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

18-and-under category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2016 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Michael O'Connor

Open Windows


Morning – Sleeping

I hear voices. Light filters through my eyes.
A clock tolls in the church of Saint-Pierre.
The boaters' cries: A little closer! Further! Over here!
Over there! The birds warble – Jeanne joins in.
George calls her. Cockerels crow. A trowel
Scrapes along the roof. Horses trudge down the street.
The rasp of a scythe as it cuts through the grass.
Cries. Whispers. Footsteps overhead.
Sounds from the harbour. The hum and hiss of machines.
Military music drifts over in dribs and drabs.
A kerfuffle on the quay. French voices. Thank-you.
Hello. Goodbye. It seems to be growing late for now
A robin red-breast settles down and starts to sing.
The crash of hammers in a distant forge.
Water gurgling. A steam-boat chugging far away.
A fly flits in. The deep breath of the sea.

Translated from the French by Michael O'Connor
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Fenêtres ouvertes


Le matin – En dormant

J'entends des voix. Lueurs à travers ma paupière.
Une cloche est en branle à l'église de Saint-Pierre.
Cris des baigneurs. Plus près! plus loin! non, par ici!
Non, par là! Les oiseaux gazouillent, Jeanne aussi.
Georges l'appelle. Chant des coqs. Une truelle
Racle un toit. Des chevaux passent dans la ruelle.
Grincement d'une faux qui coupe le gazon.
Chocs. Rumeurs. Des couvreurs marchent sur la maison.
Bruits du port. Sifflement des machines chaufées.
Musique militaire arrivant par bouffées.
Brouhaha sur le quai. Voix françaises. Merci.
Bonjour. Adieu. Sans doute il est tard, car voici
Que vient tout près de moi chanter mon rouge-gorge.
Vacarme de marteaux lointains dans une forge.
L'eau clapote. On entend haleter un steamer.
Une mouche entre. Souffle immense de la mer.

Victor Hugo
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Translation commentary

In large part, I chose to translate this poem because I was intrigued by its impressionistic nature – perhaps pointillist might be a better word. Hugo builds up a picture of a place in a few lines and a handful of images and impressions. Christopher Isherwood once wrote: 'I am a camera with the shutter open.' This poem watches the world go by. In many ways, it reminds me of John dos Passos rather than anything written by Hugo's classical forebears – it looks forwards to modernism in its stream-of-consciousness description and its heady blend of poetry and prose.

Hugo's poetry has something of the feel of prose with its short sentences and broken lines. In 'À André Chénier', Hugo wrote, 'Mon vers croit pouvoir… Prendre à la prose un peu de son air familier.' In other words, 'My poetry can assume something of the air of prose.' It was this quality that I tried to capture. I saw little point in attempting to mimic Hugo's rhyme scheme. Instead, I alternated short and long sentences to retain something of a rhythm in the absence of rhyme – Hugo's poetry, though often staccato, has a definite flow to it. Often, I was forced to alter lines to retain this. Hopefully, the translation gains in fluency what it loses in accuracy.

Some words were rather hard to translate. 'Brouhaha' was particularly difficult – kerfuffle seemed to capture the sound of the word as closely as possible. I couldn't quite tell what baigneurs was supposed to mean. Perhaps Hugo merely meant 'swimmers' but I decided, on instinct, that 'boaters' sounded better. As a whole, my translation is not high-fidelity. It is avowedly low-fi. It tries to capture the background sounds and smells of the mise-en-scène rather than adhere rigidly to the letter and form of Hugo's poem.

Michael O'Connor