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The Stephen Spender Prize 2017 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

14-and-under category, winner

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2017 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Katherine Linaker

This is the Way

This is the way they begin, at two –
Torn away from their mother's love
They croon and whistle a shadowy tune.
Their words are formed by the age of three.

This is the way they begin to learn –
To hear in the roar of an engine's noise
That 'mother' is not mother at all,
That 'you' are not you, that 'home' is unknown.

This is the way they begin to suspect –
When, upon meeting a beauty they fear
And they ask, as they sit on a lilac-bench,
'Why do you steal the mind of a child?'

This is the way that fears start to grow,
When one man gives hope to aspiring stars.
When is he demon, when is he dreamer?
This is the way their travels begin.

This is their way to the open sky,
Above the walls where no houses stand.
A sudden breeze that sighs like the sea
Is the way their rhythms will start to beat.

This is the way they see light summer nights
Fall on their knees face-down in a field,
Then threaten and warn the sun to rise.
This is the way that their quarrels begin.

This is the way that true poets are made.

Translated from the Russian by Katherine Linaker

Так начинают. Года в два...

Так начинают. Года в два
От мамки рвутся в тьму мелодий,
Щебечут, свищут,– а слова
Являются о третьем годе.

Так начинают понимать.
И в шуме пущенной турбины
Мерещится, что мать – не мать,
Что ты – не ты, что дом – чужбина.

Что делать страшной красоте
Присевшей на скамью сирени,
Когда и впрямь не красть детей?
Так возникают подозренья.

Так зреют страхи. Как он даст
Звезде превысить досяганье,
Когда он – Фауст, когда – фантаст?
Так начинаются цыгане.

Так открываются, паря
Поверх плетней, где быть домам бы,
Внезапные, как вздох, моря.
Так будут начинаться ямбы.

Так ночи летние, ничком
Упав в овсы с мольбой: исполнься,
Грозят заре твоим зрачком.
Так затевают ссоры с солнцем.

Так начинают жить стихом.

BL Pasternak

Translation commentary

My mother is of Russian origin and has brought my sister and me up bilingually; she introduced me to Pasternak and told me something about his troubles with the authorities. When I first read the poem it seemed abstract; you don't really know what the poem is talking about until the last line, which could have a variety of meanings: "This is the way they start to live with poems", "This is the way poems start to live" or "This is the way poets start to live". As a result my first literal translation of the poem seemed confusing, like a set of unconnected statements.

But once the meaning became clearer the style evolved. I decided I could not achieve a realistic-sounding rhyme scheme to match the Russian; instead I developed a four-stressed syllabic beat to give some regularity. Repeating the phrase "This is the way…" created a rhythm and link between each stanza.

The poem gave me a number of problems. The word "Так" literally means "that's" but this monosyllabic word didn't fit in with the four-stress rhythm of each line. So instead I had to find different ways of saying "In this way" or "That's how". In the fifth stanza there is no indication that Pasternak is talking about the rhythms or the rhythms of poems; he seems to be describing the "iambics" of poems in an abstract way. I decided the idea would be clearer if I added "their".

One particular issue was how to translate "Фауст" – literally "Faust". I thought that many young people reading the poem might not straight away make the link between Faust (a scholar from a German legend who was so dissatisfied with his life that it led to him giving his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited worldly pleasures) and the idea of a demon, or a person with no moral integrity. Therefore I had to simplify it and make it clearer.

Katherine Linaker