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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
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Stewart Sanderson

Charm to Quiet a Crying Baby

Wee one
You were so long in the house of darkness.

You have come out now.
You have seen the light of the sun.

Why do you weep and rage?
Why did you never cry in there?

You have woken the house god!
The bison is awake!

He is asking who just woke me?
Who disturbed my rest?

The baby woke you!
The baby disturbed your rest!

Like the drinker of wine
Like the innkeeper's drunken son

Let dreams fall upon him.

Translated from the Akkadian by Stewart Sanderson

Cuneiform Text (ll. 1-12)

image of original Akkadian cuneiform clay tablet


ṣe-eḫ-ru-um wa-ši-ib bi-it ek-[le-tim]
lu ta-ta-ṣa-am ta-ta-ma-ar n[u-ur dUTU]
a-mi-in ta-ba-ki a-mi-in tu-g[a?-ag?]
ul-li-ki-a a-mi-in la ta-ab-[ki-(i?)]
ì-lí bi-tim te-ed-ki ku-sa-ri-[k]u-u[m] i-gi-il-TIM
ma-nu-um id-ki-a-ni
ma-nu-um ú-ga-li-ta-ni
ṣe-eḫ-ru-um id-ki-ka ṣe-eh-ru-um ú-ga-li-it-ka
ki-ma ša-tu-ù ka-ra-ni-im
ki-ma ma-ar sà-bi-tim
li-im-qù-ta-šum ši-tum

ši-ip-tum ša ṣe-eḫ-ri-im nu-ùḫ-ḫi-im


Translation commentary

Studying the Akkadian language at university, I was often struck by the human traces which would emerge so vividly from this difficult tongue, a world away from modern English in its sounds and syntactical shapes. I chose to translate this anonymous lullaby from the first half of the second millennium BC because I felt it communicated something of what the ordinary people of ancient Iraq were like. Despite the distance which separates us from them, babies have always cried and parents have always tried to sing them back to sleep.

In this poem I think it is possible to imagine the mother speaking to the baby, asking why they were so much quieter in the womb. Meanwhile the father – perhaps hinted at in the references to the masculine god of the house and the bison – grumbles, asking why he has been so rudely woken up. Taken more literally, the image of the god and bison (which is also one of the Babylonian constellations, our Centaurus) being woken by the baby's crying puts the child at the centre of the universe.

Another thing which interests me about this text and others of its kind is that, beyond its literary function, this poem is an incantation intended to effect a perceptible change in reality. Unlike Auden, the Babylonians believed that poetry could indeed make things happen.

I worked from the original Akkadian, also consulting a transliteration by Rani Shlivinski and previous translation by Nathan Wasserman. Akkadian is a highly inflected language which can cram a lot of meaning into a few words. My short lines (which depart slightly from the cuneiform line breaks) are an attempt to convey something of this succinctness.

Stewart Sanderson