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The Stephen Spender Prize 2015 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


Michael Swan

A dream about my mother


In the snow at the tram stop I found my mother
dark, hard
and fragile like a piece of coal,
so the snow blinded me even more.
When I could see again
she could hardly be told apart
from what was now filthy slush.
She wanted to stand up, but she could not
and I could not get near her
because I was asleep in a distant country.
'Now I understand what you mean,' she said
'when you say that when one comes back
it is never to the same house,
even if one only went down to the shop.
Something is different. Someone else has lived there.
And the fact that it may only be oneself
makes no difference.
Things have been shifted around, so they make
a distorting mirror,
or perhaps it's a telescope,
but in any case, one sees oneself
from very, very far away.'
I did not answer, because I had started thinking
about the little street at the back
that was always in the dark; the basement shop
in number 18. 'What did they actually sell there?
I must find out,' I thought.
'And the street at the back. What was it called again?
Drowsy Street, or Pug Alley?'
Then the people at the stop
began to climb aboard me, one after another.
Their clothes were cold and smelt bad
like the winters from the first half of the century
and their exhalations made me sick.
At the junction where three roads go off
to Odense, Mexico and the 17th century,
I took the wrong turning, and plunged into a dark ravine,
and woke under shining olive trees
full of the cicadas,
whose noise must have sparked off my dream
about rails and metal wheels.
And the mermaid lay by my side
with seaweed in her hair, as I had remembered her.

Translated from the Danish by Michael Swan
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Drøm om mor


I sneen ved stoppestedet fandt jeg min mor
mørk, hård
og skrøbelig som et stykke kul
så sneen blændede mig endnu mere.
Da jeg kunne se igen
var hun næsten ikke til at skelne
fra det der nu var blevet til grumset sjap.
Hun ville rejse sig, men kunne ikke
og jeg kunne ikke nå hende
fordi jeg sov i et fiernt land.
"nu forstå jeg, hvad du mener," sagde hun
"når di siger, at når man kommer tilbage
er det aldrig til det samme hus
om man så bare har været nede hos købmanden.
Noget er ændret. En anden har boet der.
Og at det muligvis blot er en selv
gør ingen forskel.
Der er byttet om på tingene, så de danner
et forvrænget speil
eller muligvis er det et teleskop
i hvert fald ser man sig selv
meget, meget langt borte."
Jeg svarede ikke, for jeg var kommet i tanker
om den smalle gade bagved
den der altid låg i mørke, kælderforretningen
i nummer 18. "Hvad solgte de egentlig der?
Det må jeg undersøge," tænkte jeg.
"Og gaden bagved. Hvad var det nu den hed?
Søvnlystgade eller Moppes Gyde?"
Så begyndte personerne ved stoppestedet
at stige ind in mig, én efter én.
Deres tøj var koldt og lugtede ilde
af vintre fra første halvdel af århundredet
og deres ånde gav mig kvalme.
Der hvor vejen deler sig i tre, mod Odense
Mexico og det 17. århundrede
kørte jeg galt og ned i en mørk afgrund
og vågnede under blanke oliventræer
fyldt med de cikader
hvis larm måtte have sat min drøm
om skinner og metalhiul i gang.
Og havfruen lå ved min side
med tang in håret, som jeg havde husket hende.

Henrik Nordbrandt
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Translation commentary


This is, to my mind, one of Nordbrandt's finest dream poems. I was attracted by the idea of translating it, and felt it was possible to achieve a reasonably faithful version. The question was, could this be done without losing the tightness that underlies Nordbrandt's deceptively casual diction? Also, though translating from Danish is usually fairly straightforward linguistically, it can sometimes be problematic for an odd reason. Because Danish has a much smaller vocabulary than, say, English, French or Spanish, words are called on to do more work: a particular word can have a wider semantic range, and richer resonances, than its apparent equivalent in the other language. (The Danish title of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is simply Den Fine Mand – but it says all that the French title says.) There were times in this translation when I felt I was skirting just such traps: how good, really, was the obvious counterpart of this or that word?

Michael Swan