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

Judges’ comments

Read the 2017 winning entries
Download the 2017 booklet
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2017 competition by Margaret Jull Costa, Olivia McCannon and Sean O'Brien


Margaret Jull Costa

What first struck me was the sheer variety of languages and also how many of the entrants were translating from their mother tongue, having been brought up bilingually or having come here as children or having grandparents who spoke that other language. The most popular source languages were still Spanish, French and German, but it was gratifying to see such a multitude of other languages.

The unanimous choice for winner of the 14-and-under section was Katherine Linaker for her version of 'This is the way' by Boris Pasternak. Katherine chose not to rhyme, but to use instead a 4-stressed syllabic line. The result is strikingly confident and compelling, with that insistently repeated 'This is the way' drawing the reader on to that unexpected last line: 'This is the way that true poets are made.' Hannah Gillot, on the other hand, chose to keep to the rhyme scheme in her subtle translation of Heine's 'The anxious lotus flower', and she remarks on the word choices imposed by both rhyme and rhythm. In her comments on her appropriately playful version of Jacques Prévert's 'On our way home from school', Natasha Symes also observes how rhyme often forces the translator away from the original vocabulary and into new discoveries.

Ambah Brondum-Christensen's version of Krio poet Daphne Pratt's 'Per Diem' is impressively inventive, managing to preserve the sly humour of the original, while bringing the whole poem smartly up to date and, in effect, creating a brand-new poem. Euan McGreevy's translation of young Spanish poet Sergio C. Fanjul's 'Architectural pride' maintains the simplicity of the original, but very wisely opts for calling the 'city' 'she' rather than 'it', thus breathing necessary life into the inanimate. Marina Kisluik, in her translation of Marina Tsvetaeva's 'A Mistake', deftly negotiates the seemingly simple language. I particularly liked her alliterative opening lines: 'A flying snowflake,/Falling like a shooting star.'

The winner of the Open Category is Gabi Reigh's translation of the Romanian poet Marin Sorescu's 'The traveller', a poem that revels in discomfort and danger, and Gabi effortlessly captures the poet's comic/ironic delight in precariousness: 'I am not well unless/Confused, uncomfortable,/Standing on one foot on a blister/Clutching on a rail, hanging from a windowsill…' She skilfully maintains the driving rhythm and the helter-skelter imagery leading us ever onwards. Andrew Fentham's version of Hungarian poet András Gerevich's 'Balaton accident' is equally brilliant at replicating the unremitting grimness of the poem's subject matter, with some wonderful imagery, for example: 'the faces in the crowd/rearranged with grief'. And I loved all of Antoinette Fawcett's translations from the Dutch, particularly 'Wind-still' which makes captivating use of assonance and alliteration to evoke the stillness of the original: 'I saw the stock-still silent white/cow-parsley blooming by the ditch/in a deathly hush…' I was also very taken with Deidre McMahon's bold translation of the German poet Marica Bodrožić's 'Beneath the world a storehouse of stars', with her free and fertile use of alliteration, as well as the English neologisms she invents to match those in which the poet herself delights – 'falcon-light', 'everland', 'untetheredness'.

My thanks to all the entrants for providing us with such riches, for the poems and the commentaries.

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Olivia McCannon

This was my first year on the judging panel, and I was delighted to discover so many accomplished submissions across such a wide spread of languages and eras. I especially enjoyed work that engaged deeply with the translation process, had a genuine 'felt' presence, or nourished poetic innovation in English. I'll look forward to seeing entrants continue to reach out across the globe next year, bringing across contemporary writers, or voices from parts of the world, and the past, that speak to our times.

In the 14-and-under category, Katherine Linaker's translation of Pasternak, 'This is the Way', stood out for its beautifully sustained handling of metre. I appreciated her thoughtful commentary, charting the transformation of uncertainty into the search for possibility. I admired Hannah Gillot's rendering of Heine's 'Die Lotosblume', maintaining form without compromising the flow of the line, and Natasha Symes' inventive and unforced version of Prévert's 'En sortant de l'école', while Warsan Zubeir Masabo brought over a long traditional poem (Swahili), 'You will get Wealth from the Farm', with limpidity and warmth.

In the 18-and-under category, many candidates engaged wholeheartedly with the complexities of translation, producing lively and original poems in English. We were impressed by the fiery political energy of Ambah Brondum-Christensen's 'Per Diem', and her confident strategies for turning the differences between Krio and English to her advantage. In Euan McGreevy's restrained and effective translation of Sergio C. Fanjul (Spanish), his considered importation of gendered pronouns gave him new possibilities in English. Isobel Sanders gave us a punchy version of Propertius, confidently treading the fine line of modernisation, while Marina Kisliuk thought and felt her way into Tsvetaeva, facing the challenges with honesty and insight.

The judges unanimously selected Gabi Reigh's translation of Marin Sorescu, 'The Traveller' (Romanian), as the winner in the Open Category. We admired her ear for the restless tone of the poem, her skill in creating a convincing texture out of unsettling shifts and unexpected associations: '…the telegrams are encrypted/And you have forgotten the code of leaves'. Andrew Fentham's sure-footed rendering of András Gerevich, from the Hungarian, was remarkable for its attentiveness to the 'new confusion in the poet's work' and its holding of nerve through a series of disturbing images. We were all struck by a set of atmospheric, nuanced poems from the Dutch, translated by Antoinette Fawcett – her 'Wind-still' took third place, with her 'Journey into the Known' also commended.

Deirdre McMahon's rendering of Marica Bodrožić (German) was a pleasure to read for the new-coined quality of its imagery, and the syntactic tension of lines hanging together by a thread. I was moved by Stewart Sanderson's 'Charm to Quiet a Crying Baby' from the Akkadian, speaking to us across the centuries, vividly and with great humanity, and by the human detail and realism of 'Building Walls' in Kevin Maynard's reconstructed version of a Song dynasty poem.

Thank you all for entering!

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Sean O'Brien

Perhaps the most striking feature of this year's entries for the Stephen Spender Translation Competition was the translators' widespread preference for poems that were not obvious choices, either because they were less familiar pieces by internationally famous poets or because the poets translated are less familiar or indeed new to Anglophone readers. The latter is one of the most useful and delightful aspects of translation: a new imagination comes into view, with the promise of more waiting to be discovered and enjoyed beyond the immediate sample.

In the 14-and-under category, the winner Katherine Linaker delivered a mature and assured translation of Boris Pasternak's 'This is the way…', maintaining the momentum of the piece through the diverse images and moments of recognition that shape the imagination of a poet. Hannah Gillot made an impressive showing with her rendering of Heine's 'The Lotus Flower', which was marked by rhythmic confidence and consistency of tone. Natasha Symes dealt boldly and enjoyably with Prévert's 'On Our Way Home from School'. It was also refreshing to read Warsan Zubeir Masabo's commended translation from a traditional Swahili poem, 'You Will Get Wealth from the Farm', a trenchant example of a kind of wisdom poetry which English seems not to have produced.

Winner in the 18-and-under category was Ambah Brondum-Christensen's translation from the Krio of Daphne Pratt. 'Per Diem: the Need for Expenses' is a dry and damningly funny address to those (of all nations) who are never off the political / diplomatic gravy train. 'Architectural Pride', in second place, translated by Euan McGreevy from the Spanish of Sergio Fanjul, offers a different but equally intriguing challenge – to sustain a tone of deliberate ordinariness while observing fate taking its course. The effect is rather reminiscent of Cavafy. In third place came Marina Kisluik's free-verse version of Marina Tsvetaeva's 'A Mistake'. Isobel Sanders's raunchy contemporizing of the battle of the sexes in Propertius 3.8. was highly commended.

The Open Category produced some particularly impressive work, which made the judges' task more difficult – always a welcome state of affairs. The winner was Gabi Reigh, with her version of Marin Sorescu's 'The Traveller'. In this hilarious account of the misfortunes which make the traveller feel as it were at home, pessimism becomes a form of affirmation, black humour a liberation. In the grim hotel, 'The air smells of prison, the window is nailed shut. / And it would be imprudent to open it because the beggars can jump.' The word 'imprudent' is in the original: here in English it gives the poem a whole repertoire of irony. Winner of the second prize was Andrew Fentham with his translation of the Hungarian poet András Gerevich's 'Balaton Accident'. This grim and meticulous poem about a fatal crash introduced me to a poet I want to read more of. The unyielding quality of attention slightly recalled Gottfried Benn. There is a documentary dimension here, but one shadowed by the ambiguous position of the speaker. In third place, Antoinette Fawcett offered a limpid rendering of the Dutch Leo Vroman's pastoral memory 'Wind-Still'. Ms Fawcett was also commended for her arresting translation of Hans van der Vegt's witty and elegant poem of metaphysical enquiry, 'Journey into the Known'.

Highly commended was Deirdre McMahon with 'Beneath the World a Storehouse of Stars', translated from the German of Marica Bodrožić, a poet from the former Yugoslavia. It's a fascinating and disorientating piece, dramatizing its ancestral images from 'an old language, heavy with promises.' Also commended was Stewart Anderson's version of an anonymous Akkadian poem 'Charm To Quiet a Crying Baby', which includes the irresistible couplet 'You have woken the house god! / The bison is awake!'

At the risk of stating the obvious, the contact with poetry in other languages is an invaluable part of literary and of broader cultural activity. It delights; it informs; it helps to provoke the wide, disinterested curiosity necessary to the conduct of the examined life, particularly at a time like this, when bland ignorance seems to have begun to regard itself as respectable. Translators, please continue your work.

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