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The Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, second prize

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

Joshua James

Against a Wen

Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
Little wart, begone!

You mustn't make your home here, wart;
You oughtn't start to build your stead.
But north from here a short way, wart,
You'll come athwart a town.

Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
Little boil, begone!

There, sore cyst, you'll find your brother;
He'll fetter you in ferns and reeds.
Wither under wolf's foot, wretch,
And under eagle's feather;
Hang to eagle's claw, rank whelk –
May you wither there forever.

Sputter and fade like a firecoal, wart,
And shrink as ooze shrinks on a wall,
And waste like water in a drum,
And shrivel seed-small,
Less than the
Flea's flank;
Die down to

Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
Little wart, begone!

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Joshua James

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

Against a Wen

Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
hēr ne scealt þū timbrien, ne nēnne tūn habben,
ac þū scealt north eonene tō þān nīhgan berhge,
þēr þū hauest, ermig, ēnne brōþer.
Hē þē sceal legge lēaf et hēafde.
Under fōt wolues, under ueþer earnes,
under earnes clēa, ā þū geweornie.
Clinge þū alswā col ōn heorþe,
scring þū alswā scerne awāge.
and weorne alswā weter on anbre.
Swā litel þu gewurþe alswā līnsētcorn,
and miccli lēsse alswā ānes handwurmes hupebān,
and alswā litel þū gewurþe þet þū nāwiht gewurþe.


Translation commentary

Primary among my reasons for translating this particular poem was that, as with many of the less famous Anglo-Saxon texts, it very rarely sees daylight except in fusty academic texts. Granted it's no controversy to say that a pagan charm has less literary merit than Beowulf, but the poem is still interesting and deserves attention. I haven't made an effort to maintain the alliterative metre of the original (unusually, the original is not particularly strict, especially toward the end), as I felt a more driving, singsong use of metre would make a more comfortable bedfellow for this incantatory charm. I have, though, made sure to include a good deal of alliteration, partly in reference to the form of the original, but also because it makes good poetic sense for a rhythmic, spell-like piece to make something of these drumming repetitions of sound.

I couldn't bear to part with the opening line of the original; it is such a fantastic set of syllables to get the mouth around and captures the chanting folkloric quality of the original so perfectly that it had to stay. I decided to introduce it as part of a refrain – not present in the original, of course, but which I feel helps maintain pace and mood, and makes the most out of the unusual rhyming. The -enne of this line continues to pulse through the original and, being such a strange and exciting thing to see in a poem whose poetic tradition is famed for its stomping alliteration and not its rhyme, it seemed important to make an attempt to retain this chanting effect. Rather than use the -enne of wenne, I used the translated equivalent, the 'ort' of 'wart', which reverberates through the translation, mimicking the original, before self-destructing in the 'naught' of line 22.

Joshua James