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

18-and-under category, third prize

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Read the winning entries from previous years

Sam Hunt

Tristia III:II

So it seems I was fated to visit Scythia too,
And the land which lies beneath the Lycaonian sky.

You didn't think to help your priest,
No, not you, the learned crowd of Muses, nor you, son of Leto.

There was no real sin in my playful doings – true, but that can't help me now
The life I lived wasn't like the shameless dreams I dreamed – true,
      but that can't help me now:
After all, here I am, subjected to all that land and sea can throw at me,
Held tight in cold Pontus' clutches.

I was born into leisure, not a care in the world,
Tender and impetuous when it came to work.
Now I weather the extremes: no harbourless ocean
Nor far-flung travels can break me;
My stout heart clung on in the face of my ills;
It leant my body the strength to bear what was not to be borne.
I was hurled halfway across the world, my faith was weak,
In the end it was toil that occupied me; kept those sorrows; that sick heart,
      at bay.

And now I'm at my journey's end, toil is but a memory;
And here I am, in the place of my punishment:
There's nothing to do but grieve, and weep
Like springtime snow.

Rome's in my heart, and home, and places half-forgotten,
And that part of me I left behind in the city I've lost.
Oh, how often I've knocked on the door of my tomb;
Was it really never open?
Why have I escaped the fall of so many swords?
Why was my ill-fated life not taken by one of those storms that so often
      threatened to take it?
Gods, unrelentingly unjust (as time has taught me),
Partakers of the fury which only one god holds,
Urge on my ailing fate, I pray,
And forbid the doors of death to close!

Translated from the Latin by Sam Hunt

Tristia III:II

Ergo erat in fatis Scythiam quoque uisere nostris,
   quaeque Lycaonio terra sub axe iacet:
nec uos, Pierides, nec stirps Letoia, uestro
   docta sacerdoti turba tulistis opem.
Nec mihi, quod lusi uero sine crimine, prodest,
   quodque magis uita Musa iocata mea est:
plurima sed pelago terraque pericula passum
   ustus ab assiduo frigore Pontus habet.
Quique, fugax rerum securaque in otia natus,
   mollis et inpatiens ante laboris eram,
ultima nunc patior, nec me mare portubus orbum
   perdere, diuersae nec potuere uiae;
sufficit atque malis animus; nam corpus ab illo
   accepit uires, uixque ferenda tulit.
Dum tamen et terris dubius iactabar et undis,
   allebat curas aegraque corda labor:
ut uia finita est et opus requieuit eundi,
   et poenae tellus est mihi tacta meae,
nil nisi flere libet, nec nostro parcior imber
   lumine, de uerna quam niue manat aqua.
Roma domusque subit desideriumque locorum,
   quicquid et amissa restat in urbe mei.
Ei mihi, quo totiens nostri pulsata sepulcri
   ianua, sed nullo tempore aperta fuit?
Cur ego tot gladios fugi totiensque minata
   obruit infelix nulla procella caput?
Di, quos experior nimium constanter iniquos,
   participes irae quos deus unus habet,
exstimulate, precor, cessantia fata meique
   interitus clausas esse uetate fores!


Translation commentary

In choosing to translate a poem from Ovid's 'Tristia', I was especially inspired by a segment of a documentary about him that I saw recently in which he was described as the 'archetypal poet of exile'. He assumed this mantle in his last few years whilst confined to Tomis, far from Rome, and it contrasts so sharply with the more traditional literary baggage attached to Ovid, namely sensual elegiac love poetry and mythical epic in the form of the 'Metamorphoses'. Selecting a poem written during his banishment on the coast of the Black Sea enabled me to gain a new perspective on his work and his life, especially the circumstances of its end. Because of the air of resignation and world-weariness which is so apparent in the 'Tristia' and 'Epistulae ex Ponto' (and indeed in this specific poem), I chose to do away with uniform stanza length, rhyme scheme, or rhythm in my translation and employ an (at times) conversational style of writing, certainly taking some inspiration from Philip Larkin in creating a poem that is pensive and reflective in a melancholic, but not tragic, manner. As for realising this aim by translating Latin into idiomatic English, I faced a number of challenges in conveying Ovid's general message whilst still maintaining grammatical sense. For instance, I translated 'nec mihi… prodest' as a parenthesis meaning 'but that can't help me now', repeated in order to stress the frustration that accompanies this helplessness that he describes. Similarly, some words like 'inpatiens' were better not translated entirely literally because of their context – to say that somebody is 'impetuous' in their work makes far more sense in modern English than some pervasive attitude of 'impatience'. Another technique I occasionally employed to bridge the linguistic disconnect was to translate some passive phrases as active, the latter being, as Orwell once remarked, so much more powerful in the English language.

Sam Hunt