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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

Rosemary Brook-Hart

Age Hangs on You

Age hangs on you like sawdust hangs on velcro –
light, but irremovable – and I am
as you (older, maybe? memory baulks
at counting quicksand years). If we can join
our sawdust-weight of age,
let's make a spring
let's make it grow
hear the pale shoots as they push lightwards through the
ice-hard soil of winter, watch
the first
drops –
purer than those showy roses that lined
the lanes where we once walked – cast eyes in all
the ditches, thickets, under hedges, seeking
the light-print of those first white buds
as they kiss open, slowly hatching,
lifting like wings to fly at summer's threatening –
and I still don't feel old. So am I, then?
Must age give in to agedness, or can
a man tie new cords, slough his wrinkled skin
and with the carousel of wheeling years be young again?
A time-scarred face, two breasts sagging and limp,
no scalpel-blade, no collagen can cure.
The gentle bend of swan-wings maps your back's curve –
stripped of its mask, your face is snowdrop-pure.

Translated from the French by Rosemary Brook-Hart

Vous estes dejà vieille

Vous estes dejà vieille, et je le suis aussi.
Joignon nostre vieillesse et l'accollon ensemble,
Et faison d'un hyver qui de froidure tremble,
Autant que nous pourrons, un printemps adouci.

Un homme n'est point vieil s'il ne le croit ainsi ;
Vieillard n'est qui ne veut ; qui ne veut, il assemble
Une nouvelle trame à sa vieille, et ressemble
Un serpent rajeuni quand l'an retourne ici.

Ostez moy de ce fard l'impudente encrousture :
On ne sçauroit tromper la loy de la nature
Ny derider un front condamné du miroir,

Ni durcir un tetin desjà pendant et flasque.
Le Temps de vostre face arrachera le masque,
Et deviendray un cygne en lieu d'un corbeau noir.

Pierre de Ronsard

Translation commentary

For various reasons, last year I ended up focusing my Extended Project Qualification on Ronsard and how he wrote about ageing, which is how I came across this poem. Unlike many of his other pieces, written to please his sponsors, it seemed honest and unforced. It stuck in my head, and I knew the only way to get it out was to translate it.

The first problem was the meaning. Because of his slightly relaxed attitude to spelling and the paucity of information on the poem, I was left unsure as to the subject of the final line, 'Et deviendray un cygne…' The 'ay' ending, and the fact that both birds referred to are masculine, suggest that Ronsard is talking about himself, but in the context of the previous line, 'Le Temps de vostre face…' it would make more sense for the subject to be his (female) addressee, and as 'devienday' and 'deviendrez' are homophonic it seemed possible that the 'ay' ending was an error. I opted for the latter interpretation, as it also makes the poem feel less egocentric.

I then tried to translate the poem literally and sticking more or less to the original form, but this got me nowhere. I resorted to writing freely with the original poem in the back of my mind. I found that my translation settled into ten-syllable lines, which seemed more natural in English than Ronsard's twelve syllables. I also found myself building on the idea of spring. When I was writing the snowdrops were just coming out; they contrasted with the roses that are everywhere in Ronsard's earlier love poetry – renewal instead of carpe diem. I also had in mind the verb éclore, which means both to hatch and to bloom.

Rosemary Brook-Hart