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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
14-and-under, winner

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Noah Norman

from Cyrano de Bergerac


CYRANO:
Please tell me, dear sir, what you want me to do?
Look for a mighty protector, take a sugar daddy,
And like the shadowy ivy, which creeps round a trunk,
Winning the tree's support by licking its bark,
Suck my way up by stealth instead of rising through force?
Hell no. Dedicate like the others,
Some lines of verse to sponsors? Play the fool,
In the vile hope of at last teasing out
A pleasing smile from some minister's lips?
Hell no. Eat a crow every day? Slither along
Like a snake, with its stomach all dirty and worn?
Writhing and bending my spine with flexible turns?
Hell no. Keep the goat and cabbage apart,
While handily pleasing them both,
Hand out laxatives to those tight-arses,
While wafting my own censer, up in some beard?
Hell no! Thrust myself from bosom to bosom,
Play the lounge lizard in the salon,
Set my course with love songs for oars,
And fill my sails with old ladies' adoring sighs?
Hell no! Pay Sercy the editor to edit my verse? Hell no!
Get myself made pope by a confederacy of dunces?
Hell no! Chisel out a name for myself
From just one sonnet, and not a life of work?
Hell no! Vow never to reveal my art except to those asses?
Flee in terror from poor reviews?
And claim incessantly: "Yes, but at least
I was mentioned in the
Notes and Queries"?
Hell no! Look over my shoulder in fear and dismay,
Enjoy social visits more than poetry,
And write begging letters, put myself on show?
Hell no! Hell no! And once more, HELL NO!
                                                                   But…
To sing, and dream, and laugh, be free, make my own way,
And with a clear eye, a resonating voice,
I'll wear, at will, a crooked, cocked felt hat,
To go to war for a yes, or a no, or make poetry,
And work without a care for fame or thrall,
Always aiming to shoot at the moon!
And never write a word not from my heart,
And modest besides, to say to myself: old man,
Be satisfied with flowers, fruits, even thorns,
As long as it's from my garden they come!
And then, to grant myself a little gloat,
Know that I do not owe anyone anything,
So I'll keep some honour for myself, no one else.

In short, I disdain to play the parasite,
I know I'm neither oak tree, nor lime,
I may not climb high, but what I do is mine.

Translated from the French by Noah Norman
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Act 2, Scene VIII, Cyrano de Bergerac


CYRANO:
Et que faudrait-il faire?
Chercher un protecteur puissant, prendre un patron,
Et comme un lierre obscur qui circonvient un tronc
Et s'en fait un tuteur en lui léchant l'écorce,
Grimper par ruse au lieu de s'élever par force?
Non, merci. Dédier, comme tous ils le font,
Des vers aux financiers? se changer en bouffon
Dans l'espoir vil de voir, aux lèvres d'un ministre,
Naître un sourire, enfin, qui ne soit pas sinistre?
Non, merci. Déjeuner, chaque jour, d'un crapaud?
Avoir un ventre usé par la marche? une peau
Qui plus vite, à l'endroit des genoux, devient sale?
Exécuter des tours de souplesse dorsale ?. . .
Non, merci. D'une main flatter la chèvre au cou
Cependant que, de l'autre, on arrose le chou,
Et, donneur de séné par désir de rhubarbe,
Avoir son encensoir, toujours, dans quelque barbe?
Non, merci! Se pousser de giron en giron,
Devenir un petit grand homme dans un rond,
Et naviguer, avec des madrigaux pour rames,
Et dans ses voiles des soupirs de vieilles dames?
Non, merci! Chez le bon éditeur de Sercy
Faire éditer ses vers en payant ? Non, merci!
S'aller faire nommer pape par les conciles
Que dans des cabarets tiennent des imbéciles?
Non, merci! Travailler à se construire un nom
Sur un sonnet, au lieu d'en faire d'autres ? Non,
Merci! Ne découvrir du talent qu'aux mazettes?
Être terrorisé par de vagues gazettes,
Et se dire sans cesse: "Oh, pourvu que je sois
Dans les petits papiers du Mercure François?"…
Non, merci! Calculer, avoir peur, être blême,
Aimer mieux faire une visite qu'un poème,
Rédiger des placets, se faire présenter?
Non, merci! non, merci ! non, merci! Mais…chanter,
Rêver, rire, passer, être seul, être libre,
Avoir l'oeil qui regarde bien, la voix qui vibre,
Mettre, quand il vous plaît, son feutre de travers,
Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, – ou faire un vers!
Travailler sans souci de gloire ou de fortune,
A tel voyage, auquel on pense, dans la lune!
N'écrire jamais rien qui de soi ne sortît,
Et modeste d'ailleurs, se dire: mon petit,
Soit satisfait des fleurs, des fruits, même des feuilles,
Si c'est dans ton jardin à toi que tu les cueilles!
Puis, s'il advient d'un peu triompher, par hasard,
Ne pas être obligé d'en rien rendre à César,
Vis-à-vis de soi-même en garder le mérite,
Bref, dédaignant d'être le lierre parasite,
Lors même qu'on n'est pas le chêne ou le tilleul,
Ne pas monter bien haut, peut-être, mais tout seul!

Edmond Rostand
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Translation commentary


I chose a speech from Cyrano de Bergerac because I've loved Gérard Depardieu in Rappeneau's film ever since I can remember. Even when I couldn't understand the French, I was mesmerised by the fluency and beauty of Cyrano's speeches when he is arguing with someone, especially when he is about to die. I chose this soliloquy because it shows Cyrano's amazing way with words, but it is also the only speech that has such a big change in temper, from angry and sarcastic to realistic and hopeful.

This speech was difficult because of the different moods and language, which are complicated to understand even in English, and certainly include several obscure French words and phrases. For example, the part about stroking the goat and rhubarb – 'et donneur de séné par désir de rhubarbe…' didn't make much sense to me. I found this harder as it is all French idiomatic language of the 17th century with all its metaphors (déjeuner… d'un crapaud….s'en fait un tuteur… etc.). I tried to get the sense of Cyrano's rage about these people in my own words.

On translating, I started off with a very literal translation, so I could understand the basic speech, and then I put the entire thing into iambic pentameter to give it some metre, as the original is rhyming couplets. I found this quite constraining as there was too much to put into 10 syllables. I also did a very modern, urban translation with slang words, but as this was the polar opposite of Rostand's original beauty, I did not use it. Finally, I decided to use a freer translation that allowed more movement and contrast in different stages of the poem.

I have enjoyed translating Rostand so much, my goal this summer is to translate the entire play.

Noah Norman