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

18-and-under category, 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

Henner Petin

A Rose for My Mainstay

I set up my room in the air
among acrobats, among birds:
on the trapeze of feelings, my bed
floats like a nest in the wind,
a nest far out on the tip of a twig.

I buy a blanket of the delicate wool
of sheep that stride
(a softcomb parting on their backs)
like glimmering clouds
over the moonlit firm earth.

I close my eyes and wrap myself
in the standfast creatures' fleece.
Let me feel the sand beneath my little hooves
and let me hear the bar 'click'
when at close of day the barn is locked.

But rocked high in emptiness, lying in feathers,
I am dizzy. I do not fall asleep.
My hand,
in hope to find balance, grasps
a rose for my mainstay.

Translated from the German by Henner Petin

Nur eine Rose als Stütze

Ich richte mir ein Zimmer ein in der Luft
unter den Akrobaten und Vögeln:
mein Bett auf dem Trapez des Gefühls
wie ein Nest im Wind
auf der äußersten Spitze des Zweigs.

Ich kaufe mir eine Decke aus der zartesten Wolle
der sanftgescheitelten Schafe die
im Mondlicht
wie schimmernde Wolken
über die feste Erde ziehen.

Ich schließe die Augen und hülle mich ein
in das Vlies der verlässlichen Tiere.
Ich will den Sand unter den kleinen hufen spüren
und das Klicken des Riegels hören,
der die Stalltür am Abend schließt.

Aber ich liege in Vogelfedern, hoch ins Leere gewiegt.
Mir schwindelt. Ich schlafe nicht ein.
Meine Hand
greift nach einem Halt und findet
nur eine Rose als Stütze.

by Hilde Domin

© S. Fischer Verlag

Translation commentary

I came across this poem by Hilde Domin while writing a literary commentary on it as a practice exam and I was fascinated by the wide range of possible interpretations for the metaphors used and afterwards a few expressions stuck in my head. I believe the key idea to be the incompatibility of aesthetic lightness – the 'Rose' – and firm support – the 'mainstay'.

I kept the poem's loose format without a fixed rhyme scheme and metre, which brings the focus to the imagery that Domin uses. The two main ideas that I saw being developed in the original are the lightness and freedom of birds, acrobats and air as opposed to the firmness and security of the blanket and the sheep on the earth. I attempted to replicate these two ideas as closely to the original as possible rather than keeping the meaning of each particular line in order.

One particular image I was intrigued by was the comparison of clouds and sheep, in which Domin reverses the cliché of looking up to clouds in awe by associating clouds with sheep striding on the firm earth. I felt that this expresses the persona's longing for security particularly well.

A rather difficult bit in the translation was the neologism sanftgescheitelt. I greatly enjoyed reading Hopkins in my English classes, so I attempted to imitate his style of neologism in 'softcomb'. I thought it was important to keep the new compound word very simple so that it would match the natural tone of the poem. The translation of Stütze was also tricky and I decided for mainstay, because although rather different to Stütze it combines the literal idea of a strong mast and the figurative meaning of offering support.

Henner Petin