• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

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

Antoinette Fawcett

How poetry was discovered

A bailiff came to the door to lay claim to all our possessions. My father had tax problems. He can't take toys away, I thought, because we don't have any toys.
    'We've got no toys,' I told the man.
    'We'll see about that,' he said and started to stomp through the house, a couple of rooms really, and suddenly he was coming towards me with all kinds of stuff tucked under his arm that I didn't even know belonged to me.
    'What's this, then?'
    It didn't look like toys.
    'Is it toys?'
    He dropped it all onto the floor, bent down and started to play with it, and before I knew it I'd joined in too. They really were toys. I'd never seen so many toys before. They were excellent playthings actually and the bailiff, stripped of all his bailiff-hood in the act of playing, showed me how I could create plenty of fun and games simply by making small adjustments to things.
    'Yes,' I said in high spirits, laughing at this wonderful discovery, 'these really are toys.'
    'And that's why I'll have to take them all away with me. I'll give you one moment now to say goodbye.' And he did exactly as he said, as people always do in this country. They do what they say.

Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

De ontdekking van de poëzie

Er kwam een deurwaarder om onze complete inboedel te vorderen. Mijn vader zat in de fiscale problemen. Speelgoed kan hij toch niet meenemen, dacht ik, want dat hebben we niet.
    'We hebben geen speelgoed,' zei ik tegen de man.
    'Dat zullen we nog wel zien,' zei hij en begon door het huis te lopen, die paar kamers, en voordat ik het wist was hij naar me toe gekomen met onder zijn arm allerlei zaken waarvan ik niet had geweten dat ik ze in mijn bezit had.
    'Wat is dit?'
    Het zag er niet uit als speelgoed.
    'Is dat speelgoed?'
    Hij liet het op de vloer vallen, bukte en begon ermee te spelen, en voordat ik het wist was ik mee aan het doen. Het was inderdaad speelgoed eigenlijk en de deurwaarder die tijdens het spelen bevrijd was van zijn zakelijke kantjes, liet me zien hoe ik met kleine aanpassingen aan de dingen toch heel veel plezier kon maken.
    'Ja,' zei ik, opgewekt en lachend om deze heerlijke ontdekking, 'dit is speelgoed.'
    'En om die reden zal ik het mee moeten nemen. Ik geef je een minuutje om er afscheid van te nemen.' Wat hij zei, deed hij ook, zoals alle mensen in dit land doen. Ze doen wat ze zeggen.

Abdelkader Benali

(Reproduced by permission of the poet)


Translation commentary

This prose poem is the first poem in Abdelkader Benali's latest collection Wax Hollandais (2017), which explores multiple ways of being and seeing in the poet's various homes and dwellings: his country of origin, Morocco, which he left as a child of four; the Netherlands, his adoptive country and now deeply-rooted culture; his childhood family home in Rotterdam; and the home he has created for himself with his own family and in the Dutch language.

I was enchanted by this amusing, ironic fable and wanted to translate it because of its verve and playful wisdom, which struck me as being typical of Benali's work. By placing this piece of writing at the start of his poetry collection, Benali effectively declares that it is a poem, enacting exactly the same kinds of small adjustments to our thinking and perception that the bailiff made to his.

The challenges of translating prose poetry (or a poem in the guise of prose) are somewhat different to translating line-governed poetry. I have not worried about the line-breaks at all and have not even focused on the number of lines, words, or syllables. But I have listened carefully to the rhythms and the tone, and to the weight and valency of the individual words.

One key word 'speelgoed' [toy/s] actually gave me some trouble in its translation as it is grammatically singular but includes both singular and plural concepts within it. Thinking carefully about what a child might say ('Is it toys?') enabled me to catch a little of that ambivalence in English. I also tried to convey something of its etymology, which has some weight in the effect of the whole ('speel' = 'play'; 'goed' = 'good'/'goods'), by choosing the older English word for 'toy' – 'plaything' – as its translation at one crucial point in the poem.

Antoinette Fawcett