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

18-and-under category, joint third prize

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

Esther Sorooshian

The Frog

As sharp needles of rain
Bounce from bloated meadows,
A dwarf amphibian,
A one-handed Ophelia,
Barely a fistful, unclenching,
Flings herself from the foot of the poet

Into the next pond.
Unpin her –
She's highly strung,
Her long limbs – such pretty legs –
In the rubber glove of her skin –
No meat on them; lithe
With a grace I've seldom seen
In fish or fowl. Like mercury,

She slips through my fingers.
Her fat, beating heart.
Her shrivelled eyelids,
And drooping mouth
Move me to let her go.

Translated from the French by Esther Sorooshian

Vous estes dejà vieille

Lorsque la pluie en courtes aiguillettes rebondit aux prés saturés, une naine amphibie, une Ophélie manchote, grosse à peine comme le poing, jaillit parfois sous les pas du poète et se jette au prochain étang.

Laissons fuir la nerveuse. Elle a de jolies jambes. Tout son corps est ganté de peau imperméable. A peine viande ses muscles longs sont d'une élégance ni chair ni poisson. Mais pour quitter les doigts la vertu du fluide s'allie chez elle aux efforts du vivant. Goitreuse, elle halète… Et ce cœur qui bat gros, ces paupières ridées, cette bouche hagarde m'apitoyant à la lâcher.

Francis Ponge

Reproduced by kind permission of Editions Gallimard

Translation commentary

I think that Ponge is using the analogy of capturing a frog to express the difficulty poets have when translating from nature. Despite the irony that within the poem the narrator doesn't succeed in capturing the frog, Ponge himself perfectly captures its supple and flickering vitality. I decided it would be an interesting poem to further translate, to see if the frog could undergo another metamorphosis and yet be preserved within another language without being rendered disfigured or untrue. The unearthed frog is described as a 'one-handed Ophelia', and I used the word 'unclenching' to follow this hand imagery and show how the poet believes he can grip the hand she's unclenched for him; melt her, feel her flow – as if by alchemy – into the new medium of words. I used the clumsy image of a rubber glove to show how translation isn't as simple as this, from nature or poetry, and how she cannot be ignored or disembodied as a handshake that transacts the life within her; she, or the poem, slides like mercury to retain her original form.

The Ophelia reference suggests that poor translation could prevent the poem from being 'a creature native and indued unto that element', the new element being the English language, but would drown, dragged 'to muddy death' by the weight of stilted words as Ophelia was by her garments. I loosened and scattered the structure to reflect the erratic movement of a frog and placed 'into the next pond' in a second stanza to reinforce her '[flinging] herself' in a slightly gimmicky way. I tried to emphasise the poet's desire to pin her down and admire her, patronisingly observing how she is 'highly strung', with 'pretty legs' which, coupled with the domestic imagery of needles and rubber gloves, introduces a sexist tone.

Esther Sorooshian