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

Judges’ comments

Read the winning entries
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2015 competition by Josephine Balmer, Katie Gramich, WN Herbert and Stephen Romer


Josephine Balmer

If there was ever any doubt that poetry matters then the entries to the 2105 Stephen Spender Prize have dispelled it. As in previous years, many entrants submitted translations of poems that held a deep resonance for them. Yet perhaps more noticeable, even among our younger entrants, were the translations that showed us how poetry can respond to worldwide conflict and tragedy, if the most moving – and successful – of these combined the political with the personal. Thirteen-year-old Thomas Delgado-Little, for example, commended for his translation of Carmen Conde's Spanish Civil War poem 'The Victims Won't Speak', recounted how his own great-grandfather had died for the Republican cause. In the Open category, I was also moved by Clare Pollard's heart-stopping 'The Last Poem of Rabia Balkhi', Malene Engelund's delicate rendering of second World War Danish poet Morten Nielsen, Cristina Viti's lyrical account of oppression in communist Albania from Gëzim Hajdari, and Pavlo Shopin's timely 'You and I Are Refugees' from Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan.

As in previous years, our Open prize-winners introduced us to wonderful new poetry – the true gift of translation – from Francisca Gale's compact but perfectly-formed 'Long-Distance Conversation' by Greek poet Anestis Evangelou to Martin Bennett's extract from Guido Gozzano's overlooked fragmentary Italian epic.
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This trend for contemporary poetry was particularly noticeable in our two younger categories where classical works have long been dominant. In the 14-and-under category, we were impressed by two young Bulgarian translators, Teodor Egriderliev and Viktoria Mileva, with the latter just nudging ahead for the prize which she shared with Euan Ong's inventive version of French poet Alain Bosquet. That said, there were some excellent Greek and Latin entries from unusual poets such as Sulpicia, amusingly reimagined by Grace Guthrie. And in the 18-and-under category, Maud Mullan's drawing out of an epigram by Callimachus just edged her two versions of Horace. But, again, our joint first prize winners, Beatrix Crinnion and Anna Leader, translated contemporary languages, Tomas Transtrőmer's Swedish and Jan Wagner's German respectively. Meanwhile, our list of commendations included Japanese, Greek and Welsh, all beautifully translated by Euan McGinty, Alexandra Seizani-Dimitriadi and Sarah Hudis. A personal favourite which did not quite make the final cut was Helen Chen's 'Charon' from Chinese poet Bei Xiao Huang, bringing us in to the 21st century by contemplating the powers of Google.

Poems about translation itself were a common theme this year, many reflecting the prisms of layering language on language. Of these I was most entranced by Edward Clarke's version of Nicola Gardini's beautiful 'Emily in Mondello' in which the Italian poet muses on his own engagement with Emily Dickinson. On the minus side, there also appeared to be a marked increase in the use of Google Translate. But most of all, it was lovely to see our entrants having fun with rhyme and word play, from Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather's 'Title Colon Dictation' in the Open competition to eight-year-old Anissa Felah's 'The Cicada and the Ant'. I thank them all for brightening these particularly gloomy summer days this year with their invention – and enthusiasm.
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Katie Gramich

This was my first year as judge for the Stephen Spender poetry translation prize. I was excited at the prospect and somewhat overwhelmed by the reality. I certainly wasn't expecting a total of 586 translations, of such extraordinary variety, from no fewer than 46 languages.

Sadly, there was only one translation from my own mother tongue, Welsh, though this was a very good version by Sarah Hudis of part of a poem by Iwan Llwyd, 'Sgrifen yn y Tywod' ('Writing in the Sand'). If only Sarah had attempted the whole 32-line poem, rather than just three quatrains. I hope there will be many more Welsh entries next year – come on, Cymry!

French, German, Latin, Spanish, Russian and Italian were well represented across all three categories. I was particularly impressed by the high quality of the German and Latin entries. It was also thrilling to discover work in languages of which I have no knowledge, like Bulgarian and Chinese. Such discoveries are of course the raison d'être of the Stephen Spender competition: translation opens the door to another culture, another world.

I also learned a great deal from the translators' commentaries, which ranged from the perfunctory to the profound. One entrant rather too candidly declared that 'The original did not rhyme, which meant one less thing to worry about', while another, Anna Leader, astutely observed of her translation of Gaston Miron's 'Poème de séparation' that 'The difficulty of translating this poem was resisting the urge to "explain" it.'
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Not all the translations managed to become poems in English. There were some which remained stubbornly prosaic, often those by translators locked in a lethally close embrace with their originals. In the younger age category there were sometimes problems with register, especially in the commentaries. Future entrants might profit from avoiding the hideous word 'relatable' and might also bear in mind the literary nature of the competition: there's nothing wrong with translating a French rap song, but judges are not really impressed by how many views the rapper's video has had on YouTube!

Yet the quality of the original poem is important. A thin original is unlikely to produce a brilliant translation. This explains why a number of entrants attempted new versions of classic texts. I particularly enjoyed eight-year-old Anissa Felah's translation of La Fontaine's 'La Cigale et la Fourmi', which showed an impressive command of rhyme and rhythm: 'I promise with my insect heart / To pay you back when Harvest starts'. There were also inventive and thoughtful renditions of works by Rilke, Leopardi, Dante, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and others, including a striking version of Goethe's 'Erlkönig' by Adrian Dobson called 'The Boggart', in which Goethe's horseman is transformed into a northern motorcyclist pursued by a malevolent goblin straight off the moors of Jane Eyre. However, such classic texts provide particular challenges, not just in their inherent richness but also in the daunting fact that so many great translators have attempted the task before.

Many of the winning and commended entries are translations of works by contemporary poets I had not previously read, including Monika Rinck and Christine Marendon, each of whom has a distinctive voice and style, captured with a deft and sensitive touch by their respective translators, Anne Stokes and Ken Cockburn.
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At the end of the process, and the lively and enlightening discussion with my fellow judges, I am left with unforgettable lines of poetry echoing through my head: 'weeds always sneak back like old guilt' (Jan Wagner, translated by Anna Leader); 'Let the wind howl, let the wind swither / Someone shall be Agamemnon, somebody his killer' (Odysseus Elytis, translated by Alasdair Gordon); 'Another sentence. Tears are quick to come / To one already set far apart, / As if pain on pain had stripped life from her heart' (Anna Akhmatova, translated by Miriam Ettrick).

Next year, I will have a better idea of what to expect, namely, a box full of unexpected and delightful discoveries.

WN Herbert

If you don't enjoy wielding decisive authority but love reading poetry, then judging poems in translation is the perfect compromise. Each summer I am drawn beyond myself by the enthusiasms of others, whose skill sets enable me to encounter new poets from diverse periods as well as languages. Through their abilities, I am allowed to fall into that fallacy of the film-buff watching with subtitles – that the other language is more accessible than my limited fluency would allow.

With poetry that access seems all the richer for being compressed into the particular marriage of form and content that great poets use to redefine what, within their culture, poetry is. The winning and commended poems this year shared that sense of redefinition, of direct utterance conveyed so as not to lose that originality and immediacy.
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The two younger categories were full of fresh takes on how to achieve this: the 14-and-under winner, Viktoria Mileva, for instance, expressed the eery sense of presence in Vaptsarov's poem on the eve of execution by the repetitive use of the future tense – the one tense about to be denied him. I also liked how Chrysostomos Kamaris drew out an ambivalence from Ioannides' lullaby, in which Saint Marina is exhorted to take the baby away, 'Then when it is older, bring it back.'

One translator in the 18-and-under category, Mundie Lawrance, found two very different ways to bring the translation to life: the performative finger click in Vysotsky's 'Singer at the Microphone', and the use of a landscape orientation in Bo Bergman's 'We Whispering Wings in the Night'. It was exciting to see last year's winning subject, Jan Wagner, being conveyed so ably by Anna Leader. I particularly admired Beatrix Crinnion's take on Transtömer's 'Allegro' because, like these other younger translators, she combined strong decisions about form and layout with precision of tone.

In the adult category, I admired several recurrent sub-categories of translation. One was the difficult comic rhyming poem – often dismissed, although the necessity to marry rhyme and lightness of tone make it the trickiest of modes. I liked the dexterity of Caroline New's translation of Giusti's 'The Snail', and thought that successfully incorporating the words for punctuation terms into nimble couplets, as Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather did with Michael Schönen's 'Title Colon Dictation', required real brio.

The second such category was Classical elegy. I was impressed by the pared down elegance of Duncan Forbes's Martial translation, which made me think again about that poet, while Arabella Currie's 'Piso for God' (Philippus of Thessalonica) seemed to demand inscription on the nearest piece of marble.
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The winning poems, and those that approached that status, did several things well. One was to handle narrative – or rather that air of story, usually in media res, that is all the poem requires. Families or individuals half-knowing they are on the cusp of change feature in Richard Gwyn's fine 'Winter Poem' (by Jorge Teillier), and are the subjects of a visitation in Martin Bennett's version of Gozzano's 'Acherontia Atropos', where the ominous moth, flapping and tapping on the glass, acquires an almost Nabokovian edge.

I was especially moved by poems where that cusp has passed: Nordbrandt's 'A Dream about My Mother', translated by Michael Swan, uses the poignant discontinuities of dream to convey the continuing presence of the dead. 'Long-Distance Conversation', by Anestis Evangelou, is brilliantly handled by Francisca Gale, who has to use the plainest language to convey a conversation between father and adult child, and expresses the revelation that the distance referred to is death – withheld till the last line – with devastating restraint.

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Stephen Romer

My first impression, this year as last, on surveying the 586 translations submitted for the prize, was of variety. And there were some unusual languages: Bulgarian, Portuguese, Turkish, Chinese, Anglo-Saxon and Welsh; and in the Open category, Arabic, Kurdish, Japanese and Tagalog. There was diachronic variety also, with swathes of versions from the Classics in all three categories. I was frequently moved by the quality and personal nature of the commentaries, especially among the younger translators, several of whom, when not native-speakers of English, were anxious to showcase famous poems from their own countries. This was the case with our joint winner in the 14-and-under category, Viktoria Mileva, who translated the short, poignant poem 'Farewell' by the Bulgarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov, shot by the Nazis. The commentary, personal and informative, was a model of its kind, setting the two quatrains in context. Euan Ong's 'In Circulation' spiced up Alain Bosquet's French original imaginatively. Among the commended I especially liked Grace Guthrie's 'creative translation' (her description) of Sulpicia's 'Birthday', put into the voice of a 'bratty teenager' who may be a younger Bridget Jones. Among those that didn't quite make the final cut, I would commend Cath Churchill's sassy take on Ovid's Heroides 5 and Kajal Patel's disarmingly literal account of Rimbaud's 'Le dormeur du val', and I admired Gwen Choi's ambition in tackling Brecht's 'To Posterity' and for comprehending his tone.

The 14-and-under category also contained several versions of French rap songs by Stromae, MC Solaar and others. A word of warning: these versions failed to satisfy the judges because rap is emphatically not just rhythm-based but also rhyme-based – the end-rhyme is the lynch pin, and the English versions failed to reproduce this.
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In the 18-and-under category, German, French, Spanish and Russian were the languages of choice, and German came through strongly, notably in the two translations from the contemporary Jan Wagner, who invests humble phenomena or small events with sensuous linguistic and metaphysical charge. Anna Leader's rendering of 'Weeds' relishes the consonantal German and matches it. 'Hamburg–Berlin', her other translation of Wagner, was commended. Joint first was Beatrix Crinnion's able rendering of Tomas Tranströmer's amiable homage to Haydn, 'Allegro'. Crinnion explained in her commentary that she had only recently set out to study Swedish on her own, which in itself shows creditable energy and curiosity. Maud Mullan's elegant Callimachus ('A Lament at the Door'), with a commentary refering learnedly to Greek rhetorical terms, came third. Among the commended, my favourite was Chloe Taylor's Prévert ('Despair Is Seated on a Bench'); her decision to break the French up into stanzas, each one representing a kind of photographic still in an unfolding cinematic narrative, was convincing. It was also a relief to find a different Prévert from the 'Déjeuner du matin' or 'Le cancre', that turn up rather too frequently in this competition. Other submissions on my personal shortlist in this category included, among the Classical versions, Tiah Cole's Catullus and Maud Mullan's Horace; Violet Smart's version of Octavio Paz's witty conceit 'Two Bodies'; Euan McGinty's credo poem by Kenji Miyazawa; and Abe Chauhan's account of Kästner's tart look at love vanishing in 'An Objective Affair'.
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In the Open category Francisca Gale's 'Long-Distance Conversation' by Anestis Evangelou delicately conveyed the touching original Greek and the rueful surprise at the end. Martin Bennett's fine version of Guido Gozzano's 'Acherontia Atropos' is an example of what the Spender Prize can do best – encourage ambitious attempts to revive in translation complex work by poets too liable to be airbrushed out by fashion or sheer laziness. Bennett's other offerings are in this vein – by Leopardi and Pascoli. A similar example was the spirited stab at Giuseppe Giusti's 'Sant'Ambrogio' by Caroline New that was on my personal shortlist. Three more powerful contemporary German poets we commended are Christine Marendon, Michael Schönen and Monika Rinck, translated by Ken Cockburn, Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather and Anne Stokes respectively.

My personal commendations include Clare Pollard's powerfully topical 'The Last Poem of Rabia Balkhi', written by the first woman poet of Afghanistan ; Elizabeth Howard-Ahern's haunting account of the Old English poem 'The Ruin', and James Ackhurst's richly orchestrated Neruda. Richard Gwyn's versions of the contemporary Columbian Darío Jaramillo Agudelo I found compelling. I commend Olivia McCannon for her passionate Louise Labé, Kevin Maynard for his haunting Góngora (both versions), David McCallam for his Chénier, Peter Jackson for his Vigny, Caroline New for her Giuseppe Giusti, and Olwyn Grimshaw for her short fragment of Ovid, traditionally done, word-perfect, lovely to read.
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