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

Open category, first 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

Iain Galbraith

Quince Jelly

when october hung them among the leaves, those
bulging lanterns, then it was time: we picked ripe
quinces, lugged the baskets of yellow bounty
       into the kitchen,

soused the fruits in water. the pears and apples
grew towards their names, to a simple sweetness –
unlike quinces, clinging to branches in some
       shadowy border's

alphabet, obscure in our garden's latin,
tough and foreign in their aroma. we cut,
quartered, cored the flesh (we were four adult hands,
       two somewhat smaller),

veiled by clouds of steam from the blender, poured in
sugar, heat and effort to something that – raw –
made our palates baulk. but then who could, who would
       hope to explain them:

quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on
shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for
harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they
       shone, are still shining.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith
Quince Jelly and Histories: Onesilos will appear in Self-portrait with a Swarm of Bees, a collection of poetry by Jan Wagner to be published by Arc Publications


wenn sie der oktober ins astwerk hängte,
ausgebeulte lampions, war es zeit: wir
pflückten quitten, wuchteten körbeweise
       gelb in die küche

unters wasser. apfel und birne reiften
ihrem namen zu, einer schlichten süße –
anders als die quitte an ihrem baum im
       hintersten winkel

meines alphabets, im latein des gartens,
hart und fremd in ihrem arom. wir schnitten,
viertelten, entkernten das fleisch (vier große
       hände, zwei kleine),

schemenhaft im dampf des entsafters, gaben
zucker, hitze, mühe zu etwas, das sich
roh dem mund versagte, wer konnte, wollte
       quitten begreifen,

ihr gelee, in bauchigen gläsern für die
dunklen tage in den regalen aufge-
reiht, in einem keller von tagen, wo sie
       leuchteten, leuchten.

Jan Wagner

Achtzehn Pasteten (c) 2007 Berlin Verlag
in der Piper Verlag GmbH, Berlin

Translation commentary

Born in 1971 in Hamburg, Jan Wagner is one of the most distinguished and widely read poets of his generation. Typically, his poems combine an unerring instinct for the surprising perspective on events or commonplace objects (plants, animals, landscapes) with a mischievous delight in absurd detail and precarious balance. He is undoubtedly one of the most skilful contemporary German poets, confronting his translator with a challenging array of sonnets, sestinas, villanelles and Sapphics. Wagner is a vigilant yet playful chronicler of the quotidian, his meticulous handling of image and sound forging a sensuous, almost luminous palpability. Intensely curious, constantly attentive to the unanticipated possibilities afforded by the corset of traditional forms, his poems are nonetheless primarily a celebration of what he has called 'our steaming, glowing, odorous, noisy world'.

The most obvious difficulty faced by the translator of 'Quittenpastete' – a radiantly alluring celebration of domestic family delight – is its strict adherence to the Sapphic stanza form. This is used as rarely in German as in English, and anyone who has faced its complex challenges will know why. Modern English Sapphics are rendered in accentual metre, determined by the stress on a syllable rather than its length, as was the case in Ancient Greek, and the three Sapphic lines, followed by the shorter 'Adonic', are built on a precise sequence of trochees and dactyls, with some flexibility permitted on the free fourth syllable, the 'syllaba anceps', and on the final syllable. The task I set myself was to explore the rich potential of this ancient metre, following its drive syllable for syllable, yet seeking to match it with a flow that is natural enough in English to suggest that no word has been inserted primarily for metrical effect.

Iain Galbraith