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

18-and-under 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

Chloe Taylor

Despair Is Seated on a Bench

In a square, on a bench,
There is a man who calls you as you pass.
He wears spectacles and an old grey suit,
He smokes a small cigar – he is seated.
And he calls you as you pass,
Or simply,
He gives you a wave.

You must not look at him,
You must not listen to him,
You must pass by
As if you have not seen him,
As if you have not heard him.
You must pass by,
Quickening your pace.

If you look at him,
If you listen to him he beckons you
And no one can prevent you from going to sit beside him.
So he looks at you and smiles
And you suffer terribly,
And the man continues smiling,
And you smile the same smile,

The more you smile the more you suffer,
The more you suffer the more you smile,
And you stay there, rooted to the spot,
Smiling on the bench.
Children play close by to you,
Passers-by pass by,

Birds fly away, leaving one tree for another.
And you stay there – on the bench.
And you know you know
That you will no longer play
Like these children.
You know that you will no longer pass by calmly
Like these passers-by.

That you will no longer fly away,
Leaving one tree for another,
Like these birds.

Translated from the French by Chloe Taylor

Le désespoir est assis sur un banc

Dans un square sur un banc
Il y a un homme qui vous appelle quand on passe
Il a des binocles un vieux costume gris
Il fume un petit ninas il est assis
Et il vous appelle quand on passe
Ou simplement il vous fait signe
Il ne faut pas le regarder
Il ne faut pas l'écouter
Il faut passer
Faire comme si on ne le voyait pas
Comme si on ne l'entendait pas
Il faut passer presser le pas
Si vous le regardez
Si vous l'écoutez
Il vous fait signe et rien personne
Ne peut vous empêcher d'aller vous asseoir près de lui
Alors il vous regarde et sourit
Et vous souffrez attrocement
Et l'homme continue de sourire
Et vous souriez du même sourire
Plus vous souriez plus vous souffrez
Plus vous souffrez plus vous souriez
Et vous restez là
Assis figé
Souriant sur le banc
Des enfants jouent tout près de vous
Des passants passent
Des oiseaux s'envolent
Quittant un arbre
Pour un autre
Et vous restez là
Sur le banc
Et vous savez vous savez
Que jamais plus vous ne jouerez
Comme ces enfants
Vous savez que jamais plus vous ne passerez
Comme ces passants
Que jamais plus vous ne vous envolerez
Quittant un arbre pour un autre
Comme ces oiseaux.

Jacques Prévert

Translation commentary

Born in 1900, Jacques Prévert's childhood coincided with the innovation of cinema; his fascination with the visual quality of poetry is extremely prominent in 'Le désespoir est assis sur un banc' as he uses cinematographic techniques to bring a snapshot of the everyday to life. At first glance, Prévert creates a still-image which gives the poem a photographic effect, yet this transforms into a silent film full of natural, liberating movement.

My primary reason for translating this poem was to discover whether I could bring this deeply emotional moment to life in English as concisely and delicately as Prévert does in French. Prévert wrote with simplicity and greatly economised on words so as to allow the situation and characters to speak for themselves; however, this immense modesty and brevity of the language posed obstacles in translation. Absolutely no word is superfluous, thus it was imperative that my own translation was not only exact, but included the same nuances of the original.

I decided to translate 'assis figé' to 'rooted to the spot' to enhance the poem's almost colloquial voice. My translation attempts to balance the direct and simple nature of the language with the expression and sensitivity behind the words themselves; therefore, I chose to honour the imagistic nature of the poem through versification. By versifying the poem, I hope to show the contrast of each frame and moment to reflect the progression of the poem and change in atmosphere.

Written in free verse there is a story-like, narrative aspect which flows through the poem – an element I was keen to preserve in translation through enjambment. The medium of common speech in my poem further emphasises Prévert's belief that poetry should celebrate brief, ordinary moments in life with an intensity and honesty that would capture the imagination of ordinary people.

Chloe Taylor