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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

Peter Russell


Has the clock miscounted?
Has breaktime survived the fear
And the game in the quiet lavatories?

He wears glasses on his mouth: pronunciation
He hides a ticket tight over his heart:
His well-declined secret.

Eerily, he stands in the playground
In the middle of autumn
The Conference breaks up

Letters fall with numbers,
Small sensible phrases
Down from the chestnuts and limes on the hypotenuse

My poor ailing mother –
Pastoral guidance please be careful –
Will die, if breaktime ends

Fatty paper blooms in the yard
Only slowly does the smell drift
Later from the retreat at Tobruk, and near Kursk,
On the Volturno, of war-dead school leavers.

Translated from the German by Peter Russell


Hat die Uhr sich verzählt?
Hat die Pause die Angst überlebt
und das Spiel auf den stillen Aborten?

Er trägt eine Brille über dem Mund: pronunciation.
Er birgt einen Zettel knapp überm Herzen:
sein gutdekliniertes Geheimnis.

Seltsam steht er im Hof,
mitten im Herbst:
die Konferenz löst sich auf.

Buchstaben fallen und Zahlen,
kleine vernünftige Sätze
aus den Kastanien und Linden über der Hypotenuse.

Meine arme kränkliche Mutter –
Herr Studienrat, üben sie Nachsicht –
stirbt, wenn die Pause vorbei ist.

Fettes Papier blüht im Hof.
Langsam nur weicht der Geruch
später vor Tobruk, bei Kursk,
am Volturno gefallner Primaner.

Günter Grass

© Steidl Verlag, Goettingen, 1993

Translation commentary

I have chosen this poem as an insight into the atmosphere of duplicity and autumnal decay in the life of families in the closing stages of World War Two in Germany.

The most significant issue in the translation of the poem was that of the title.

The original German covers the whole range of school age, while in UK English there are two predominant equivalents: 'playtime' (referring to younger children) and 'break' which is used in secondary schools. In the original German, this creates an ambiguity in anticipation ('is this about young children or about older pupils/high school students?') and in the end reminds us that the young men now lost to war had once been children lost in the world of play.

I addressed this issue by using the most wide-ranging English term possible ('Breaktime') which is technically feasible, being used at all school ages. To create the age ambiguity implied, I have compensated by being explicit in the translation of the word 'Hof' in line 7 as 'playground' instead of the age-neutral 'yard'.

The other major problem in the vocabulary translation in the poem is that of 'Schulrat' – a post in German education since Bismarck's time but with no equivalent in 1940s UK education. This has been addressed by referring to the function of pastoral care.

The final issue which required close attention was that of historical context.

In 1967, when the poem was published, the locations of the deaths would have been fresher in the German public mind, and would have been known instinctively as the battles and defeats which indicated that Germany was losing the war. To make this clear to contemporary English language readers, I have added extra context in the form of 'retreat at Tobruk' as a translation of 'vor Tobruk'.

Peter Russell