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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
18-and-under, commended

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Sam Norman

Life after Death

For them, the Sun in all its splendour shines
Throughout our worldly night; their residence
Is in the rose-red fields, their shady shrines
In trees of golden fruit and frankincense.

Some take delight in watching horses race
Or in their own exertion; some in chess
Find joy, perhaps, or in a lyre's grace,
While all around them burgeons blossoming bliss.

The fragrance drifts throughout that lovely world,
Where men forever mix a full array
Of woody scents, which on the altars meld,
With fire that can be seen from faraway.

Translated from the Ancient Greek by Sam Norman

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem and commentary, click here (opens in new window).

Τοισι λαμπει

Τοισι λαμπει
          μεν σθενος ἀελιου ταν
          ἐνθαδε νυκτα κατω, φοι-
          νικοποδοις δ᾽ἐνι λειμω-
          νεσσι προαστιον αὐτων
και λιβανῳ σκιαρον και
          χρυσεοις καρποις βεβριθος.
τοι μεν ἱππειαισι τε γυ-
          μνασιαις τε, τοι δε πεσσοις,
τοι δε φορμιγγεσσι τερπον-
          ται, παρα δε σφισιν εὐαν-
          θης ἁπας τεθαλεν ὀλβος·
ὀδμα δ᾽ἐρατον κατα χωρον κιδναται
αἰει θυα μιγνυν-
          των πυρι τηλεφανει παν-
          τοια θεων ἐπι βωμοις.


Translation commentary

I chose to translate this poem simply because I was knocked sideways by the beauty of the Greek. This poem is part of a collection of threnoi, or 'death-laments', and would have been recited in a public setting at the passing of a great man. I looked for an English equivalent, and two poems in particular have helped me: 'Lycidas' by Milton and 'Ulysses' by Tennyson. In the latter, the lines 'It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, / And see the great Achilles, whom we knew' seemed to resonate with Pindar's depiction of the Elysian fields.

Pindar is a supreme technician, and indeed the Ancient Greeks viewed poetry as a craft, akin to carpentry. To reflect this, and to an extent in keeping with the two English poems, I have written in strict iambic pentameters and rhyming quatrains; this, to my ear, combined simplicity with respect for Pindar's technicalities, within a contemporary idiom.

Although Pindar was an archaic poet, I have not followed the tradition of using archaisms when translating his work. Moreover, the work has no title, and so I have adopted that given by the Oxford Book of Greek Verse.

Naturally, many words in Greek carry different connotations from their literal translations, and so I have for the most part looked to the spirit of the poem when translating. The ease of 'προαστιον' is hardly illustrated by 'suburb', and 'πεσσοις' has no equivalent in English; it refers to a game like draughts, but I thought 'chess' more poetic and better for getting across a sense of leisure.

In conclusion, I have done my best to preserve the idiom of the Greek, while putting it into an English setting; the poem is perhaps as much Tennyson as it is Pindar.

Sam Norman