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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

Iain Galbraith

Histories: Onesilos

(Herodotus V, 114)

there, see the skull on the city gate –
it starts to buzz at sunrise,
still wearing a vaguely dismayed
grin on what was once a face.

behind it, labour: the swarm's filigree
mechanics in the cranium,
the golden cogwheels of the bees
intermeshed. geranium

and tulip, gladiola and wild poppy –
everything returns, grain by grain,
to the blind beehive until, in its sockets,
the bees' eyes begin to spin.

it's all the same to the young
what once they called him, king or beggar –
all they want is to climb
the sun-warmed tiles, the nectar

he imagines sticky on their hands.
the dance of the bees, his memoriam.
alive, he almost owned a land –
now, in his head, a whole imperium.

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

Historien: Onesilos

(Herodot V, 114)

da oben, der schädel am stadttor,
der mit dem ersten licht zu summen beginnt,
mit dem noch immer leicht verdatter-
ten ausdruck, wo sich ein gesicht befand.

dahinter arbeitet es: die feine
schwarmmechanik im kranium,
die goldenen zahnräder der bienen,
die ineinandergrefen. geranien

und tulpen, wilder mohn und gladiolen –
stück für stück kehrt alles in den blinden
korb zurück, bis in den höhlen
die bienenaugen zu rollen beginnen.

den jungen ist es egal,
wie man ihn nannte, bettler oder könig,
sobald sie über sonnenwarme ziegel
nach oben klettern, der honig,

den er sich ausdenkt, an den händen klebt.
der bienentanz, ein epitaph.
er hatte fast ein land, als er noch lebte.
nun lebt in seinem kopf ein ganzer staat.

Jan Wagner Achtzehn Pasteten ©2007 Berlin Verlag in der Piper Verlag GmbH, Berlin

Translation commentary

Born in 1971 in Hamburg, Jan Wagner is one of the most distinguished poets of his generation. He has published six volumes of poetry, and his work has won several prestigious prizes. 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 poem is based on Herodotus's account of the fate of Onesilos, who usurped his brother's throne and attempted to take over the island of Cyprus. After some initial success Onesilos was defeated and killed, and his head placed on the city gate of Amathus, where bees built a hive in his skull. One word for 'hive' in German is Bienenstaat (bee-state) and Jan Wagner uses the term to magical effect. A literal translation of the closing lines would be: 'he almost had a land when he still lived. / In his head now lives a whole state', with staat assonant with 'epitaph'. The lines play on Onesilos's imperialistic opportunism, and on an annual sacrifice held in his memory: the English translation has sought appropriate alternatives to capture this. The persistent challenge of rhyme and various kinds of half-rhyme was bound to keep the translator on his toes throughout this poem.

Iain Galbraith