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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, second prize

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Alistair Elliot

Venice (after Mihai Eminescu)

Life is extinct in Venice. So pride falls.
Not a breath of song or wink of light, indoors
or out. Through ancient portals, over marble stairs
the moon pours ghastly whiteness down façades.

Oceanos weeps and sniffs in her canals,
the eternal bridegroom, always young, who longs
to breathe his kiss of life into her lungs –
and parts her dead knees with his watery hands.

Across the city rings of silence spread.
Only one priest remains from the old days –
Saint Mark's – who grimly strikes the midnight bell.

With its dull voice, the language of the Sibyl,
It signifies in these repeated blows:
'The dead, my child, are dead forever. Dead...'


Life has gone out here: haughty Venice is finished.
You don't hear singing; or see lights of ballrooms.
Down marble stairs, through gateways and old doors
The moon floods in, whitewashing floors and walls.

Okeanos mutters, weeping down canals...
Doomed to be young forever, he still blooms;
To bring back breath and life to his sweet bride
He smacks the sides of palaces with his waves.

Inside the city, silence: like a graveyard.
One priest left over from the past alive,
San Marco grimly tolls the midnight bell.

In that deep voice, in dark speech like the Sibyl's,
It booms in quietly scanning syllables:
'It's hopeless, boy – the dead do not revive.'

Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Elliot


S–a stins viata falnicei Venetii,
N–auzi cîntãri, nu vezi lumini de baluri;
Pe scãri de marmurã, prin vechi portaluri,
Pãtrunde luna, înãlbind pãretii.

Okeanos se plînge pe canaluri...
El numa–n veci e–n floarea tineretii,
Miresei dulci i–ar da suflarea vietii,
Izbeste–n ziduri vechi, sunînd din valuri.

Ca-n tintirim tãcere e–n cetate.
Preot rãmas din a vechimii zile,
San Marc sinistru miezul noptii bate.

Cu glas adînc, cu graiul de Sibile,
Rosteste lin în clipe cadentate:
"Nu–nvie mortii – e–n zadar, copile!"

Mihai Eminescu, 1883

Translation commentary

Recently, while writing a review of an unsatisfactory anthology of Greek poetry, I had the idea of what we might call stereoscopic translation. Rather than a single version that tries to be an accessible modern poem in our language, there should be more than one version given at a time. As with a pair of photographs we can then get an illusion of 3D – a hologram of the absent poem. One got something like this here and there in the Penguin series Horace [or Ovid or Homer] in English (now alas discontinued and allowed to go out of print). That is what I would like to offer here, if it is permitted.

At first I was thinking like an editor printing together versions by two people, but the same effect can result from multiple versions by one translator: the reader seems to be invited into the poetic space and feel the forces in play as the translator tries to follow the recipe of the original and comes up with slightly different dishes. Such a glimpse into the translator's kitchen or workshop might give a sense of what went on in the original poet's workshop too; it would surely at least sharpen the reader's eye. I hope that my complementary versions of Eminescu's sonnet show that the idea can work. I note that there is a website that puts together the many versions of the Bible, for comparison.

Alistair Elliot