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

Judges’ comments

Read the 2018 winning entries
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2018 competition by judges:
Margaret Jull Costa, Olivia McCannon and Sean O'Brien
Comments on the Polish Spotlight entries by Antonia Lloyd Jones

Margaret Jull Costa

We all agreed that Rose Lewens' version of Jacques Prévert's 'The Sultan' was a worthy winner in the 14-and-under category, ably capturing the original's sardonic, colloquial tone. Alexis Richards receives two commendations, one for his energetic version of an extract from Homer's Odyssey, with its excellent use of verbs –'spewed', 'spattered', 'snatched', 'snared', etc. – and another for his version of Octavio Paz's 'Your Eyes', with its rich use of assonance and alliteration. Apollinaire's 'Under Mirabeau Bridge' is always a popular choice in this section, and I particularly enjoyed Jasper Hersov's creative rendering of the poem's refrain.

In the 18-and-under category, we chose as our winner Emilia Leonowicz's translation of 'Warkoczyk', so full of stark, heart-breaking images, for example, a little girl's braid of hair like 'a mouse's tail'. Edward Chan's inventive translation of Catullus's Poem 39 is wonderfully free and funny, even the Cheshire Cat gets a look in! In Sam Hunt's version of Ovid's Tristia III:II, he abandons the rhyme scheme and rhythm of the original to produce a more conversational tone, which really suits the melancholy voice of exile. William Butler Denby's Sappho fragment is equally audacious in expanding on the original, throwing in references to the Bible and to Milton. Helena Walsh asked the mother of a Japanese friend to provide her with a literal version of a poem by the seventh-century Japanese poet, Princess Nukata, then produced an exquisitely sensitive translation, full of delightful internal rhymes. I also loved Russ Houghton's delicate translation of Ishigawa Takuboku's tanka poem 'Shimmering ice', especially the lovely word 'dotterels'.

The Open Category was equally full of wonders and discoveries. We chose Alice Fletcher's version of Stein Mehren's 'On the Fjord' as our winner, and the word that sprang to all our lips was 'limpid'. Written in clear, simple language, the imagery is very striking: 'Like rowing / in one's own heart / through a sorrow as deep and cold / as death itself.' In William Roychowdhury's admirably inventive translation from the Sanskrit, 'The Cloud Messenger', he made a deliberate decision to produce a more modern, 'even modernist' poem, bringing it bang up-to-date. I'm grateful to Antoinette Fawcett for introducing me to the work of Dutch poet Abdelkader Benali, especially 'When I see someone sitting on a bench', which expands into something about far more than just benches and their purpose in life. Michael Swan rendered Brecht's 'Legend of the Dead Soldier' into convincingly soldierly English, while James Garza's version of Kasuya Eiichi's delightfully absurd 'The Structure of the World' and Jane Draycott's approach to 'Extracts from the Old English Herbarium' both provided fine examples of finding the poetry in prose. Another personal favourite was Elliot Vale's suitably Hopkins-like rendition of Artur Lundkvist's 'The Oak', a hymn of praise to the ancient oak 'a ponderer, a battler / prepared to become old and a loner… revered by ravens'.

Once again, it was a delight to read both the translated poems and the commentaries, all so redolent of the pleasure of translation.


Olivia McCannon

Among this year's splendid haul of translations from 46 languages, ancient and modern, I was delighted to read more contemporary poets, with pioneering work from Romanian, Polish, Turkish, Korean, Tagalog, Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu, Kiswahili, Twi and Yoruba.

I also enjoyed the variety of approach. While I had an eye for translations which 'worked' as lively and autonomous poems in English, I found I was most convinced by those that engaged meaningfully with their source, whose inventiveness consisted not in deforming or 'domesticating' the original, but in creating an innovative space in English hospitable to its foreignness.

It was heartening to read so many strong entries from translators whose work showed ethical insight and personal investment, and whose commentaries engaged transparently, robustly and passionately with the processes of translation.

In the 14-and-under category, Rose Lewens made simplicity look easy with her foot-sure handling of Prévert's satirical poem 'Le Sultan'. Alexis Richards was commended twice, for the considered, stirring metre of his Homer, and the courageous ambiguity of his Paz. Jasper Hersov's translation of Apollinaire's 'Le Pont Mirabeau', stood out from the many (many) other versions submitted, for its fluid quality and pleasingly tolling refrain. I also enjoyed several promising entries from Romanian, and a luminous Musset by Arabella Greve.

Emilia Leonowicz, in the 18-and-under category, showed remarkable maturity, attending to Tadeusz Różewicz's 'Warkoczyk' with tact, intuition and emotional commitment. Edward Chan's persuasive, biting Catullus was a delight, with a fine ear for the sounds of Latin and English that might 'denote disgust', while Sam Hunt's sensitivity to the crucial issue of tone served his Ovid well. We admired William Butler Denby's sophisticated commentary on Sappho and the pitfalls of anachronism, and the atmospheric music of Helena Walsh's Princess Nukata. I would like to also personally commend Daniil Koterov for his accomplished rhyming translation of Eichendorff.

In the Open Category, Alice Fletcher's 'On the Fjord', by Stein Mehren, caught and held our attention for its consummate restraint, the limpid language a perfect foil for the still, clear waters of the fjord, and the feel of the poem: '…Like rowing / in one's own heart'. I was enchanted by William Roychowdhury's bold, inventive use of long compound nouns in English, and his wonderful description of the way the articulation of Sanskrit sounds expresses the moving raincloud. Antoinette Fawcette's work won us over again, this year, for her beautiful handling of a subversive prose poem by Abdelkader Benali. I loved the dark humour of James Garza's 'The Structure of the World' from the Japanese, and admired Michael Swan's Brecht for its attention to the disjunction between metrics and politics. Finally, Jane Draycott, listening through time for the miraculous prayer-like poetry of the Old English Herbarium, opened new ground with her magnificent and moving poem, founded in 'an act of imaginative sympathy'.

We are changed by encountering translations of this calibre, they give us a new sense of possibility and hope, and space. I'm looking forward to seeing what next year brings.


Sean O'Brien

One of the most interesting parts of the judge's role in the Stephen Spender Prize is the encounter with a plurality of tongues. This year did not disappoint. As well as the immediately familiar Western European languages, the winning and commended entries encompassed Dutch, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish and Sanskrit. Among variety there was imaginative boldness and confidence of a kind which might encourage quiet optimism at the moment when the United Kingdom seems prepared to risk a weakening of vital cultural links and a narrowing of horizons. Fortunately the verbal imaginations of poets and translators are ungoverned by formal borders and loud divorce.

The winner in the 14-and-under section was Rose Lewens, with her translation of Jacques Prévert's 'The Sultan'. This was not the only attempt on this poem among the entries, but Rose Lewens' version won because of its assured movement, economy of phrasing and – perhaps above all – command of tone, to black-comic effect. Alexis Richards was rightly commended for two very different pieces – an urgent, muscular, dramatic reading of the Scylla and Charybdis episode in the Odyssey and – equally challenging in its way – Octavio Paz's 'Your Eyes'. Also commended was Jasper Hersov's translation of Apollinaire's 'Le Pont Mirabeau' – a very familiar poem which – again – was attempted by several entrants. Jasper Hersov's version reaffirmed the lyricism of the original.

In the 18-and-under category there was a strong classical presence. In second place was Edward Chan's fluent and gleeful reading of Catullus's Poem 39 ('there is nothing more foolish than a / vain rictus'). Sam Hunt, winner of the third prize, managed to represent the complex mixture of self-pity and grief in Ovid's Tristia III.II. William Butler Denby, whose entry was commended, took a boldly interventionist approach to Sappho's Fragment 105(a). Also commended was Helena Walsh's elegantly constructed translation of the 8th century Japanese poem 'Princess Nukata'. The winner in this category was Emilia Leonowicz's translation of Tadeusz Różewicz's 'Warkoczyk'. Różewicz's restraint and economy provide a severe test. There's a risk that the translation will seem commonplace, or more like a summary than an actual poem. In this account of the shaving of women's heads as they arrive in a concentration camp, Emilia Leonowicz combines restraint with intimacy and a scriptural-seeming formality. A most impressive piece of work, and a deserving winner.

The range of material among the winning and commended poems in the Open category speaks for the range of riches on offer in the competition as a whole. Jane Draycott's commended entry, 'Extracts from the Old English Herbarium' took the intriguing step of versifying a prose original into something akin to the Anglo-Saxon line. The beautiful result asks to be read aloud. I would add that Draycott's commentary is commendable in itself for its eloquent advocacy of the poetic possibilities of the source material. Michael Swan was commended for a very speakable version of Brecht's rumbustious 'Legend of the Dead Soldier', as was James Garza's translation of the Japanese prose poet Kasuya Eiichi's droll 'The Structure of the World' – its title is that of a book forced on the speaker by a rural bookseller, but the subject appears to be pig-farming. In third place was a further prose poem, 'How poetry was discovered'. Translated by Antoinette Fawcett from the Dutch of Abdelkader Benali, this is a witty, gnomic domestic fable recalling the work of Charles Simic. William Roychowdhury took second place with the wide-screen lyric onrush of the Sanskrit 'The Cloud Messenger'. The result is finely-detailed and perpetually in movement, with an effect is both erotic and exalted. It will be apparent that it was not easy to settle on an overall winner in this group, but first prize goes to Alice Fletcher for her translation of Stein Mehren's Norwegian poem 'On the Fjord'. The translator comments that it is 'a perfect example of a typically Norwegian poem; the language is clean, crisp and deceptively simple, whilst also being very evocative.' Indeed: but how to make it work in English? Alice Fletcher establishes a steady sense of irrevocable movement towards and through 'The sound of years / in starless water. Like rowing / in one's own heart / through a sorrow as deep and cold / as death itself'. The poem is both utterly clear and deeply mysterious, a poem of lost love, perhaps, very beautiful and endlessly re-readable. I feel lucky to have been introduced to it.


Antonia Lloyd Jones

Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, a whole generation of bilingual speakers of Polish and English has been growing up in the UK, sparking an interest in the Polish language among their friends at school. There are also more bilingual families in Poland than in the past, so the Stephen Spender Trust's Polish Spotlight competition comes at the perfect moment to encourage the literary translators of the future to try out their talents for the first time.

Even though we're surrounded by other languages in the UK, most of us don't give much thought to translation, or what it involves. But there are lots of children in this country who translate, or at least interpret, for their family and friends on a daily basis. The translation workshops organised by the Stephen Spender Trust are an excellent way of prompting children to find out not just about literature and translation, but about their own classmates – when there are Polish speakers in the group, they are able to translate for the others, and then all work together to produce effective English translations.

The competition results for the 10-and-under category show the value of this exercise. The poem that I have chosen as the winning entry was translated by a child aged only five, whose teacher used the prize to great effect. The Polish-speaking children read some short, sea-themed poems by Dorota Gellner with a Polish-speaking member of staff, using a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Then they honed their translations from the English-language point of view. As first steps in literary translation, those are ideal. Gellner's poems are simple, vivid and evocative, an ideal choice for very young children to begin their exploration of language and literature. Here's a lyrical image from the winning poem, about the sun setting over the sea: '…night like a black ball spinning around / Spinning around on the shore…'

Polish children's author Michał Rusinek led a workshop in which the children translated one of his poems, 'Bird Feeder', in which unfortunately the bird feeder turns out to be a cat feeder too. Rusinek's poems rely on rhyme, metre, word play and wit, and present a challenge to even the most experienced of translators. The translations that the primary pupils produced are impressive, ranging from superb efforts to reproduce the tone and form of the original poem, retaining the rhyme, rhythm and comedy ('But at night the cats come to take a bite / Now the birds have lost their appetite'), through to highly inventive reinterpretations inspired by the tone of the Polish text. Here we have alternative approaches to translation, and another effective creative writing exercise.

I was not surprised to find that many of the competitors chose to translate classic rhymes by Julian Tuwim and Jan Brzechwa, because every Polish child grows up with these glorious poems. But they're famously fiendish to translate – they depend on rhyme, metre, assonance, made-up words, puns and absurdity – the Polish equivalent of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. So the entries that succeeded in using some of the same poetic tricks are especially impressive. In the 14-and-under category, brave soul Gerard Coutain tackled Tuwim's 'The Locomotive' (a horse/of course, fatties/patties, bananas/fortepianos!), and a group of the under-10s came up with a valiant rhyming translation of Brzechwa's 'Show-Off', calling her 'Skite', an interesting Australian-English word that's new to me ('When I answer, it's so clever / At school I have no bad grades, never').

The range of poems chosen by the competitors is very wide, from late nineteenth-century Romantics, Tuwim's adult love poems (including a thoughtful translation of 'You' by Kaja Zawrotniak), poems by twentieth-century authors not widely known in English (Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska and Anna Świrszczyńska, for example), to the lyrics of a rock song, and some virtually unknown contemporary poets (such as Agnieszka Aleksandra Archicińska, whose poems inspired two of the best translations). The translations of two of Poland's greatest twentieth-century poets stood out for me: in the 14-and-under category the winner is 'The Pebble' by Zbigniew Herbert, and in the 18-and-under category 'Cat in an Empty Apartment' by Wisława Szymborska, both translated with great sensitivity.

'The Pebble' was translated by Maya Azzabi, who says she's 'someone … who doesn't speak Polish extremely well'. Maya shows a mature understanding of the poet's intention, and his method, and also how to render them in English. In her commentary she describes the 'deeper meaning' of the poem, the metaphor of the pebble as something eternal and thus 'indifferent to our lives'. Then she explores Herbert's language, apparently simple, and weighs the best equivalents. 'I have never translated a poem before,' she writes, 'and it has made me more aware of the words and languages around us'. Like the original, this impressively precise translation includes nothing superfluous. In the final lines, she captures the power of the Polish text: 'Pebbles are untameable / Until the very end they will look at us / with a quiet, very bright eye.'

As Amelia Sodhi, who translated 'Cat in an Empty Apartment', says to open her commentary: 'There are many poems on grief, but never from a cat's perspective'. This is a superb choice, because Szymborska speaks to all of us, across generations and cultures. As the translator says, in describing the cat whose owner will never return, she 'captures a beautiful melancholy… through simplicity and repetition. … Her illustration of the pain of loss is… something small and hence even more potent'. With this perfect sense of the poet's aim, the translator has examined how she achieved it, and endeavoured to reproduce the meaning with the same lightness of touch. She identifies one of the biggest challenges for translators from Polish: 'recreating the few words necessary in Polish to convey something bigger'. This sensitivity has produced a translation that recreates the unsettling atmosphere of the poem, where amid the empty silence of the apartment the cat is alone and the owner has gone. And also the cat's indignant tone in the final stanza, where: 'Let him dare return, / let him dare show himself. Right away he'll learn / that one doesn't do this to a cat.'

The translators have taken care to choose poems that speak to them personally. 'The carnival in Venice is an event I have always wanted to participate in,' writes Katarzyna Birula-Bialynicka, translator of 'il momento di carnevale'. 'The poem makes time… suddenly stop, the reader feels special whilst reading it,' she says, and in her skilful translation, capturing the mood and rhythm of the original, so does the English reader: 'let us sail illuminated by the lights / of a swaying gondola / to our last ball…' Archicińska's work also appeared in the 14-and-under category, where her Eiffel-Tower-shaped poem, 'Tour Eiffel', has been competently translated into the same form.

Altogether, the high standard of the translations submitted for the competition, and the evident thought and effort that the entrants have put into making their translations as good as possible give me great hope for the future of Polish literature in English translation.