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

Open 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


Ian Crockatt

The Bowl of Roses

(after Rainer Maria Rilke)

You've seen how anger flares, seen two boys
bunch to a ball of hatred
and roll about on the Earth
like a brute maddened by bees; and worse –
those over-actors, giant toppling horses
with traumatised eyes and peeled back lips
so engrossed in their grimaces they'd have you believe
they'll vomit their own skulls out through their teeth.

But now all that is forgotten because
a bowl full of roses stands before us, unforgettably
brimming with extremes –
of existence, of essence, of offering up,
of gifting beyond what can be given
or what we might be gifted, of the utmost we can be.

A still life, forever expanding, a
space which does not take space from the space
its neighbours diminish; almost
without substance, all pure inwardness,
a tender strange nowhere-ness self-lit
from the unseen core to the almost-not-there rim;
have we ever known anything like it?

Did you know that sensation can be discerned
when petal touches petal? Or that each opens
like an eye and under its lid another lid lies,
and more shut tight under that, as if by ten times
multiplying the power of sleep the power
of inner seeing can be curbed? And above all,
this: that the light which must pass through
each petal is not light? One drop of darkness
distilled from a thousand skies is crushed
till it glows like fire and illuminates
the seeth of erectile stamens – look, flame-like, so live.

But still – the gestures of a rose
are so infinitesimally small they can only be felt,
would pass unseen except that they ripple
out in arcs to fill the universe.

[...]

Friend, what can't they be? The intense yellow
of that discarded one might once have been
that very yellow in a plump fruit's rind, juice –
enriched, yellow-vermilion even, almost-red.
And was blossoming too much
for this one's pink? Did simply breathing air
give it lilac's bitter after-taste?
And that one, of cambric – that dress
to which the shift still clings, as delicate, as warm, as breath –
were they not gladly abandoned
to dawn and shadow beside the bough-hung pool?

And this other one, this opalescent cup,
this shallow porcelain vessel
brimming with gaudy butterflies;
and this, scarcely containing itself –

yes, all of them somehow containing themselves,
if self-containing can mean transforming the world
of rain and wind and spring's resilience
of guilt and restlessness and obscure destinies
of evening's darkness across the earth
and the fantastic voyaging clouds
and the influences of far imploding stars,
into one handful of inwardness:

which lies, carefree now, in these open roses.

Translated from the German by Ian Crockatt
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Die Rosenschale


Zornige sahst du flackern, sahst zwei Knaben
zu einem Etwas sich zusammenballen,
das Haß war und sich auf der Erde wälzte
wie ein von Beinen ϋberfallnes Tier;
Schauspieler, aufgetϋrmte Übertrieber,
rasende Pferde, die zusammenbrachen,
den Blick wegwerfend, bläkend das Gebiß
als schälte sich der Schädel aus dem Maule.

Nun aber weißt du, wie sich das vergißt:
denn vor dir steht die volle Rosenschale,
die unvergeßlich ist und angefϋllt
mit jenem Äußersten von Sein und Neigen,
Hinhalten, Niemals-Gebenkönnen, Dastehn,
das unser sein mag: Äußerstes auch uns.

Lautloses Leben, Aufgehn ohne Ende,
Raum-brauchen ohne Raum von jenem Raum
zu nehmen, den die Dinge rings verringern,
fast nicht Umrissen-sein wie Ausgepartes
und lauter Inneres, viel seltsam Zartes
und Sich-bescheinendes – bis an den Rand:
ist irgend etwas uns bekannt wie dies?

Und dann wie dies: daß ein Gefϋhl entsteht,
weil Blϋttenblätter Blϋttenblätter rϋhren?
Und dies; daß eins sich aufschlägt wie ein Lid,
und drunter liegen lauter Augenlider,
geschlossene, als ob sie, zehnfach schlafend,
zu dämpfen hätten eines Innern Sehkraft.
Und dies vor allem: daß durch diese Blätter
das Licht hindurch muß. Aus den tausend Himmeln
filtern sie langsam jenen Tropfen Dunkel,
in dessen Feuerschein das wirre Bϋndel
der Staubgefäße sich erregt und aufbäumt.

Und die Bewegung in der Rosen, sieh:
Gebärden von so kleinem Ausschlagswinkel,
daß sie unsichtbar blieben, liefen ihre
Strahlen nicht auseinander in das Weltall.

[...]

Was können sie night sein: war jene gelbe,
die hohl und offen daliegt, nicht die Schale
von einer Frucht, darin dasselbe Gelb,
gesammelter, orangeröter, Saft war?
Und wars fϋr diese schon zu viel, das Aufgehn,
weil an der Luft ihr namenloses Rosa
den bittern Nachgeschmack des Lila annahm?
Und die batistene, ist sie kein Kleid,
in dem noch zart und atemwarm das Hemd steckt,
mit dem zugleich es abgeworfen wurde
im Morgenschatten an dem alten Waldbad?

Und diese hier, opalnes Porzellan,
zerbrechlich, eine flache Chinatasse
und angefϋllt mit kleinen hellen Faltern, -
und jene da, die nichts enthält als sich.

Und sind nicht alle so, nur sich enthaltend,
wenn Sich-enthalten heißt: die Welt da draußen
und Wind und Regen und Geduld des Frϋhlings
und Schuld und Unruh und vermummtes Schicksal
und Dunkelheit der abendlichen Erde
bis auf der Wolken Wandel, Flucht und Anflug,
bis auf den vagen Einfluß ferner Sterne
in eine Hand voll Innres zu verwandeln.

Nun liegt es sorglos in den offen Rosen.

Rainer Maria Rilke
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Translation commentary


In Rilke's poetry transformation, the movement between inner and outer worlds is a constant theme, and this poem not only charts the process of transformation but enacts it. The clarity and horror of his description of the horse's head turning inside out – transforming itself – is followed by vivid extended description of the roses as both real sensual objects and as ethereal beyond-this-world entities. There is constant movement between sensation and spiritualised experience, close observation of what's physically present, and a heightened understanding of what might lie beyond it. Things, roses in this case, are by the end of this extract entirely transformed and trans-formative too, though it is in the second half of the poem, for which there was not space here, that they achieve their wonderfully vivid physical fullness and sensuality.

Rilke achieves his most far-reaching effects by grounding them in the here-and-now – he addresses the reader as 'you', and, in the second half of the poem, as 'friend'. We are part of a conversation, the poem purports to be an exchange between intelligences, his and the reader's, in much the same way as the act of translating it is for the translator seeking ways of capturing Rilke's inimitable mix of the concrete and the ineffable.

I think that finding equivalents for the original's sounds and imaginative reach, for its physical and emotional presence, is helped by paying close attention to its forms and linguistic procedures as well as to the content. I try to create similar rhythms and colours and pace as Rilke's, to use internal rhyme, assonance and dissonance as he does; to be as particular about – even obsessive about – sound and repetition, as he is. While the 'I' of the translator's approach and personality, and of his/her culture, is always present, the finer the linguistic mesh through which the imaginative response in another language is filtered, the more chance it has of netting the original poet's voice too.

Ian Crockatt