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

14-and-under category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2018 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Alexis Richards

Scylla and Charybdis

Wailing we rowed up through the narrow strait:
Here was Scylla, over there Charybdis
fearsome devourer of bitter water.
When she spewed this forth, like a pot in fire
swirling she roared and spattered spray upwards,
it crashed onto the cliffs on either side:
But when she sucked down bitter seawater,
within the spinning eye appeared, and all around
the rock roared terribly and underneath
sandy ground shone through: green fear grasped my men.
Then whilst we feared destruction from that side:
Scylla swiftly snatched from our hollow ship
six of my men, the strongest and bravest.
And already I saw their hands and feet
being hoisted up aloft: then they cried
out to me by name, their last utterance.
And as an angler casts bait down seawards
with a very long field-dwelling ox-horn
rod to snare small fish swimming down below
and then whips the struggling catch ashore
so she whipped them writhing towards her cave:
Right there she tore them apart as they screamed,
their hands clawing at me in their throes:
That was the most dreadful of my seeings
whilst I endured my torments on the seas.

Translated from the Ancient Greek by Alexis Richards

Scylla and Charybdis

image of  Ancient Greek text

Translation commentary

The tale of how Odysseus' men were shepherded through the perilous straits containing Scylla and Charybdis is a legendary one, however I was drawn to this extract because of its 'compactness' and the fact that it is a powerful description of the loss of six men, and Odysseus' horror at seeing this. Numerous difficulties came up while translating this extract, and initially the deciphering of sentences was difficult. However once I had got used to the style it became much easier to translate.

The original Ancient Greek was written in dactylic hexameter and I felt that this metre was important, so I decided to create a line-to-line iambic pentameter translation, to copy as naturally as possible Homer's original Greek. It is worth noting that iambic pentameter is perhaps the most natural metre in English and many epic poems have been written in it, such as Milton's Paradise Lost.

A number of phrases proved difficult to translate, for example 'ἀνερροίβδησε' ('he sucked down'), which I chose to translate as 'devourer…' as this sounds more natural and poetic in English. There was also the challenge of cutting down certain phrases to make the number of lines and the metre work. To take one example: 'ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐπὶ προβόλῳ ἁλιεὺς περιμήκεϊ ῥάβδῳ' literally means 'as from a jut a fisherman with a rod' however I was forced to cut 'from a jut' since it is fairly redundant and I wanted to place emphasis on other parts of that line. Homer uses a lot of particles in certain lines, perhaps to imitate the quick gasping of the men as they are devoured by the monster, and this was replicated in 'And as an angler', where I also made use of alliteration to keep the dramatic nature of the original.

Alexis Richards