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The Stephen Spender Prize 2018 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

14-and-under category, winner

Read the judges’ comments
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Rose Lewens

The Sultan

In the mountains of Kashmir
Lives the sultan of Salamandragore
By day he kills a load of people
And when evening arrives he falls asleep
But in his nightmares the dead are hiding
And are devouring him
So one night he wakes
Giving a loud cry
And the executioner roused from his rest
Arrives at the foot of his bed
If there weren't any living
Says the sultan
There wouldn't be any dead
And the executioner replies OK
So they all need to die
And let that be an end to it
OK says the executioner
It is the only thing he can say
So they all die as the sultan said
The women the children his own and other people's
The calf the wolf the wasp and the gentle sheep
The good honest old man and the sensible camel
The actresses of the stage the king of the animals
The banana planters the witty people
And the cocks and their hens the eggs and their yolk
And nobody is left to bury any of them
Things are fine now
Says the sultan of Salamandragore
But stay there executioner
There right next to me
And kill me
If ever I go back to sleep.

Translated from the French by Rose Lewens

Le Sultan

Dans les montagnes de Cachemire
Vit le sultan de Salamandragore
Le jour il fait tuer un tas de monde
Et quand vient le soir il s'endort
Mais dans ses cauchemars les morts se cachent
Et le dévorent
Alors une nuit il se réveille
En poussant un grand cri
Et le bourreau tiré de son sommeil
Arrive souriant au pied du lit
S'il n'y avait pas de vivants
Dit le sultan
Il n'y aurait pas de morts
Et le bourreau répond D'accord
Que tout le reste y passe alors
Et qu'on n'en parle plus
D'accord dit le bourreau
C'est tout ce qu'il sait dire
Et tout le reste y passe comme le sultan l'a dit
Les femmes les enfants les siens et ceux des autres
Le veau le loup la guêpe et la douce brebis
Le bon vieillard intègre et le sobre chameau
Les actrices des théâtres le roi des animaux
Les planteurs de bananes les faiseurs de bons mots
Et les coqs et leurs poules les oeufs avec leur coque
Et personne ne reste pour enterrer quiconque
Comme ça ça va
Dit le sultan de Salamandragore
Mais reste là bourreau
Là tout près de moi
Et tue-moi
Si jamais je me rendors.

Jacques Prévert

"Le Sultan" by Jacques Prévert in Paroles ©Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1949


Translation commentary

I chose this poem because when I spent some time in French school I had to learn it off by heart and illustrate it. I find it quite gruesome because it is about execution. The sultan is cruel. Is he stupid or is he mad? The result is the same. I think some politicians today are tyrants. The poem does not help us understand them, but it does help us understand how awful it would be to live with one ruling over you.

Sometimes people say things in French that you wouldn't really say in English and it can be hard to find an alternative. For example, in French you say 'to push a cry', but in English we say 'to give a cry'. In French there is just one present tense, such as 'je fais', but in English we could translate that by 'I do' or 'I am doing'. The second one means you are there, at that moment, doing it. The first one is more general. It sounds better in this poem to say that dead people 'are hiding' and 'are devouring' the sultan in his nightmares because it is more dramatic.

I understood most of the words, but I had to look up some things, such as 'les faiseurs de bons mots'. I originally thought that it would mean soothsayers or prophets but then realised that 'bons mots' can be jokes. Another problem that occurred was that 'cockerel' in English has two syllables, but this would have stopped the flow of the rhythm in the French poem, and I wanted it to sound more like 'yolk' because 'coq' and 'coque' sound the same in French, so I put 'cock' instead.

I didn't put any punctuation in the poem because there is none in the original.

Rose Lewens