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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

Kevin Maynard

Building Walls

incessant commotion and clamour
         of thousands of labourers' mallets
                           mallets that startle poor mother earth
                                    with all their thwacking and thumping

everywhere clearing the villagers' land
         constructing clay-kilns belching out smoke
                           spying out woodland for timber to fell
                                    to build up more watch-towers

days so brief
          air so keen
                     gangmasters laying about them
                                                   with white rods
hoarse yells upbraiding the workers
                              like pelting wind and rain

          "the House of Han's high minister's
                    obsessed about the borderlands
          building walls builds us up too
                    and wins us high promotion"

long ago the wilderness
          was wide and free of walls

now warning-beacons
                    file for miles
                              walls must be lined with troops

but you, sir, far away, don't see
          how snaggle-toothed walls look
how soon they stick up like fish-scales

          walk all along them: empty now

                                              not a single soldier left

Translated from the Chinese by Kevin Maynard

劉克莊 築城行

image of original Chinese poem
Liu Kezhuang (1187–1269)

Translation commentary

For many years I've been building up a body of translations from classical Chinese poetry on the subject of war. This has meant ferreting around in Chinese anthologies to find suitable candidates, and every now and again I stumble across a poem that seems excitingly original. This is one such. As soon as I encountered it, I knew I wanted to do it justice. At a time when an American President is talking about building a wall to keep the Mexicans out, this also seemed highly topical. Some of the things I especially felt drawn to were the way in which the poem's main focus is on the poor labourers press-ganged into the corvée, the use of onomatopoeia in line two ('ding-ding' in the Chinese original, 'thwacking and thumping' in my version), the meteorological accuracy (common in this kind of 'border poetry': biānsài shī 邊塞詩), the satirical comment about what the gangmasters are thinking, and what motivates their cruelty, which I've italicized and put into direct speech for dramatic impact, and the strange simile towards the end: 'like fish-scales'. The shock of the ending, after the walls have quickly been abandoned, rather reminds me of Shelley's Ozymandias: 'the lone and level sands stretch far away'. My free verse rendering dispenses with the tonal prosody and end-rhyme of the original, but substitutes internal rhyme and the overall design of the piece on the page (margins and lineation) to try and give the poem its maximum impact in English.

Kevin Maynard