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

Judges’ comments

Read the 2016 winning entries
Download the 2016 booklet
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2016 competition by Katie Gramich, Sean O'Brien and Stephen Romer


Katie Gramich

This year there were strong contenders as usual from French, Spanish, Latin, German, Italian and Russian, but there was also much enjoyment for me in some of the less-translated languages, especially Portuguese, Irish, Chinese, Hungarian, Romanian and Welsh. A few people heeded my call last year for more translations from the Welsh; I particularly liked Ann Corkett's translation of Waldo Williams's classic poem, 'Cofio', in the Open category. This poem, known by heart by many in Wales, holds a special place in modern Welsh culture, making it all the more challenging to translate. But I felt that Corkett achieved the almost impossible by retaining the abcb rhyme scheme and the metrical pattern, as well as the mournful, longing tone of the inimitable original. Well done, indeed! I also admired Jason Walford-Davies's moving translation of Gwyn Thomas's more modern Welsh poem, 'Roger Casement'. However, a few of the other entries showed an insufficient grasp of Welsh to produce a successful translation.

In the youngest age category (14-and-under) some translations from the Spanish were pleasingly lyrical in English. Lorca's apparent simplicity is often difficult to translate successfully, but Tomás Sergeant did an admirable version of his 'Deseo'. Similarly, Thomas Delgado-Little's straightforward boldness did justice to Machado's 'El crimen fue en Granada'.

In the 18-and-under category John Tinneny's translation of Nuala ní Dhomhnaill's 'Peirseifiné' stood out at once for its distinctive Irish voice and its sensitive interpretation of Dhomhnaill's vision. There were quite a few confident and commendable translations from the Latin of Catullus in this age category, including one highly enjoyable one by George Jones. Once again, though, a poem from a less often translated language took my fancy, namely Maria Calinescu's translation of a Romanian poem, Lucian Blaga's 'În Munƫi', which contained some excellent lines, such as 'From the east come butterflies as big as owls/searching for their cinder in the flames.'

In the Open category, I was immediately drawn to a small group of translations from the Portuguese by the same translator. Lesley Saunders had translated poems by four different contemporary Portuguese women poets, all carefully chosen and rendered in free, subtle, intriguing, versions which emphatically worked as poems in English. I was particularly bowled over by her translation of Yvette K. Centeno's 'Meninas', which was both haunting and unsettling. Saunders's commentaries were also intelligent, thoughtful, and showed a real comparative mind at work: her contrasting of Maria Teresa Horta's 'Poema' with Ted Hughes's 'The Thought-Fox' was illuminating about both. Another poem which impressed me greatly was Theophilus Kwek's clever rendering of Wong Yoon Wah's Chinese poem, 'Moving House'. This was a formal tour-de-force, solving the ostensibly insuperable difficulties of translating into English from the beautifully succinct Chinese characters in a suitably neat, pictorial manner. The German entries were not quite as impressive as in previous years, but Rey Conquer and Izabela Rakar's translation of an extract from Thomas Kling's experimental poem in disjointed tercets, 'Der Erste Weltkrieg', was an exception which stood out for its brave tackling of the challenges posed by Kling's collage-like form. Finally, I found Bernard Adams's translation, 'The Night Dog', from the Hungarian of István Ágh, extremely atmospheric; in his commentary he tells us that 'the sound of echoing barks is a familiar, if not always appreciated, feature of the Hungarian night', and in the poem we hear those nocturnal barks in sinister blank verse 'as if, enraged, night were becoming dog'…

I'd like to thank all the entrants for their work this year. I'm grateful for being introduced to new poets and new languages. Your work excited and thrilled me, entertained and amused me, occasionally alarmed and infuriated me, but always kept me reading on…

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Sean O'Brien

There was strong, ambitious work among the prize-winning and commended poems in all the categories of the competition, with an entry that drew largely but not exclusively on European languages. The material included some familiar work against which translators like to test themselves – poems by Catullus, Ovid, Baudelaire, Akhmatova and Lorca, for example, all of whom issue their own highly specific challenges. It was also exciting to encounter some poets new to me, for whom some of the translators made a strong case, as in the case of the winner of the Open category.

In the 14-and-under section, it was encouraging to see a readiness to engage with the difficult directness and immediate depth of feeling found in work by Lorca ('Desire', translated by Tomás Sergeant, the winner in this category) and Machado ('The Crime', Thomas Delgado-Little). There was a pleasing concern with tone, timing and the sense of gesture – qualities which would present difficulties to far more experienced translators.

In the 18-and-under group, the winner, John Tinneny, translated Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's 'Persephone', which retells the myth, or part of it, from the point of view of Persephone herself, in this instance a naïve and fearless girl who's got in over her head and is saying more than perhaps she knows. What Tinneny manages particularly well is tone. The girl's brash eagerness has to be there, but it mustn't tip over into the reductive colloquialism which would disable the power of the founding myth. Ambiguity is part of what is so often lost in the process of translation, but Tinneny manages to retain it. There was a knowing wit to George Jones's rendering of Catullus 13, while the third placed poem, Alice Mee's beguiling and exciting rendering of Lorca's 'Ballad of the Moon' brought back something of the impact of encountering poetry itself for the first time – no mean feat.

The Open category required long and detailed discussion of a cluster of serious contenders. Among the commended pieces, I was particularly impressed by Peter Russell's rendering of Günter Grass's 'Breaktime', set in a schoolyard as Germany begins to lose the Second World War. With its crisp non-sequiturs and fractured imagery, Russell's version seems to have taken up residence in my head. Graham Sells' account of Giorgio Caproni's poem of death and lost love, 'Dawn', is also memorable, in this case for its near-tangible recreation of a wintry setting where objects and sensations seem at once to freeze and melt. In third place, Mark McGuinness made a good fist of the opening of Troilus and Criseyde, and the runner up, Theophilus Kwek, gave an elegant account of Wong Yoon Wah's 'Moving House'. The winning poem, Lesley Saunders's translation of Maria Teresa Horta, is a witty, erotic piece which traces the way a poem comes into being. As with Ted Hughes's 'The Thought-Fox', it's an animal who enables the poem to happen, but there the resemblance ends, for Horta's poem has a degree of amused relish that makes Hughes sound a little stolid in comparison. Someone could write an interesting essay comparing the two.

Having served on the judging panel only once, and thus having no basis for comparison, I find it difficult to make general remarks. I note the large number of languages from which the entries are drawn – cause for optimism at a time when we seem to be facing a widespread failure, or absence, of curiosity. On a lighter note, I had not expected that in my lifetime I would encounter so many translations of Hugo's 'L'Aube' or Vian's 'The Deserter', though I'm sure they did me a power of good. I would like to thank my colleagues for their insight, and especially I would like to thank Robina Pelham Burn for administering the competition with such finesse, wisdom and good humour.

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Stephen Romer

This year's entries included a poem from the Akkadian and poems from the African languages Igbo and siNdebele; nearer home, it was heartening to see (especially in these post-referendum days) smaller European nations represented, Slovakia and Bulgaria and Montenegro, notably in the 14-and-under category. The poems chosen (on the suggestion of mothers and grandmothers) were of the heroic-patriotic variety, not always the easiest of genres to get across in translation. French and Spanish came through strongly; 'Charmes de Londres', in multiple translations, was a fresh choice from that perennial favourite Jacques Prévert.

There were several attempts, of varying quality, to translate 'Rêve', a sonnet by the forgotten Decadent Albert Mérat (refusing to be portrayed alongside Verlaine and Rimbaud, Mérat is represented by the potted plant in Fantin-Latour's painting 'Un coin de table'). I was glad that another French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, who died this year, made a first appearance in this category. But it was three poems (chosen from an impressive group, including Pedro Garfias, José Hierro and Miguel Hernández) concerning the Spanish Civil War which impressed us enough to award them the category prize and our two commendations. 'Desire' by Federico García Lorca, 'The Crime' by Antonio Machado and 'The Soldier' by Emilio Prados, in versions by Tomás Sergeant, Thomas Delgado-Little and Jamie Kennedy respectively. The Lorca pre-dates the War, a poem of longing, finely translated and with a sensitive commentary; the same holds true of the two commended poems, one of which, the Machado, is a moving commemoration (and denunciation) of Lorca's murder. My personal commendations in this category go to Madison James for her witty rendering of Catullus 13 and to Alexandra Kouki for her translation (and sensitive commentary) from the Greek of Maria Polydouri.

In the 18-and-under category, this year heady with French Romanticism, we were glad to commend the breezy poem-impression by Victor Hugo, 'Open Windows', nicely rendered by Michael O'Connor. Alice Mee won third prize for Lorca's atmospheric and chant-like 'Ballad of the Moon'. The ever-popular Catullus 13 provoked a wittily-turned response from George Jones. But it was John Tinneny, with his spirited version of 'Persephone', recounting her abduction by Hades, from the Irish of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, that was the standout winner for the judges. Judicious use of rhyme, and of contemporary phraseology (justified since Hades drives a BMW in the original) and of witty understatement – 'this house here of his is pretty dark' – all made for a satisfying translation.

Given that he is so hard to translate, and most attempts shipwreck, my personal commendation in this category goes to 'Be Drunk', Indigo Douglas's daring versification of Baudelaire's prose poem 'Enivrez-vous', though the judges were bemused that 'vertu' should be translated as 'virility'! There were several fine individual performances in the Open category, even if the number of really ambitious, fully satisfying translations was perhaps down on last year. There was, however, a 'standout' set of contemporary Portuguese poems, all of them by women, translated by Lesley Saunders. All four of these came through on the shortlists, and we were impressed by Saunders's engaged and intelligent commentaries; for her, these bold women from Portugal, whose work was for a long time banned, enlarged her sense of what poetry could do 'psychologically and politicially'. The winning poem is certainly psychologically challenging; 'Poema' by Maria Teresa Horta is a meta-poem, featuring a kind of 'thought fox' for a feminine poet, part muse part dangerously seductive animus. The translation sure-footedly follows the sinuous twists and turns, approaches and returns of the original. The same is true of 'Las Meninas' by Yvette K. Centeno, which we commended, based on the sturdy, stumpy jolie-laide maids and misses in Paula Rego's paintings.

Second prize went to 'Moving House' by the modern Chinese poet Wong Yoon Wah. This is a rueful, witty poem, about a familiar headache, when it involves moving memories as well as objects, and Theophilus Kwek's adventurous decision to cast the English into square forms, resembling rooms, or boxes, is ingenious, retaining the 'otherness' of the Chinese but also an understated wit that seems nicely domesticated. Mark McGuinness's accomplished version of the 'proem' to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde took third prize, his heartfelt commentary praising the poem's 'Dantesque erotic-spiritual light'.

Among the commended poems, I would single out Graham Sells's version of 'Dawn' by Giorgio Caproni, that seems wonderfully to preserve the nervous energy (and anguish) of this poem set in a bar, a little seismograph of amorous anticipation, and the dread of (mortal) disappointment.

My personal commendations would include two bold forays 'after' the French, of Aloysius Bertrand, and Stéphane Mallarmé by Stuart Henson and Martin Sorrell respectively, while the stricter versions of Mallarmé, by Tim Dooley and Clive Wilmer, also had some brilliant trouvailles, especially as this poet is something like the North Face of the Eiger to translators. There was much to enjoy in Ranald Barnicot's Catullus, notably the inventive prosody of 'Sirmio'; I liked the atmosphere in Peter Daniels's 'Bezhetsk' by Akhmatova, and the buffeting rhythm of Elytis's 'The Summer's Swept It All Away' in the version by Alasdair Gordon.

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