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

Open category, first prize

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


Gabi Reigh

The Traveller


The waters through which I have passed
Have left the memory of a lake under my skin.
I can no longer walk briskly, gain speed,
Unless my feet are covered in blisters,
Unless I'm in a swamp
Where I am imperceptibly sinking.

Sleep won't come unless I'm crouching
Over a suitcase, near the door
Of an overcrowded carriage,
Disturbed from dozing by every passenger getting on
Or off the train.
In between these breaks I have the most beautiful dreams...
Unfortunately, all abruptly interrupted.

Ah, to sleep in a strange, neutral bed,
In a third class hotel!
You drop on the slimy, shabby, slightly uneven mattress.
The air smells of prison, the window is nailed shut.
And it would be imprudent to open it because the beggars can jump.

Around midnight, you're woken up
By an ache in the ribs, sore arches.
You fumble, can't find the light switch.
Where are you? What town?
You wake up on a train and wait for the conductor
'What's the next station, please?'

You're losing it.
Out of the window, you recognise nothing,
You could be in Switzerland, or Italy or the moon.
The trees are changing second by second,
Sentinels guarding a corpse in a hurry,
Or telegrams received in a battle
Where the result is uncertain.
You are the commander, you receive them, open them,
But the telegrams are encrypted
And you have forgotten the code of leaves.

I am not well unless
Confused, uncomfortable,
Standing on one foot on a blister
Clutching on a rail, hanging from a windowsill,
By the tradesmen's entrance,
Running like hell
Carrying great suitcases full of useless things
Leaving behind the only
Useful object: an umbrella (because wherever you're a traveller,
it always rains buckets).

I am not well unless I'm sick,
Limping,
Dark-circled,
Hurled into the street by my own restlessness…

Forever on the road, pushed as if by a kick in the ribs,
Wide-eyed, like in the presence of a miracle.

Translated from the Romanian by Gabi Reigh
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Calatorul


Apele peste care am trecut
Mi-au dat ca amintire un mic licar sub piele.
Nu mai pot pasi sprinten, cu avant,
Decat daca am talpa plina de bataturi,
Daca-mi e toata ca un teren mlastinos,
In care te scufunzi imperceptibil.

Somnul nu-mi mai vine decat stand chircit,
Undeva pe geamantan, langa o usa de vagon
Supraaglomerat,
Trezit din motaiala de fiecare calator care urca sau
Coboara.
Intre aceste pauze am cele mai frumoase vise,
Toate intrerupte brusc, din pacate.

Ah,somnul in pat strain, neutru,
De hotel de mana a treia!
Cazi trasnit pe dormeza slinoasa, jilava, usor inclinata.
In camera e un aer de puscarie, geamul e prins in cuie.
Si-ar fi imprudent sa-l deschizi ca sar cersetorii.

Pe la miezul noptii, te trezeste durerea
In coaste, pricinuita de arcuri,
Bajbai si nu stii de unde se aprinde lumina. Unde esti? In ce oras?
Te crezi tot in tren si-astepti conductorul
"spuneti-mi, va rog, ce statie urmeaza?"

Uneori e adevarat, esti chiar in accelerat!
In vagonul lit. Ai vrut sa-ti faci damblaua.
Pe geam nu recunosti nimic,
Peisajul poate fi la fel de bine
Elvetian, ori italian, daca nu chiar din luna.
Copacii se schimba din secunda-n secunda,
Ca niste sentinele de garda
La un mort grabit,
Ori ca telegramele primite intr-o batalie
Ca rezultat nesigur.
Tu esti comandantul, tu le primesti, le deschizi,
Tot statul major se uita in gura ta, asteapta ordinele,
Dar telegramele sunt cifrate
Si-ai uitat cifrul frunzelor.

Nu ma simt bine decat
Buimac, incomod,
Stand intr-un picior pe-o batatura
Agatat de-o bara, spanzurat de-un pervaz,
Pe-o scara de serviciu,
Trebuind sa dau fuga pana la mama dracului,
Carand patru geamantae mari, pline cu lucruri nefolositoare,
Renuntand din cauza lor la singurul obiect
Important: umbrela (peste tot cand esti calator, ploua de rupe).

Nu ma simt bine decat rau,
schiopatand,
Incercanat
Azvarlit in strada de propria-mi neliniste...

Mereu pe drumuri, impins ca de-un sut in rarunchi,
Cu ochii holbati, ca in preajma minunii.

Marin Sorescu
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Translation commentary

Reading 'Calatorul', I'm reminded of Pascal's comment that 'the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room'. The beauty of the poem, for me, is that it celebrates this unhappiness. His traveller is only 'happy' when stripped of all comfort and familiarity, released from habit and disorientated.

I first came across this poem when I was studying English at UCL and we had been asked to bring to a seminar a poem that we liked. Having moved from Romania as a teenager, I wanted to share my country's poetry with others. The poem captures for me the feelings that still draw me to travel, the compulsive need to experience something new, a restlessness perhaps born out of being an immigrant and not feeling a sense of belonging to any particular place.

One of the things that I found most challenging was recreating the tone of the poem as closely as possible. Sorescu is known for his ironical tone, which he achieves chiefly through his use of colloquial language. I tried to find appropriate colloquialisms from English which convey the same meaning yet do not sound crude or cliched. In contrast to the colloquial, prosaic language, Sorescu also use more lyrical images ('the code of leaves') to convey how travel transforms the world into something new and unfamiliar. He sometimes uses unexpectedly formal words such as 'imprudent', almost mimicking the voice of a travel guide warning travellers how to keep themselves safely insulated from the social realities of the countries they are voyaging through. I wanted to keep these shifts in tone from the original poem because I felt they expressed the nuances of the traveller's experience - the banal discomforts, the moments of exhilaration, the fear of the unknown.

Gabi Reigh