• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, commended

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

Ben Williams

The Killing Game

I've seen the casual flame of the killing game
illuminate the night with indiscriminate aim.
The same old story flashes back through history.
Cheques are written blank when bankrupt governments and banks
send troops of paper tigers marching to defend the dove.
Sacrificial symbols illustrate a lack of love.
The Sleeper in the Valley is not sleeping anymore.
He is dead, body rigid, red holes pierce his core.

I've seen the casual flame of the killing game
in Vietnam, where napalm burns with bare-naked shame.
The force of scientific logic is unquestionable
but science without conscience is unconscionable.
It adores the moral vacuum, sucking up to sponsors' needs,
as it heeds the call of progress (paying no heed where that leads).

I've seen the casual flame of the killing game
fall to ground, through springtime air, in Tiananmen Square.
The fragile buds of freedom scatter, shrivelled and broken,
like the dove, whose voice of peace is seldom heard spoken.
Rhetoric and empty words kill innocent youth.
Politics imprisons those who dare tell the truth.
Guernica, The Art of War, Picasso's lament.
Canvases of still-blank lives still being misspent.

Translated from the French by Ben Williams

La concubine de l'hémoglobine

J'ai vu la concubine de l'hémoglobine
balancer des rafales de balles normales et faire des victimes
dans les rangs des descendants d'Adam.
C'est accablant, troublant, ce ne sont pas des balles à blanc.
On envoie des pigeons défendre la colombe
qui avancent comme des pions défendre des bombes.
Le Dormeur du Val ne dort pas.
Il est mort et son corps est rigide et froid.

J'ai vu la concubine de l'hémoglobine
chez le Viêt Minh au Viêtnam sous forme de mines et de napalm
parce que la science nous balance sa science.
Science sans conscience égal science de l'inconscience.
Elle se fout du progrès mais souhaite la progression
de tous les processus qui mènent à l'élimination.

J'ai vu la concubine de l'hémoglobine,
morne comme l'automne un printemps en Chine.
Ça s'est assez passé, assez gâché, cassé, la porcelaine de peine
qu'est la colombe de paix.
L'art de la guerre tue de jeunes bambins.
L'oeuvre de King Song-Man reste sur sa faim.
La guerre niqua Guernica et comme le pique-assiette
Picasso la repiqua.

MC Solaar

Translation commentary

I have always admired the work of MC Solaar and in this translation I wanted to try and capture as much of his linguistic verve as possible, whilst still retaining the strength of his original message. I have prioritised rhyme, internal rhyme and wordplay (ie fall/spring, vacuum/sucking up) above other considerations, so the result is not a strict line-by-line translation.

The main challenge I found with this translation was the metre. The source poem was delivered as a spoken-word rap in its original format and there is a great deal of rhythmical variation from line to line. It was difficult to find a consistent metre that would allow it to flow smoothly as a written piece. Ultimately, I just tried to keep the same number of metrical feet in each rhyming couplet. There are three lines which do not form part of a rhyming couplet and, in each case, these lines have their own internal rhyme instead.

I have only translated the first three verses as I feel this concentrates the message and allows the poem to end on a strong note. I was tempted to set the last four lines apart as a separate verse in order to emphasise the change in metre and to allow them to act more clearly as an overall summary or 'envoi'. However, I did not want to break the symmetry of having eight lines followed by six lines followed by eight lines.

On the question of whether a song lyric can qualify under the rules as a 'published poem', I would simply argue that a) it was published and b) yes, to me, this particular piece of work constitutes poetry.

Ben Williams