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

Judges’ comments

Read the winning entries
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2014 competition by Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall,
WN Herbert and Stephen Romer

Susan Bassnett

All good things eventually have to come to an end, and this is my final year as a judge of this wonderful prize. Once again we have some exceptional winners, though the quality of so many of the entries made it hard to decide on the final shortlist and not everything we liked as individuals made it through to the final cut. On my personal list were Conor McKee's extract from 'The Battle of Maldon', Alicia Mason's version of Rilke's 'Herbsttag' and Adam Elgar's translations from Tasso and Ariosto. It is surely a sign of the extent to which poetry translation is flourishing when judges have so many fine poems from which to choose.

When this prize was initiated, one of the aims was to encourage young people to try their hand at translating poetry, and the number of entrants under the age of 18 is genuinely heartening. I was impressed by one 14-year-old who wrote an account of how he came to choose a poem to translate: he read last year's winning entries, decided to have a go himself, then went to a Routes into Languages seminar where he discovered Goethe. In his comment he admits to having had problems with the language (he had had only two years of German), but used dictionaries and tried to keep the format of the poem, though 'I edited it to make more sense'. Most importantly, he writes about how much he enjoyed translating the poem. This is something that many entrants mention in their comments and which is vital to the continuing success of all poetry in translation.
The range of languages and varieties of poetry seemed to me to be greater than ever this year, and it is interesting to see how many translations there were of ancient languages – Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Old Irish, classical Chinese – which shows that translators of all ages are keen to take on the double challenge of translating across languages and across time.

Compared to previous years, there seemed to be more songs translated, hence more experimenting with sounds and rhythms. A number of translators wrote about their struggles with rhymes and rhythms as they tried to map one poetic system onto another. There were some interesting experiments with language variation, such as Galician into Cumbrian or Irish Gaelic into Cockney English, the latter being a tribute to the translator's grandfather. Indeed, many translators of all ages wrote movingly about how they saw their translation as a gift for someone, for a loved person alive or dead.

Translating poetry is not easy, because it requires different kinds of skills. The translator has to be able to understand the original poem, and then has to be able to create a poem of quality in English. Sometimes as judges we encounter good poems that are not necessarily good translations, while we also encounter translations that are so close to the original that they fail to work as English poems. Getting the balance right is crucial, and to achieve that it is often necessary for the translator to do some additional research. It is certainly necessary for would-be translators to read the work of poets in whatever language, so as to have a greater sense of what a poem can do. The winning entries in all categories produced fine poems that are also fine translations, thereby demonstrating an understanding of the possibilities of poetry.

Edith Hall

It was a liberation this year to retreat from the dismal violence of the headlines into my August ritual of reading out new translations of poetry from around the world. It was noticeable how many entrants were translating poems which reflected the turmoil, especially in the Middle East and Africa.

There were fewer dazzling entries in the Open category this year, despite many tens of well-crafted efforts. I enjoyed Paul Stapleton's nostalgic 'Raven-Rags' (an anonymous Irish poem), an extract from one of the oldest recorded poems, Gilgamesh, by Stewart Sanderson, and an intricate, resonant response to Aimé Césaire's French-Caribbean dialect in Chris Beckett's 'The Verb "to Maroonaway"'.

The judges took little time to agree on the winner, Iain Galbraith. His translations from the Hamburg poet Jan Wagner convey Wagner's sensuality, mastery of form, and laser-eye for detail, while converting the whole into idiomatic English poetry. From the medieval Welsh of Dafydd ap Gwilym, we were blown away by the aural delicacy and soft vowels of Gwyneth Lewis' 'The Wind'. And the droll exasperation of Martial, a Spaniard writing Latin verse in imperial Rome, was translated with zest and skill by Robert Hull. We have all encountered narcissistic poetasters like the Ligurnus Martial lambasts in epigram 3.44, a versifier so importunate that he shouts his poems even through his victims' bathroom doors.
2014 is a bumper year for translations from ancient Greek and Latin. In the Open category I was treated to two fine, cerebral versions of my favourite Latin philosophical poet, Lucretius; Emma Gee's was excellent. There were intricate responses to Callimachus' Hecale and 'Hymn to Delos', Horace at his wittiest in the Satires and most lyrical in his Odes, a deft Anacreon, an eloquent Sappho, and a racy Propertius. One Catullus spoke like a character in EastEnders. Several extracts from Homeric and Virgilian epic were praiseworthy, as were attempts at all three Greek tragedians. Lucian Moriyama's fragments from Petronius came as a breath of fresh air.

Many teenagers shone this year, but the prizewinners were immediately obvious. I was deeply touched by Sam Norman's lovingly crafted, lyrical version of the sequence in the Iliad when Andromache hears the news that her husband Hector is dead, and delighted that Homer has won a Spender prize, yet again.

One of the secrets of success in this competition lies in the choice of the original poem. Strong form seems to offer more potential for transformation into a successful English-language poem than discursive, looser rhythmical structures. Entrants could be braver about the verse forms they translate into – there is no reason why a prose poem can't become a plausible sonnet. Concise, vivid dramatic vignettes with a unifying motif – Neruda and Cavafy – seem to morph effortlessly from one tongue to another, while excerpts from longer poems need to be carefully selected for their internal, organic cohesion. In his Poetics Aristotle called this the principles of the hen combined with the holon – the single and the whole. Spender Prize winners have always intuitively grasped it.

WN Herbert

I was astonished by the range of work translated in the 14- and-under category – a tribute both to the quality of their teachers and the curiosity of these young translators – and found much that was both unexpected and delightful.

Sometimes this was a single phrase: 'The shes, like bees, / The hes, like fleas' (Maurice Carême, translated by Oliver West). Sometimes it was a whole poem finding solutions for a complex original, as in Krishnan Mulholland's version of Raymond Queneau's 'Le Travail Continu' – the strangeness of 'In the shadow of the word cart' compelled me to read on. Among the 18s-and-under, it was clear we were in the presence of a few prodigies, and I was especially engaged by Joshua James's way with Anglo-Saxon, which allowed the musical and magical elements of the original charms to emerge through subtle repetition and rhythmic sureness: 'Sputter and fade like a firecoal, wart, / And shrink as ooze shrinks on a wall…'

What particularly impressed me about Sam Norman's translation was the selection of a passage from Homer which worked perfectly as a contained episode, which was then subjected to a virtuoso recasting into quintains rhyming ABAAB. This was done so seamlessly I was left with no doubt about the winner in this category.

One other piece well worth mentioning before I move on from the under 18s is a strong example of something I encountered again and again in the adult category. 'A Rose for My Mainstay' (Hilde Domin, translated by Henner Petin) was a perfect example of the unknown (to me) original which compelled by the elegance of its English: 'on the trapeze of feelings, my bed / floats like a nest in the wind'.
In the main category my curiosity frequently overwhelmed me with authors either new to me, or only familiar as a name or a vague memory. Eeva Kilpi's 'When I Come Home', translated by Donald Adamson, had a mysterious chill to it: 'When I come home / I have to gather the dead around me / and tell them where I have been'. While 'Analogia' by Magnus William-Olsson, translated by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, had an assured, unique tone – puzzling, metaphysical: 'Isn't the song always see-through? / Words never.'

Ultimately, though, it was the strong sense of an appropriate level of craft being sought out and achieved, of a commanding syntactic subtlety being brought to bear, which convinced me of my final shortlist. Gwyneth Lewis's virtuosic, controlled yet euphoric translation of Dafydd ap Gwilym, appropriately enough in a poem called 'The Wind', blew me away.

And amazingly, unbeknown to me, my favourite two discoveries, Jan Wagner and Peter Waterhouse, were both translated by the same poet, Iain Galbraith. The measured sensuous metrics of Wagner and the post-Rilkean, witty ecstasies of Waterhouse were equally impressive, and I could have put forward any of these submissions as my winner: after all, who should have to choose between quince jelly and the motionless bursting of apples?

Stephen Romer

To translate a poem is to dance in chains, as Paul Valéry put it, but this year's winners more than rose to the challenge. The winner of the 14-and-under category, Alexia Sloane, achieved a beautifully fluid rendering of a poem by the little-known Belgian poet of the Belle Epoque, Jean Dominique (real name, Marie Closset). This version came with a particularly attractive (and moving) commentary which admitted ruefully that reproducing the original rhyme scheme was unworkable in English. An intricate rhyme scheme in the source text is one of the first things an experienced translator learns to jettison. In the same category I was pleased that I persuaded my fellow judges to commend Weronika Lewandowska's version of Szymborska's 'Museum', after a lively discussion concerning the meaning of the final stanza! Among those who did not quite gain sufficient support for a commendation, I would single out Amber Rothera's version of Rubén Darío's 'Eheu', and Talya Al-Husseini's nicely brisk account of La Fontaine's 'The Cicada and the Ant'.
The 18-and-under category was marked, naturally enough, by a leap in levels of sophistication. Immediately attractive to me was Rosemary Brooke-Hart's audacious and witty take on Ronsard's sonnet 'Vous estes dejà vieille', with its arresting start: 'Age hangs on you like sawdust hangs on velcro – / light, but irremovable…' and the inventiveness sustained throughout to the final 'stripped of its mask, your face is snowdrop-pure'. This was an example of 'versioning' (there were others) – ie when radical liberties are taken with the form and content of the source text – that worked because it remains above all tonally true to the original. The commentary appended to this was also illuminating, as it charts the move towards free translation, and the role of happenstance, 'when I was writing the snowdrops were just coming out'… Joint third with the Ronsard was Esther Sorooshian's daring unpacking of Francis Ponge's dense prose poem 'The Frog'; her decision to cast it in the form of a poem, while it might have vexed the poet, found universal favour with the judges. Anna Tindall's commended version of Erich Kästner's brilliantly acerbic, and topical, 'Hymn to the Bankers', very nearly won a prize but for the last lines that did not quite carry the requisite punch of the original, essential to clinch a strongly rhymed, emphatic poem like this. Joshua James's Anglo-Saxon charm poem 'Against a Wen' came through strongly in second place, while Sam Norman's astonishingly mature and accomplished translation of the Andromache section of the Iliad was our undisputed winner.
Quality shines through and this was the case with Iain Galbraith's versions of the contemporary German poet Jan Wagner, any one of which could have won first prize in the Open category. We decided upon 'Quince Jelly', not only for its radiant celebration of that mysterious fruit, but for the translator's brilliant handling in English of the Sapphic metre. Translation at its subtlest is an art of listening, and Galbraith provides a marvellous counterpoint in English to the luscious consonantal clusters of the German. The same translator emerged in the commended section with a version of Peter Waterhouse's intriguing, innovative 'The Motionless Bursting of Apples'. After some discussion, and re-reading, the equally subtle music of Dafydd ap Gwilym's medieval Welsh cynghanedd in 'The Wind' came clear. A fiendishly difficult form, handled with great sensitivity and lightness of touch by Gwyneth Lewis. Everyone enjoyed Robert Hull's thoroughly entertaining, knockabout version of a Martial epigram, which came in third.

German came through strongly as the language of choice this year, and Ian Crockatt's majestic Rilkes were all worthy of commendation. Still on the musical theme, I especially enjoyed Olivia McCannon's sensitive responses to the varying rhythms of Guy Goffette on his 'February Bike Ride'. Honourable mention also goes to Michael Copp's Voznesensky, David McCallam's energetic André Chénier, various versions of Else Lasker-Schüler, Chiara Salomoni's take on Silvio Ramat's subtle take on Leopardi, and Patrick Early's noble Machado, 'By the Banks of the Duero'. I was charmed, too, by Kevin Maynard's creative transposition of Leopardi's Canto xiii into the key of a conversation poem by Coleridge.