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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Judges’ comments

Read the winning entries
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2013 competition by Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Patrick McGuinness and George Szirtes

Susan Bassnett

This year the judges were so closely in agreement in all categories that we were all astonished. Usually there is some lively discussion as we each make a case for the winning entries, but this year we seemed only to debate quite how many additional entries we could add to the commended list, which shows that the quality of what we received was exceptionally high. We had no hesitation in judging the lively version of a speech from Cyrano de Bergerac as the winner of the 14-and under category, and as can be seen from the 18-and-under category, we all felt so strongly about the translations of poems by Laforgue and Rilke that we awarded a joint first prize. In the Open category, our only issue was which of the five beautiful translations of the contemporary German poet Durs Grünbein should be deemed the winner, as they were all so strong. We read all entries without knowing anything about the translator other than what he or she may tell us in the commentary. The commentaries offer fascinating insights into the process of translation, and differ widely. Some tell us about the original poet, some give details of how the translation came to be made, and this year we had moving stories about translations being undertaken as a tribute to a long dead parent, as a gift for a monolingual child, as a way of going back to recapture special memories. Several commentaries showed how the translator was making connections between poetic traditions in different languages, and I was particularly intrigued by Pippa Little's commentary on a Lorca poem, in which she linked his work to her readings of Border Reiver ballads, with the shared theme of the outsider and the strong incantatory rhythms.

Not all our individual choices made the commended list, and among my favourites that just missed are Brian O'Connor's translation of the tiny Irish lyric, 'Enviable the Tiny Birds', Martin Bennett's version of Leopardi's 'Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd' and Micha Meyers' translation of the Dutch poet Willem van Toorn's 'His Mind's Eye'. In the under-18 section, I loved David Meijer's playful rhymed translation from the Dutch of Annie Schmidt's 'Isabella Caramella', one of whose pets is 'a gallant gaudy guinea pig', and which surely deserves to be published as an illustrated children's book?

The pedant in me notes with dismay how many linguistic errors there are in some of the entries, further evidence of the disastrous policy of abandoning the teaching of grammar and syntax in the teaching of foreign languages. I also felt, odd though this might seem, that in some cases more attention had been paid to translation as a kind of exercise than to the production of a good English poem. What the judges are always in search of are translations that are also good poems, that do justice to the original creator. Maintaining this delicate balance is what makes the translation of poetry so challenging and, when it works well, so fulfilling. Interestingly, this year there were quite a lot of commentaries in which the translator admitted to never having translated poetry before, though putting a positive spin on this means that quite a few entrants took their courage in both hands and attempted something quite new.

One problem that translators of poetry wrestle with every year is the enormous difficulty of translating poems that seem to be very straightforward and easily understandable in the source language, but which all too often end up as banal in English. Translating the apparently simple is, in a different way, as tough as translating a very complex text, for the effect of simplicity is only achievable with considerable skill, and a translator needs comparable skills. Judges too need skills, and one of the questions we consider is the difficulty of translating something that has not been translated before as against the difficulty of creating a new translation of a poem that has been translated many times. There is no easy answer and this year, as we have done previously, we sought to focus on each poem as a new independent creation in its own right.

This year too, not only did I have the privilege of reading some terrific translations, but I also discovered some new poets I had never encountered before, for the variety of choices of poems to translate matches the variety of languages in which they are written. This prize really does reveal how much talent there is at all ages when it comes to translating poetry, and I feel privileged to be involved as a judge.

Edith Hall

This year I was lucky enough to read most of the entries within sight of Apollo's mountain, Parnassus, on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth. At Delphi, Apollo's cult centre high on the mountain, ancient poets and musicians competed for prizes at his festivals. One of my personal favourites in the adult category this year, Jessica Wright's refreshingly accessible rendition of Pindar's twelfth Pythian Ode, was actually first performed at Delphi in 490bc to celebrate the victory of a pipe-player.

Near the site of the ancient oracle I saw Byron's graffito and the grave of the Greek Modernist poet Angelos Sikelianos. And this year's crop of entries included a generous selection of poems in both ancient and modern Greek – by Aeschylus, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Sappho and Cavafy as well as another impressive Pindar, in the 18-and-under category: Sam Norman's sophisticated rendering of Pindar's mellifluous fragment of an ancient dirge describing Elysium.

The Greek theme was also present in several excellent versions of Ovid's Latin retelling of myth in Metamorphoses, such as Zélie Everest's 'Midas' episode in the youngest category. The Odyssey also haunts the poems by Durs Grünbein, especially 'Calypso' and 'Island without Sirens', which Karen Leeder translated with such dazzling skill and sensitivity. As one of four judges I am often asked how on earth we agree on a winner from hundreds of entries: this year, every single one of us had independently decided before conferring that Leeder's entries outshone all others.

It was heartening to read translations of poems in so many world languages. I was delighted by the range of African poets this year – we had translations from Swahili, Amharic, Yoruba, and siNdebele. Another conspicuous feature was a pleasing increase in contemporary poets and in poems which first originated or first became famous as the lyrics of songs (including, of course Pindar and the other Greek lyric poets). From the Welsh national anthem to Ben Williams' brilliantly trenchant and dexterous 'Killing Game' from the French rap of MC Solaar, we were taken on an extensive tour of the interface between sung and spoken verse.

Yet in the adult category, at least, despite a dozen brilliant entries, including the heartrending 'Terrible Loss of His Sons', translated from Old Norse by Ian Crockatt, I felt there were fewer outstanding translations than in the previous two years. What we are looking for is not just a translation of basic lexical content and information, but the birth of a new text that works its artistic magic as a poem in its own right. Many fascinating translations of authors I have not before encountered did not fully succeed in convincing me that the original poems consisted of words arranged in ways which marked them out definitely as poetry rather than somewhat everyday prose. I think that some of this year's entrants have been too frightened of inaccuracy and not committed enough to sensory effect and aural felicity. I wait next year's developments with excitement!

Patrick McGuinness

As always, the range of languages entered this year was remarkably diverse. What disappointed us was the way in which many of the poems from Arabic, Kurdish, Chinese, Hindi and other languages from faraway cultures that are now established here seemed not to work in English. I thought about why this was, since, surely, one of the merits of this competition is that it reflects the multicultural aspects of the world we now live in. We found many of these poems, however excellent they might be in their originals, to be, somehow, untranslatable. I say 'untranslatable' not in terms of the words themselves, but in terms, perhaps, of conveying the traditions that lie behind them, the kinds of national histories that caused them to be made, and the forms of address that the poems relied on to reach their original publics. This might be worrying, since one of the advantages of poetry is that it is held to transcend such contexts. I don't know – there's no answer, or if there is, the answer is in the individual translations, which, when they work, show it to be possible. But there weren't many. In any case, the problem is ours too: we come to translations with our own cultural bearings, our own sense of what works and what doesn't. Many of the poems we read freely used grand words like 'Soul', 'Presence', 'the People', 'the Self', words that are so big that they threaten to mean too little, words that are raw and abstract at the same time. On the European side, to counterbalance this, we found what are by now becoming the usual suspects: Prévert, Rimbaud's 'Dormeur du val', Reverdy, Hugo, etc. The class-exercise feeling we got when we read these is explained by the fact that they were often class exercises.

The best of the translations, underscored by subtle and resourceful commentaries, were excellent, and the commentary part of the exercise, while not (for me) being a tie-breaker, continues to be one of the competition's best features. Translators can explore and test out their hypotheses, and reveal their passion for the poem at the same time. They make connections between the poems, often hundreds of years old, and the lives we lead today. They recognise in the poems sentiments or expressions that remain relevant. Love and war dominate here, as they seem to do always and everywhere.

I continue to admire translations that are inventive, that convey the spirit of the poem while understanding that adjustments need to be made, that translating is more like changing currencies than just carrying something across a border. I admire, too, formal solutions that don't necessarily reproduce the original's form but stay true to the reasons for which form was chosen in the first place. Of the poems I especially admired, apart from the Durs Grünbein versions by the winner, was the Eminescu poem about Venice, translated from the Romanian, which captured the stillness and desuetude of the city and its still, reflective waters.

George Szirtes

It is my last report as judge after five years. My first report in 2009 proposed that translation 'can draw the poet out of someone who may not have realised the poet in themselves. The response to poetry is in us all but it takes an extra talent to turn response to invention, to hear and speak echo in a fresh voice.'

Echoes and freshness have remained of the essence. There was one outstanding, very ambitious piece in the 14-and-under category. The sophistication, assurance, and indeed freshness of Noah Norman's rendering of one of Cyrano's speeches from Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac was striking. It was at home with lines like 'Play the lounge lizard in the salon'. There were not too many lounge lizards in my fourteen-year-old vocabulary. The whole had the right kind of glitter. The three commended poems all had the same confidence. Cesare Pavese's poem 'Death will come…' is difficult but great credit to Ludovica di Vincenzo for her excellent work with a demanding text, so beautifully balanced in English.

In the 18-and-under group two poems stood out and in the end the prize was shared between Anna Leader's 'The approaching winter' from Jules Laforgue and Ephraim Levinson's translation of Rilke's 'Abishag'. Two very different poems and approaches. The Laforgue is enormously demanding in terms of tone, presenting us with a unique mixture of the romantic gesture and the ironic undertone. The Rilke translation is more formal, more statuesque, but offers proper substance with some lovely touches.

The Open category was particularly strong this year, but one set of entries took everyone's breath away. Any one of Karen Leeder's translations from Durs Grünbein might have won. The specific poem was decided by consensus. I really hope these translations will build into a book. Not that it puts other work in the shade. Jane Tozer is a dazzling, quite virtuosic translator. Her work, this time from Middle English, shows her range: 'Wulf my Wulf' is broken into cries, while her 'Dame Sirith' is in vigorous, high-profile rhyme. Alistair Elliot's double version of Eminescu gives us echo on echo. It goes to the heart of translation-as-project. John Turner's Dante is another example of virtuosity, maintaining the original's terza rima with great skill and conviction of tone. I was also fond of Antoinette Fawcett's Ed Leeflang translations. Good to have translations from other than the 'major' languages.

The enterprise of translation depends on our willingness and capacity to listen and to hear. We don't all hear the same thing but that is of the essence in poetry. Each poem is its own echo chamber, each echo generating its own meanings. That is why it is so important to us. To hear a poem is to hear a fresh truth about meaning, a meaning that springs out of all our senses, emotions and powers of thought, and a truth about meaning is also a truth about experience which is why the best poetry can so thrill us.

I hope to expand on these comments at georgeszirtes.blogspot