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The Stephen Spender Prize 2015 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, third prize

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Maud Mullan

Epigram 64: A Lament at the Door (A.P. v. 23.)

Sleep like this
In the ice bath of evening,
Head heavy on the hard porch
Where you have left me.
I curse you, sweet lover, I curse
You, lying in the shuttered house.
Sleep like this! Nothing is crueller
Than you. Live how you
Have made me live.

Is forgiveness foreign to you?
No dream of pity stirs
Your hair in the darkness.
The neighbours passing
To and from their lamp-lit gardens
Lower their eyes – oh such
A miserable sight! No,
Not even a dream disturbs you.

I sleep this way, the cold
Like the flat of the steel blade
On my cheek. I curse
You with this.
Suddenly, at your mirror
You will pull white hairs
From the polished brush.
They will warn you
Of all my pain.

Translated from the Ancient Greek by Maud Mullan

The original Ancient Greek may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem and commentary, click here (opens in new window).

A.P. v. 23.

οὕτως ὑπνώσαις, Κωνώπιον, ὡς ἐμὲ ποιεῖς
κοιμᾶσθαι ψυχροῖς τοῖσδε παρὰ προθύροις.
οὕτως ὑπνώσαις, ἀδικωτάτη, ὡς τὸν ἐραστὴν
κοιμίζεις, ἐλέου δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὄναρ ἠντίασας.
γείτονες οἰκτείρουσι, σὺ δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὄναρ. ἡ πολιὴ δὲ
αὐτίκ᾽ ἀναμνήσει ταῦτά σε πάντα κόμη.


Translation commentary

I started reading Callimachus in response to my Greek and Latin studies. He is one of the few Ancient Greek poets whose works survive in completed form and I was interested to see how his work had influenced the later Roman authors with whom I was more familiar. What could have been a dry afternoon in the library became an engrossing one once I discovered that much of Callimachus' extant work consists of epigrams – some pithy, some funny, others mournful, but all of them in beautifully constructed Greek, and, what's more, short enough for one to translate in one sitting and have a complete result.

Greek holds most of its meaning in verbs, something often hard to convey in English, which is syntactically weak and relies on word order and a wide vocabulary to convey subtleties of meaning. Like Latin, techniques that Greek uses to influence meaning in poetry are hard to recreate in English. Emphatic word order is often impossible, and techniques such as repetition, polyptoton and alliteration, which Callimachus uses here to great effect, sound awkward and dull in English.

In translating Epigram 64, I found it difficult to convey the repeated phrases in English without it being clumsy, as well as struggling with the subtleties of words that, by nature of an epigram, are minimalist, but need more expression to create the same sense in English. Therefore I ended up with a three-stanza poem – longer than the original, but, I hope, staying closer to the sense than I otherwise could have.

Callimachus' epigram is written in elegiac couplets, a quantitative verse form that does not lend itself to English. Therefore I have chosen instead to use free verse in three nine-line stanzas, focusing on conveying the sense of the poem rather than being constricted by metre.

Maud Mullan