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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Judges’ comments

Read the winning entries
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Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2012 competition by Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Patrick McGuinness and George Szirtes

Susan Bassnett

Judging this prize is always a pleasure, partly because of the great range of work submitted, partly also because of the interaction between the judging panel. This year our decisive meeting lasted longer than usual, not because there were major disagreements but because we had difficulty singling out winners from a particularly strong crop of entries. Our decision to award the Open prize to an Irish poem was unanimous, but we were also deeply impressed by two other Irish entries, a beautiful short poem by Brendan Behan translated by Seán Hewitt and Margot Harrison's version of the famous 'Lament for Art O'Leary'.

How does a panel reach its conclusions is a question often asked. There is no simple answer, for all sorts of criteria come into play: crucial of course is the effectiveness of the poem in English, along with evidence of the strategies employed by the translator in creating that poem. We also consider the difficulties facing a translator, which is not to suggest that the more problems posed by a poem, the more likely it is to win, but rather that it is clear that in some cases the translator has had to work very hard indeed to find creative solutions. It was interesting to see how many extremely difficult poems were attempted this year in all categories, and it was also notable that many commentaries referred to personal encounters with poems and poets, often through hearing a poet read at a literary festival or through a return to a piece that held special memories.

We admired translations of very well known poems, such as Montale's 'The Sunflower', and translations of poets whose work is very difficult to translate well, such as Gáspara Stampa and Paul Verlaine. High on my personal list of fine translations was Peter Mullins' superb rendering of nine short poems from the Orkneyinga Saga and a comic poem I did not know by the Mexican poet Renato Leduc, 'Epistle to a Lady who has never seen an Elephant', translated by Annie McDermott. I also admired a sequence of poems by Georg Heym on the French Revolution, shockingly violent but very powerfully rendered by Gilbert Carr. The same ambitious choice of poems was also evident in the 14-and-under category. We had no hesitation in choosing the winner, and were impressed by the confidence with which some very young translators demonstrated their skills and obviously enjoyed the experience of translating, particularly of comic poems. We found two Dutch poems in our final list, both excellent: Max Birkin's 'Thinking of Holland' did not win, but is a fine translation that impressed me greatly.

There were many commentaries in the 18-and-under category about the process of translating, often stressing the difficulties encountered, particularly with complex grammatical structures. Interestingly there were fewer classical language entries this time, though some difficult modern language poems were attempted, and one young translator wrote that motivation had been 'a desire to stretch myself outside of the syllabus', which I would guess motivated several others as well. Many translators in all sections wrote about the various stages of their translating, often starting with a word-for-word rendering and then moving on to shape a new poem in English, which of course is how many of the greatest poetry translators have also worked.

Poetry transcends all kinds of boundaries and speaks to readers across cultures and generations, as this prize continues to demonstrate. We had a huge range of languages this year, and our winners include poems from Dutch, Bengali, Spanish, German, French, Italian and Irish, with our youngest winning translator being 12, and our oldest 86, a fact which only adds to the pleasure and privilege of serving as a judge for this important prize.

Edith Hall

I read all the entries this year against the backdrop of the Olympics. This turned out to be a wonderfully appropriate context – it was not just that so many different world languages were to be heard in British sports venues, but that so many British athletes were revealed to have roots or ancestry in other lands. It was heartening to feel this inspiring hybridity reflected in translations from Bengali and Yoruba, Tamil and Sicilian, Ukrainian and Chinese. Amongst this year's translators, moreover, the intensity of the competition seemed to mirror the rivalry on the running track and in the velodrome. In the Open competition, at least: although deciding who should appear on the final shortlist was not difficult, choosing between these finalists proved virtually impossible.

A great translation must fulfil several criteria: technical cleverness needs to be combined with emotional authenticity, daring image with rhythmic discipline. Kaarina Hollo's translation of Derry O'Sullivan won because, in the end, we privileged her gut-wrenching evocation of past tragedy, with its implicit social commentary, over the dazzling verbal artistry of Patricia Hann's take on Montale's 'Sunflower' and the grim Gallic humour, perfectly welded to metre, in Jane Tozer's 'Gibbet' by Villon.

But there were at least thirty other outstanding, cogent translations in this year's Open category. The phrase that ran repeatedly round my head was the great Latin poet Horace's advice to all who would express themselves in verse: ars est celare artem, 'the art lies in concealing the art'. Horace was the greatest of all the ancient Latin writers at creative adoption of Greek metre to his own tongue, camouflaging the arduous process of rhythmical assimilation under a sheen of effortless grace and style. Particular favourites of mine from the metrical standpoint included Peter Mullins' translations from the Orkneyinga Saga, and Peter Whale's 'A Woman's Love, Rime 208' by Gáspara Stampa.

There were some fine attempts at translating from ancient Greek and Latin authors, especially Paul Batchelor's other-worldly version of Lucan's witch-scene and Ruth Muttlebury's adroit take on Theocritus. It was refreshing for me to be treated to less well known ancient poets, including Solon the archaic Athenian singer-lawgiver, and Aratus who made polished poetry out of the stars he saw in the night-sky.

Brilliance at concealing technical effort was what for me distinguished Amanda Thomas' deceptively simple 'Abdication' by Fernando Pessoa in the 18-and-under category, although it was impossible to make a qualitative judgement between her translation and those of the other two winners. In the youngest group, David Meijer's version of 'The Lion Is Loose!' by Annie M.G. Schmidt seemed to me to combine precociously mature wry humour with a Dutch lilting rhythm and atmosphere.

Perhaps it was the Olympic flame which lit up this year's entries. More poets, more languages, and more far flung parts of the world were represented than I can remember. But more importantly, many more translators showed a willingness to take risks – to speak from the heart as much as the head, to remember that a linguistic conversion needs to convey the clout and outlook-transforming potential of the original as well as its inventiveness. After all, Horace's other great dictum was that the very best art is not only intensely pleasurable but ethically and socially worthwhile.

Patrick McGuinness

This was my second year as a Spender Prize judge, and I continue to be impressed by the range – the widening range, I think – of languages entered. This year we read translations not just from the European languages we might have expected to see, but from Bengali, Romanian, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Norwegian, Kurdish and more. It's hardly surprising, since the Spender competition postbag must inevitably, despite poetry's marginalised status, reflect something of the diversity of the world we inhabit. It reflects, too (as the poems from the Kurdish, Arabic and other languages testify), the less comfortable realities which make that world diverse: forced and often violent migration, exile, refuge-seeking and the consequences of war and revolution.

The presence of Britain and Ireland's oldest indigenous languages – Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic – in a competition like this is especially heartening, and we saw both classic and contemporary poems in those languages translated with exceptional skill and imaginative sympathy. There were also some marvellously creative translations from the Chinese into Scots by Brian Holton, an act which, leaving aside the quite excellent results, challenges us to define what we take to mean by 'English'. In any case, the presence of these languages, carrying over their riches into English, seems to me to enlarge our sense of what a British literary heritage might be, and made me think that if we in the UK wanted to go beyond Anglocentrism, we could start by seeing the riches within our shores. This was for me, this year at any rate, the competition's greatest pleasure.

Thinking and talking about translation can be exhausting and repetitive. This is because it's inconclusive, which is a good thing. It is in fact as inconclusive as thinking and talking about poetry itself. As with poetry, the thinking and the talking, the theorising and the postulating, bear no relation to the final product. You can go to all the translation conferences in the world, read all the books, write essay after essay on 'method' and 'theory', but in the end it's just you and the text. What makes the best of these entries so good is the way each translator had understood that, like the acrobat in the circus, when the lights go out it's just them and the tightrope (let's leave aside the question of safety net for the moment). I read translations which were better and more inventive, subtler and more nuanced, than anything I could do myself. Some of the translators here are so good it's a wonder they don't have books out. All seem to have come to the poems they worked on with a mix of complete creative freshness and deep knowledge not just of the text but of its eco-system of allusion and reference, its place in its own culture as well as the place it might have in ours once it had made it across into English.

What makes this prize unique is that it requires a translator to write a commentary explaining her or his choices and decisions. This is no mere addendum to the competition: it's a chance for the judges to get an insight into the process of art itself. I recommend the commentaries to you with almost as much enthusiasm as I recommend the translations themselves. The best of these commentaries – and there were many dazzlingly clever and penetrating ones – understood that translation is a mix of critical and creative engagement with the original. The translators tested out their ideas, scrutinised their approaches, but they also played with their interpretations in ways that directly fed into the final product. The process of reflection itself added to the translations and made them better, and we should think of translation in the way it is presented to us in this brochure and demonstrated by this competition: as a symbiotic process where creativity and reflection work together to make something that, quite simply, would not otherwise exist.

George Szirtes

Having been a judge for the past few years it has been fascinating to see tides come and go. The wave of La Fontaine among the youngest group for example, was nudged aside by Prévert, and now, goodness knows, it is replaced by Rimbaud, Verlaine and Catullus – the young mature ever earlier! In terms of numbers the major Europeans languages – Spanish, French, German and Italian – continue to dominate all three groups, so it is a great delight this year that the 14-and-under category has been won by a remarkably nimble translation from the Dutch of Annie M. G. Schmidt. David Meijer's 'The Lion Is Loose' even manages to transplant the location of the poem to London without any judder on the rails though it was run close by Damayanti Chatterjee's version of Chakraborty from the Bengali – another pleasure. Not that translating from unusual languages was an advantage of course and Thomas Franchi's version of Quevedo's gorgeous tease of a poem, 'To a Nose', was joint second in the same section, and the joint winners of the 18-and under category – unusually, it was impossible to split them this year – are three very different poems, translated from French (Verlaine), German (Goethe) and Portuguese (Pessoa). I don't think this was the best year for this age group but all three winners – James Martin, Francis Scarr and Amanda Thomas – took on difficult tasks and made energetic, convincing poems from the material.

It was, however, a deep and rich year for the Open category and the list of winners and commended could easily have been double the length. It was here that the various strategies of translation were fully explored. Because there are many strategies, I thought about these in some detail on a blog that people might care to read.

Translation is not a simple act. The conclusion of the blog is that the translation of a first-rate poem should be 'apprehended as a first-rate poem in itself'. The poem is the business in this case, not the exhaustive exegetics of a given text. That exegesis is assimilated in the act of creating the shadow poem we call the translation.

It took ages to decide the winner. Sometimes it is the sheer spell of subject matter as treated by the original poem, quietly and subtly conveyed by the translation that takes our breath away; sometimes it is the grace of the original poem as it is applied to a particular subject, rendered into grace in English; sometimes it is the appropriate virtuosity of the translation against high odds. Kaarina Hollo from the Irish, Patricia Hann from the Italian of Montale, and Jane Tozer from the French of Villon all left me breathless in admiration, each in an entirely different way. But the commended poems too were a delight. Antoinette Fawcett, Margot Harrison, Seán Hewitt, Brian Holton, John Turner, Peter Whale, and more... I wish I could publish them all. Marvellous.