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

Open category, third prize

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


Mark McGuinness

Troilus and Criseyde: Book I, 1–56


Before I part from you I want to tell
Of Troilus, son of Priam, King of Troy,
And how his lover's fortunes rose and fell
In double sorrow: from misery to joy
And out of bliss again. Lend me your voice
Thesiphone – help me to compose
These woeful lines, that weep as my ink flows.

To you I call, you goddess of sharp torment,
You cruel Fury, sorrowing in pain:
Help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
That helps all lovers, voicing their complaint;
Because it suits, to speak the matter plain,
A wretched man to have a gloomy fellow,
And a tragic tale, a speaker full of sorrow.

For I, who serve the servants of the Lord
Of Love, daren't pray to Love for my success
Even if I die, because I'm flawed;
I languish so far from his help in darkness.
But nonetheless, if this may bring some gladness
To any lover, and advance his courtship,
Give him the thanks and leave me with the hardship.

But all you lovers bathing now in gladness,
If any drop of pity be in you,
Remind yourselves of any former sadness
That you have felt, and also of the woe
Of other folk; recall the times you too
Once felt Love brought you only misery
Or that you won him far too easily.

And pray for those caught in the same condition
As Troilus, more of which you'll shortly hear,
That Love will bring them heavenly salvation;
And also pray for me to God so dear,
To give me strength to somehow make it clear
Through Troilus' own unfortunate adventure
Such pain and woe as all Love's folk endure.

And also pray for those left in despair
Of love, with no chance of recovery,
And all those lovers, whether him or her,
Whom wicked tongues have done great injury.
Pray thus to God, from his great charity
To grant them passage from this earthly place
Who lose all hope of Love's redeeming grace.

And also pray for those who are at ease
That God will grant their love to long endure
And give to them the gift to please their ladies
According to Love's honour and his pleasure.
For so I hope to make my soul more pure:
To pray for those who wear Love's livery,
And write their woe, and live in charity,

And feel for each of them the same compassion
As though I were their own devoted brother.
Now listen to me with your full attention
For now I will go straight to my main matter
In which you'll hear the double sorrow suffered
By Troilus when he loved the fair Criseyde
And how she left her love before she died.

Translated from the Middle English by Mark McGuinness
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Troilus and Criseyde: Book I, 1–56


The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of joye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for t'endyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte.

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

For I, that god of Loves servaunts serve,
Ne dar to Love, for myn unlyklinesse,
Preyen for speed, al sholde I therfor sterve,
So fer am I fro his help in derknesse;
But nathelees, if this may doon gladnesse
To any lover, and his cause avayle,
Have he my thank, and myn be this travayle!

But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse,
If any drope of pitee in yow be,
Remembreth yow on passed hevinesse
That ye han felt, and on the adversitee
Of othere folk, and thenketh how that ye
Han felt that Love dorste yow displese;
Or ye han wonne hym with to greet an ese.

And preyeth for hem that ben in the cas
Of Troilus, as ye may after here,
That Love hem bringe in hevene to solas,
And eek for me preyeth to god so dere,
That I have might to shewe, in som manere,
Swich peyne and wo as Loves folk endure,
In Troilus unsely aventure.

And biddeth eek for hem that been despeyred
In love, that never nil recovered be,
And eek for hem that falsly been apeyred
Thorugh wikked tonges, be it he or she;
Thus biddeth god, for his benignitee,
So graunte hem sone out of this world to pace,
That been despeyred out of Loves grace.

And biddeth eek for hem that been at ese,
That god hem graunte ay good perseveraunce,
And sende hem might hir ladies so to plese,
That it to Love be worship and plesaunce.
For so hope I my soule best avaunce,
To preye for hem that Loves servaunts be,
And wryte hir wo, and live in charitee,

And for to have of hem compassioun
As though I were hir owene brother dere.
Now herkeneth with a gode entencioun,
For now wol I gon streight to my matere,
In whiche ye may the double sorwes here
Of Troilus, in loving of Criseyde,
And how that she forsook him er she deyde.

Geoffrey Chaucer
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Translation commentary

I have translated 500 lines of Troilus and Criseyde; the 60-line limit made the eight-stanza 'proem' at the start of Book 1 the obvious choice.

Troilus is my favourite of Chaucer's works, his masterpiece and one of the greatest love poems in English, yet it is neglected in favour of the Canterbury Tales. Wonderful as the Tales are, they won't break your heart the way Troilus does. This emotional intensity is evident right from these opening stanzas, glowing with a Dantesque erotic-spiritual light, and displaying Chaucer's boundless compassion for those who suffer 'swich peyne and wo as Loves folke endure'.

Part of me disapproves of translating Middle English – it's not that hard to read the original. But another part answers: 'Most people won't read it, without encouragement. A translation can open the door.'

Troilus was clearly written to be read aloud in company as well as for private enjoyment. So I want to recreate something of the experience of Chaucer's contemporaries, of this readable, lyrical, entrancing and entertaining poem: a page turner and a text fit for performance.

I love Chaucer's rhyme royal and never considered changing the form. One technical challenge can be inferred from a glance at the two texts: the original is clearly narrower, because some syllables that were voiced in Middle English have fallen silent since. This leaves gaps in the metre that are hard to avoid filling with extra words.

The bigger challenge is to create a text that is accurate, readable and a passing imitation of Chaucer's inimitable tone and music, with his prayer ringing in my ears:

And for ther is so gret diversitee
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that noon myswrite thee,
Ne thee mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Mark McGuinness