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

Open category, commended

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Read the winning entries from previous years


Jane Draycott

Extracts from the Old English Herbarium


They call it betony    appears
in meadows    slopes of cleared
downland    & in safe shade
resides    a salve for soul
& body both    a shield
against night-gangers    darkfelt visions
terrifying dreams    a plant
of real purity    so gather it
in August only    & leave
your ironmongery    at home

Batracion    or sometimes
buttercup    appears in sandy soil
in fields    its thin leaves
few and far between    a remedy
against lune-madness    wreathed
around the neck    with reddish
thread    beneath a waning
April moon    or in the new days
of October    very very soon
this madness    will be over

The mandrake plant    the great
the glorious mandragora's    sacred
famed    for its beneficence
come close    you'll know it
by its night-shine    lantern glow
when you see the head    inscribe it
instantly around with iron    to ground
its flight    from your impure approach
then dig with ivory    till getting
to its hands and feet    you tie them up

with at the other end    a famished dog
& meat    exactly out of reach
so the hound tugs up along    the plant
& then for sleeplessness    & headache
smooth its juice    into the brow
& be astounded    how swiftly sleep
will come    & where there's wrongdoing
at home    some clear & grievous hurt
carry a mandrake    to your house's heart
& end for ever    all such evil harm

For hail & rough winds    turn them
on their heels    with castor flowers
otherwise ricinus    hung at home
hung anywhere    will drive back
sleet & squalls    its miracle seeds
hung shipboard    slake the fiercest storms
recite    ricinus be always in my songs
send hail away    send storms
& lightning from me    in the almighty
name of god    your only maker

Translated from the Old English by Jane Draycott
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Extracts from the Old English Herbarium


Ðeos wyrt þe man betonicam nemneð heo biþ cenned on maedum & on claenum dunlandum . & on gefriþedum stowum . seo deah gehwaeþer ge þaer mannes sawle ge his lichoman hio hyne scyldeþ wið unhyrum nihtgengum & wið egeslicum gesihðum & swefnum . & seo wyrt byþ swyþe haligu & þus þu hi scealt niman on aguster monðe butan iserne . [...]

Ðeos wyrt þe man batracion & orum naman clufwyrt nemneð bið cenned on sandigum landum & on feldum heo bið feawum leafum & þinnum . Wið monoð seoce genim þas wyrte & gewrið mid anum readum þraede onbutan þaer monnes swyran on wanwegendum monan on þam monþe ðe man aprelis nemneð & on octobre foreweardum sona he bið gehaeled […]

Ðeos wyrt þe man mandragoram nemneð ys mycel & maere on gesihþe & heo ys fremful . ða þu scealt þissum gemete niman þonne þu to hyre cymst þonne ongist þu hy be þam þe heo on nihte scineð eal swa leoht faet þonne ðu hyre heafod aerest geseo þonne bewrit þu hy wel hraþe mid iserne þy laes heo þe aetfleo hyre maegen ys swa mycel & swa maere þat heo unclaenne man þonne he to hyre cymeþ wel hraþe forfleon [forlaete] wyle forðy þu hy scealt onbutan hy delfan swa ðu hyre mid þam iserne na aethrine . ac þu geornlice scealt mid ylpenbanenon staefe ða eorðan delfan . & þonne þu hyre handa & hyre fet geseo þonne gewrið þu hy . nim þonne þaene oþerne ende . & gewrið to anes hundes swyran swa þat se [þe] hund hungrig sy wurp him syþan mete toforan swa that he hyne ahraecan ne maege buton he mid him þa wyrte upabrede […]

Wið heafod ece & wið þat man slapan ne maege genim þat wos . smyre þone andplatan . & seo wyrt swa some þamsylfan gemete þone heafod ece geliðigaþ . & eac þu wudrast hu hraedlice se slaep becymeþ. […]

Gyf hwa hwylce hefige yfelnysse on his hose geseo genime þar wyrte mandragoram on middan þam huse swa mycel swa he þonne haebbe ealle yfelu he utanydeð [...]

Wið hagol & hreohnysse to awendenne gyf ðu þas wyrte ðe man ricinum & oðrum naman nemneð on þinre aehte hafast oððe on swa hwilcere stowe swa þu hy hafast oððe hyre saed heo awendeð hagoles hreohnysse & gyf þu hy oððe hire saed on seyp ahehft to þam wundorlic heo is þaet heo aelce hreohnysse gesmylteþ . Þas wyrte þu scealt niman þus eweþende [...] wyrt ricinum ic bidde þaet þu aetsy minum sangum & þaet ðu awende hagolar & ligraesceas & ealle heohnyssea þurh namanaelmihtiges godes se þe het beon acenned.

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Translation commentary

Last year the British Library launched their new digitised copy of the Old English Herbal, the beautifully illustrated Early English compendium of plant remedies from classical and north European sources. To the modern reader the herbarium, not composed in poetic form and not in its origins an imaginatively literary or inventive work, takes its place as part of the history of medical texts. Yet in many ways what the reader also hears is a kind of sequential prayer, the language of an extended humanitarian conversation: remedies for healing passed across cultures, recommended with conviction, against some of the most intractable suffering – disturbances of the mind, unhappiness and misfortune, uncontrollable storms and lightning strikes, robbery and violence – ills which a thousand years later the world still struggles to relieve.

So vivid are many of the descriptions, so miraculous do some of the claims for efficacy seem (the proposed power, for instance, of the castor-oil plant to quell gales at sea) that to translate them now entails as much an act of imaginative sympathy as translating a work of poetic composition. In choosing to try and make something of that idea, by translating extracts from the work as poetry, I found the arrangement of phrasing falling towards an echo of the Anglo-Saxon poetic line, partly perhaps as a relay of the often un-punctuated and 'free-fall' sequencing of the original's syntactical order which sometimes required reading back and forth several times over to work out metrical and grammatical emphasis.

In addition, where the original translations (from classical or Teutonic sources) struck me as repetitive, I have simplified a number of iterations of the same idea. I have also kept punctuation only to capital letters and apostrophes, aiming to capture some of that quality of almost suspended phrasing which I frequently sensed in my reading of the original.

Jane Draycott