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

Polish Spotlight 18-and-under category, winner

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2018 booklet
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Amelia Sodhi

Cat in an empty apartment

Dying – one doesn't do that to a cat.
For what can a cat do
in an empty apartment.
Scratching against the walls.
Rubbing on the furniture.
In a way, nothing here was changed,
and yet it has been altered.
In a way, nothing was moved,
and yet it has been confused.
In the evening, the light burns no more.

Footsteps heard on the stairway,
but not those.
The hand, which lays fish on the plate,
is too not the one, that did it once.

Something does not begin here
at its usual time.
Something does not happen here
as it should.
Someone was, and was here
then at-all-once disappeared
and now he's persistently gone.

It peered into all the cupboards.
Scampered across the shelves.
Wedged itself under the rug, investigated.
Even went against the rule
and scattered the papers.

What else is there to do.
Sleeping, waiting.

Let him dare return,
let him dare show himself.
Right away he'll learn,
that one doesn't do this to a cat.
There will be a stroll in his direction
as though utterly begrudging,
little by little,
on most offended paws.
And no leaps or chirps at first.

Translated from the Polish by Amelia Sodhi

Kot w pustym mieszkaniu

Umrzeć – tego się nie robi kotu.
Bo co ma począć kot
w pustym mieszkaniu.
Wdrapywać się na ściany.
Ocierać między meblami.
Nic niby tu nie zmienione,
a jednak pozamieniane.
Niby nie przesunięte,
a jednak porozsuwane.
I wieczorami lampa już nie świeci.

Słychać kroki na schodach,
ale to nie te.
Ręka, co kładzie rybę na talerzyk,
także nie ta, co kładła.

Coś się tu nie zaczyna
w swojej zwykłej porze.
Coś się tu nie odbywa
jak powinno.
Ktoś tutaj był i był,
a potem nagle zniknął
i uporczywie go nie ma.

Do wszystkich szaf się zajrzało.
Przez półki przebiegło.
Wcisnęło się pod dywan i sprawdziło.
Nawet złamało zakaz
i rozrzuciło papiery.
Co więcej jest do zrobienia.
Spać i czekać.

Niech no on tylko wróci,
niech no się pokaże.
Już on się dowie,
że tak z kotem nie można.
Będzie się szło w jego stronę
jakby się wcale nie chciało,
na bardzo obrażonych łapach.
O żadnych skoków pisków na początek.

Wisława Szymborska

Translation commentary

There are many poems on grief, but never from a cat's perspective.

When I was looking for a poem to translate, 'Kot w pustym mieszkaniu' stood out to me. Szymborska captures a beautiful melancholy in this poem, through simplicity, repetition, and notably through the more subjective narration in the last stanza. She is able to recreate a certain feeling of grief that, so far, I have struggled to find in other poems; her illustration of the pain of loss isn't something over the top but something small, and hence, even more potent.

As I translated 'Kot w pustym mieszkaniu', I focused on choosing words that could carry the same feeling behind them, even if they weren't the exact translation. 'Piski', for example, technically means squeals or squeaks but, after deliberating, I ended up picking the verb 'chirp' instead – chirping, learnt in childhood, can show a cat's happiness or is often used as a call to get another to pay attention. One of the largest problems I found translating between Polish and British English was recreating the few words necessary in Polish to convey something bigger. Phrases like 'ale to nie te' can be translated to be equally short but the English equivalent often somewhat misses the mark. This is something I had to work hard on making sure to balance – retaining the simplicity in Szymborska's poem that she uses so well without changing the meaning.

Amelia Sodhi