerful images, I decided to do away with the rhyme scheme. I have kept, where possible, the spirit of the irregularity of his sentence length (although more in spirit than in dogged loyalty to each individual line).

At certain points in my translation, I have felt it necessary to translate a word or phrase differently from the literal meaning, to preserve the dark atmosphere of Verlaine's images: for example, translating 'éteinte' (literally 'without light') as 'tenebrous', and 'au lointain gris' as 'in the distant gloom'.

I chose to stress or emphasise some of the most vivid images, if it was possible to do so while keeping the translation fluent – for instance, in the phrase 'Tandis que leurs pieds sont la pâture des loups', I have omitted the 'tandis que' and formed a separate sentence with the rest of the line, emphasising the image. Personally, I found the result and added emphasis more satisfying to read in English than the literal translation.

Finally, I have extended some small phrases towards the end of the poem, either to stress the image, or to make the English read more fluently (while taking into account the dissonance and awkwardness intended by Verlaine at points).

James Martin