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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
18-and-under, commended

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Jack Newman

To the Princess Ulrique of Prussia

Often a sense of truth grows
With the crudest of lies:
One night: clouded with sleep-filled eyes,
To the rank of kings, I rose.
I loved you; then I dared to tell you of my desire!
On my waking, the gods did not rob me of all my woes;
I only lost my empire.

Translated from the French by Jack Newman

A Madame la princesse Ulrique de Prusse

Souvent un air de vérité
Se mêle au plus grossier mensonge:
Une nuit, dans l'erreur d'un songe,
Au rang des rois j'étais monté.
Je vous aimais alors et j'osais vous le dire!
Les dieux à mon réveil ne m'ont pas tout ôté;
Je n'ai perdu que mon empire.


Translation commentary

I translated this poem because I had previously read Candide by Voltaire, in its original French, and I was intrigued by his satirical commentary on society at this pivotal point in France's history. I am interested in the period of the Enlightenment in France, having also studied the works of Rousseau, and I thought I would enhance my understanding of this period by translating one of its most famous thinkers' poems. However, while selecting one of his poems, this particular one attracted me, because the voice was very different from the one that I had encountered in Candide. This mournful, elegiac voice is not what I had expected, and so I took the opportunity to study the variety of Voltaire's oeuvres. I am also intrigued by the historical background to the poem, where on visiting his friend King Frederick, Princess Ulrique asked Voltaire to make a declaration of love to her, without using the word love, and he produced this poem.

The length of the poem helped me to understand its meaning, and there were no particular areas of grammar or vocabulary that a dictionary could not help me resolve. French and English are similarly constructed, so this language barrier was not too difficult to overcome. The main problem I encountered in this poem was its rhyme scheme of ABBACAC. The rhymes were very strong in the original so I wanted to maintain this in my translated version. It took a lot of thought to keep the sense of the poem while trying to keep to the rhyme scheme, where rhymes weren't immediately obvious.

There is not a regular metre in the original, so I decided not to adhere to one in mine. This helped me, as I was able to stretch the line length to accommodate rhymes.

Jack Newman