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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
18-and-under, joint first prize

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

Harry Sellen

A down-to-earth affair

After they'd known each other for eight years
(And you could say they knew each other well),
They suddenly lost their love
As others lose a stick or a hat.

They were sad, but put on a brave face,
Tried to kiss as if nothing was wrong
And looked at each other, yet were at a loss.
In the end she cried. And he stood there.

You could wave at ships from the window.
He said it was already a quarter past four
And time to have coffee somewhere.
Next door someone was practising the piano.

They went to the smallest cafe in town
And stirred the coffee in their cups.
In the evening they were still sitting there,
Sitting there alone, and they didn't speak
And just couldn't take it in.

Translated from the German by Harry Sellen

Sachliche Romanze

Als sie einander acht Jahre kannten
(und man darf sagen sie kannten sich gut),
kam ihre Liebe plötzlich abhanden.
Wie andern Leuten ein Stock oder Hut.

Sie waren traurig, betrugen sich heiter,
versuchten Küsse, als ob nichts sei,
und sahen sich an und wussten nicht weiter.
Da weinte sie schliesslich. Und er stand dabei.

Vom Fenster aus konnte man Schiffen winken.
Er sagt, es wäre schon Viertel nach vier
und Zeit, irgendwo Kaffee zu trinken.
Nebenan übte ein Mensch Klavier.

Sie gingen ins kleinste Café am Ort
und rührten in ihren Tassen.
Am Abend sassen sie immer noch dort.
Sie sassen allein, und sie sprachen kein Wort
und konnten es einfach nicht fassen.

Erich Kästner

Reproduced by kind permission of Atrium Verlag, AG Zürich and Thomas Kästner

Translation commentary

Kästner writes neither with elaboration, nor with an abundance of poetic imagery, yet the near-crudeness of his words conjures a sense of banality which is relatable to the reader. I first began by translating the poem word for word, using both my own knowledge of German and a dictionary. Reading the poem in German proved most useful in order to understand the meaning that lay beneath the words, and, in keeping, I translated 'Sachliche Romanze' with indifference to the poetic appeals of figurative embellishment; I do hope I have done justice to his words, for, although rudimentary, they bear a subtle ardency that proved to be most difficult to convey.

Harry Sellen