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

Open 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

Lesley Saunders

The Misses

for Paula Rego

They seep out of the dark
the little misses

they sit
on narrow benches
with their feet
in the fireplace

they unfasten hampers
of fruit
which turn
into sewing-baskets

reels of coloured thread
and needles
with which to stitch
a white napkin

red sparks
spurt out

a shriek
guts the air

the cat flinches
from the scissors

and there in the corner
a girl
with her pinafore

Obscure dreams
by a dark wave

taking the river with it

by the river's edge
the Shadow-mother is waiting
burying dreams
in a casket

Translated from the Portuguese by Lesley Saunders


a Paula Rego

Saem da treva
as amas

sentam-se em bancos
bem juntinhos
à lareira

abrem os cestos
de fruta
que são caixas
de costura

linhas de côr
e agulhas
vão bordar um pano

saltam faúlhas

ouve-se o grito

foge o gato
da tesoura

lá no fundo
uma menina
com o seu avental
de pranto

Sonhos confusos
pela onda mais negra

do rio que passa

à beira-rio
a Sombra-mãe aguarda
esconde os sonhos
na caixa

Yvette K. Centeno

Reproduced by permission of the poet

Translation commentary

The appeal of Portuguese poetry for me goes back to the New Portuguese Letters forty years ago, although I've only recently begun to try translating some Portuguese women's poetry myself. This is one of a pair of poems I've submitted which in my view are brilliantly-executed responses to the work of the artist Paula Rego, and her meaty hungry women who are animalistic, bestial, totemic almost, both revelling in and despairing of embodiment.

The sinister allusiveness of nursery rhymes – a selection of which Paula Rego illustrated in an edition introduced by Marina Warner, who writes about Rego's 'imperturbable aproned Misses' and the atmosphere she creates of 'ambiguous dramas of sexual curiosity and conflict' – seems to have crept into and squatted this poem. I find its non-sequiturs and startling images quite haunting, particularly the nightmarish Shadow-mother in the hallucinatory second stanza.

Although I'm by no means fluent in Portuguese, my background in French and Latin has enabled me to have a grasp of its general lexical features and syntactical structures. I found the original poem on the website of Ana Hudson, who has brought many Portuguese poets to an English readership, and I referred to her translation initially. I think a key challenge for any poet-translator concerns not only the look of the words on the page but also the effect, and affect, they have on the inner ear. In this case, the short lines, absence of punctuation, surface simplicity of vocabulary, repeated rhyme-words and gaps in logic of the original invoke an atmosphere vividly reminiscent of fairy-tale – the Grimm kind – which I've tried to maintain. With regard to the 'music' of the poem, English does not have the same capacity as Portuguese, a partially-inflected Romance language, to generate such a large variety of close end-rhymes, so I've used assonance and alliteration as substitutes.

Lesley Saunders