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The Stephen Spender Prize 2016 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, third prize

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2016 booklet
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Alice Mee

Ballad of the moon, the moon

Listen to Ballad of the moon, the moon

The moon came to the forge
With her dress of spikenard.
The boy is watching, watching her.
The boy is watching her.
In the restless air
The moon moves her arms
And shows, lubricious and pure,
Her breast of hard tin.
Away, o moon, o moon.
If the gypsies come,
They will make white necklaces and rings
With your heart.
Child, let me dance.
When the gypsies come,
They will find you on the anvil
With your little eyes closed.
Away, o moon, o moon,
For I hear their horses.
Child, leave me, don't tread on
My starched whiteness.
The horseman was approaching
Playing the drum of the plain
Inside the forge,
The boy's eyes are closed.
Through the olive grove they came,
Bronze and dreaming, the gypsies.
Heads high
And eyes half closed.
How the tawny owl sings,
Oh how it sings in the tree!
The moon moves across the sky
Holding the child by the hand.
Inside the forge they cry
Wailing, the gypsies,
The air watches over
The air is watching over.

Translated from the Spanish by Alice Mee

Romance de la Luna, Luna

La luna vino a la fragua
con su polisón de nardos.
El niño la mira, mira.
El niño la está mirando.
En el aire conmovido
mueve la luna sus brazos
y enseña, lúbrica y pura,
sus senos de duro estaño.
Huye luna, luna, luna.
Si vinieran los gitanos,
harían con tu corazón
collares y anillos blancos.
Niño, déjame que baile.
Cuando vengan los gitanos,
te encontrarán sobre el yunque
con los ojillos cerrados.
Huye luna, luna, luna,
que ya siento sus caballos.
Niño, déjame, no pises
mi blancor almidonado.
El jinete se acercaba
tocando el tambor del llano
Dentro de la fragua el niño,
tiene los ojos cerrados.
Por el olivar venían,
bronce y sueño, los gitanos.
Las cabezas levantadas
y los ojos entornados.
¡Cómo canta la zumaya,
ay cómo canta en el árbol!
Por el cielo va la luna
con un niño de la mano.
Dentro de la fragua lloran,
dando gritos, los gitanos.
El aire la vela, vela.
El aire la está velando.

Federico García Lorca

Translation commentary

When translating this poem, I wanted to retain the sense of straddling the real and the imagined, as it alludes to Andalusian gypsy folklore that if a child gazes upon the moon too long, he can be taken away by it. Lorca partly achieves this through rhyme and rhythm, but I found that this was almost impossible to transfer into English. In order to compensate, therefore, I added an extra definite article in the title, as it creates a rhythm more comparable to the double-consonant 'luna'. I similarly used 'o moon, o moon' instead of the literal 'moon, moon, moon', in order to emphasise the romantic elements of this poem, and I felt that only repeating 'o moon' once gave the poem a lilting quality reminiscent of the Spanish, evoking a trance or lullaby.

It was a challenge to be faithful to Lorca's imagery of the moon and allusions to it as a symbol of death: I had difficulties translating 'polisón de nardos', which is literally the very unnatural 'bustle of nards'. Thus, I chose the biblical 'dress of spikenard', whose flowers are a traditional symbol of death, and I believe that it effectively conveys the beam of white light from the moon, whilst at the same time continuing to personify the moon as a feminine being. I decided that 'starched whiteness', similarly, was the best way to express how the moon seems to have a stiff, white skirt. I omitted the direct object pronoun, 'la', in lines 35 and 36, as there is no suitable equivalent which would sound natural in English. There are several possible translations for 'vela', but I decided upon 'watches over', to emphasise the tragic contrast between the boy 'watching' the moon at the beginning, and the scene at the end.

Alice Mee