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

Open category, commended

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


Antoinette Fawcett

Journey into the Known


Its crystalline simplicity and symmetry convinced them,
once they'd written down the formula, that they had discovered
the coordinates of the soul, an enigma which hadn't
been the object of their search. Those colleagues who had reacted
scornfully to this turned out not to have the wherewithal
to refute these preposterous speculations, and neither
could they offer more plausible hypotheses to trump them,
so, after five years of hopeless search, all doubts were set aside.
Another twenty years were needed in order to construct
the apparatus which would enable an expedition
to trek the soul's coordinates: it was a black proboscis
with a single curve, an entrance at one end, and at the other
nothing, or elsewhere, or the soul itself, all to be figured out.
And then the day broke on which the four doughty voyagers, each
one of them endowed with shallow characters, without urges
or passions, trained under the heaviest swells and commotions
of the mind, one by one ascended the ladder and there,
above the assembled crowd, high on the scaffold, accepted
the applause and disappeared, grimly diving into the hole.
Then came the time of waiting. Scholars for whom the project lay
close to the heart would regularly gather round each other's
tables where they deliberated widely on the nature
of the soul, its centre and expanse. What chances were there for
the mission? According to some of them the very essence
of the voyage lay in transubstantiation, with, of course,
the danger that the way back home would be blocked, but according
to others the greater risk was that those who once had tasted
the pleasures of the soul-life would never be contented
with anything less than being utterly immaterial.
The same questions were constantly raised. What were the best routes
for soul-exploration? Ley-lines? Meridians? X-rays?
Seams of fate? Axons of predestination? A few stood firm
by their unshaken conviction that the soul, a priori,
was something fully comprehensible. Most believed, however,
that humans were a part of something, without grasping what
that something was. One of them insisted, even, that if it were
ever to become apparent that the travellers hadn't lost themselves
inside the soul, this would prove the soul did not exist.
When they realized that the travellers had returned, it emerged
that they'd been dwelling amid humans many weeks already,
as if the soul itself had determined the route and duration
of their transit, and had then, using a natural pathway,
severed them off, without them being conscious of this at all.
There was nothing spectacular, as such, in their reports,
which spoke of pulsing elastic horizons with no perspective,
of the mottled qualities of the restless light and of the
labyrinth of irreversibility. There was no one
who couldn't have imagined something like this themselves. But hence-
forth, whenever the word 'soul' was spoken everyone would think of
the foursome, wandering across expanses so carelessly now
mentioned. And those who reflected on their own troubled souls
immediately recalled the image, described in the report,
of four travellers, alienated from their bodies, who, while
tentatively searching for traces of swelling or of rot,
gradually became aware of the booming steps of gigantic
creatures, there or in a neighbouring room, clearly
trying to achieve something with all their power and effort.

Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett
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Reis naar het bekende


Een formule van kristallijnen symmetrie en eenvoud
dat zij, zodra ze hem uitgeschreven hadden, overtuigd
waren dat hij hun de coördinaten van de ziel bood,
een enigma waarnaar ze niet eens op zoek waren geweest.
Collega's die smalend reageerden, bleken niet in staat
hun ongerijmde speculaties te weerleggen of met
plausibeler hypotheses te overtroeven, zodat
na vijf jaar ten einde raad de twijfel opzij werd gezet.
De twintig jaar daarop hadden ze nodig om een apparaat
te bouwen waarmee de zielencoördinaten bereisd
konden worden: een zwarte slurf met een enkele bocht
aan de ene kant de ingang en aan de andere kant
niets, of elders, of de ziel, dat moest worden uitgezocht,
waarna de dag aanbrak dat de vier reisgenoten, behept
met een oppervlakkig karakter, zonder aandrang of drift
en getraind onder de zwaarste deiningen van het gemoed,
één voor één de trappen beklommen, boven, op het schavot,
het applaus van de toegestroomde menigte in ontvangst
namen en met een grimmige duik verdwenen in het gat.

Toen kwam de tijd van het wachten. Geleerden wie het project
na aan het hart lag kwamen regelmatig tezamen rond
elkaars tafel en delibereerden breed over de aard
van de ziel, over haar middelpunt en uitgestrektheid.
Welke kans maakte de missie? Volgens sommigen bestond
de essentie van de reis in transsubstantiatie, met
het gevaar dat de terugkeer de reizigers was geblokkeerd,
maar volgens anderen was het risico veel groter dat
wie eenmaal van de geneugten van het zielenleven had
geproefd, met niets tevreden zou zijn dan onstoffelijkheid.
Telkens werden ze tot dezelfde vragen teruggevoerd.
Via welke wegen kon de ziel het best worden verkend?
Energiebanen? Gammastralen? De aders van de lot?
De nerf van de voorbeschikking? Voor enkelen van hen stond
de begrijpbaarheid van de ziel a priori onwrikbaar vast.
De meesten achtten het denkbaar dat de mens deel aan iets had
zonder daar greep op te hebben. Een van hen hield zelfs staand dat,
mocht blijken dat de reizigers niet in de ziel verdwaald
geraakt waren, dat het bewijs was dat die ook niet bestond.

Toen ze vernamen dat de reizigers waren teruggekeerd
bleek dat die al weken onder de mensen hadden vertoefd
alsof de ziel zelf de route en de duur van hun doortocht
had bepaald en hen vervolgens via een natuurlijk pad
had afgescheiden zonder dat ze het zelf hadden gemerkt.
Op zich waren hun verslagen niet spectaculair, met
de pulserende, elastische verten zonder verschiet,
de diffuse vlekkerigheid van het rusteloze licht
en het doolhof van de onomkeerbaarheid. Er was niemand
die het niet zelf had kunnen verzinnen. Maar steeds als het woord
ziel viel moest ieder voortaan denken aan het viertal, dolend
over de uitgebreidheid die zij zo lichtzinnig genoemd
hadden. Ieder die over zijn eigen warse ziel nadacht
riep onvermijdelijk het in het verslag beschreven beeld
op van de vier lichaamsvreemde reizigers die op de tast
de bodem afzochten naar sporen van zwelling of van rot
en die langzaam doordrongen raakten van de dreunende tred
van gigantische dieren die, daar of in een aanpalend
vertrek, iets bewerkstelligden met inzet van al hun kracht.

Han van der Vegt
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Translation commentary

I'm someone who grew up bilingually, but only up to the age of five or six. Living outside the Netherlands for most of my life, hanging onto my Dutch by the skin of my teeth (and tongue), searching for poets whose work excites me, has been my relationship with my mother's country for many years now, a relationship which could have died away forever if I hadn't loved the sound of the language so much. Before the internet, keeping up with Dutch was even harder than it is now, but since its blooming, each year has brought me closer and closer into the unknown or half-known. Han van der Vegt's poetry was an internet discovery, and an exciting one too. Here was a poet who clearly loved sound and rhythm, who wasn't afraid to tackle unusual topics or tell stories in his verse. He is known for his modern science- fiction-like epics, characterized by fabulous elements, classical parallels, and ironic sidelong glances at contemporary issues. Most of all though, Van der Vegt is interested in human nature and its relationship to the wider universe.

I wanted to share his speculative voice and vision with readers outside the Dutch-speaking world, and was pleased to come across the relatively short 'Reis naar het bekende', a narrative fable with a cool objective tone, and a majestic syntax, which nevertheless comes to a surprising and almost shocking conclusion as we feel the full force of the story. The long 15-syllable lines, the well-controlled sentences, and the subtle sound-patterning were aspects of the poem I hoped I could reflect. In the end I chose for the rolling rhythms and shapely sentences, and didn't try to imitate the fleeting, long-distance, unobtrusive end-rhymes, aiming instead for certain sound-echoes, and paying particular attention to enjambements and line-endings.

Antoinette Fawcett