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

Open category, first prize

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

Alice Fletcher

On the Fjord

The night I left you
the fjord lay so still and clear
as if the water itself
had lost all substance
It was like rowing in empty air

Through a night so infinitely clear
that I suddenly knew
I had to live without shadow
Up against the edge of sleep
away from the reach of your dreams

The sound of years
in starless water. Like rowing
in one's own heart
through a sorrow as deep and cold
as death itself

On the banks of the starlit shores
along the strait, the houses lay
and shone
with your face in every window
And you did not see me

Translated from the Norwegian by Alice Fletcher

På fjorden

Den natten jeg forlot deg
lå fjorden så stille og gjennomsiktig
som om selve vannet
hadde mistet all substans
Det var som å ro i tomme luften

Over en natt så uendelig klar
at jeg plutselig visste
jeg måtte leve uten skygge
Helt nær søvnens skillelinje
utenfor rekkevidden av dine drømmer

Lyden av årer
i stjernløst vann. Som å ro
i sitt eget hjerte
over en sorg så dyp og kald
som døden selv

Ved de stjerneklare breddene
langs sundet, lå husene
og lyste
med ditt ansikt i alle vinduer
Og du så meg ikke

Stein Mehren

Translation commentary

I have translated 'På fjorden' by Stein Mehren because I think it is a perfect example of a typically Norwegian poem; the language is clean, crisp, and deceptively simple, while also being very evocative. As with so much Norwegian literature and poetry, it is deeply connected to nature, as can be seen from the title itself. The language of Mehren's poem is simple but so poignant, and I think it is a poem that really makes one stop and think. Moreover, it is a poem about love, however tragic, which I think really brings the poem to life for readers.

There is not much complicated language in this poem, so a challenge was keeping that same, minimalist language while still painting the same picture as the original. The mix of short and long lines means that accurately copying the rhythm of the poem is quite difficult, as Norwegian has many long compound words, and Mehren doesn't follow a specific rhythm. Knowing this, my translation has a mix of long and short lines, so although it is not identical, it still maintains that disjointed tone of the original.

When translating this poem, I wanted to keep a certain amount of 'Norwegianness', as I thought the original poem was so evocative of Norway. The imagery created by words like 'fjord' and 'strait' immediately paint a Norwegian landscape. I also wanted to maintain the minimalist, simple tone; the Norwegian word for 'rowing', which is mentioned twice in the poem, is the same as the word for 'calm' or 'rest', and this ties in with the description of still water and empty air. Therefore I knew that this is a very calm, understated poem, despite the heartbreak that it describes, and this is something I wanted to carry over in the translation.

Alice Fletcher