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The Stephen Spender Prize 2019 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

14-and-under category, second prize

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2019 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Jonathan Webb

The Cats

Listen to 'The Cats'

Passionate lovers and dry scholars
Love equally, in their ripened season,
Cats, powerful and soft, pride of the house,
Who, like them, are aloof and, like them, still,
Fellows of learning and of pleasure,
They seek the silence and the horror of darkness:
Erebus would take them for his funeral harbingers,
If they could tilt their pride to servitude.
In contemplation they take the noble attitude
Of the great sphinxes reclining, in the depths of solitude,
Who seem to slumber in an endless dream,
Their fruitful forms are full of wondrous sparks,
And grains of gold and fine sand,
Their mysterious pupils glimmer distantly.

Translated from the French by Jonathan Webb

Les chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.
Amis de la science et de la volupté,
Ils cherchent le silence et l'horreur des ténèbres;
L'Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S'ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.
Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s'endormir dans un rêve sans fin;
Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d'étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d'or, ainsi qu'un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

Charles Baudelaire


Translation commentary

I chose this poem because I have always thought the French language is feline in its elegance, sophistication and nuance and so was keen to select a poem about cats. This poem, 'Les Chats' by Baudelaire, not only portrays the grandeur of cats through its lofty language but it also reflects the absolute belief in their superiority held by cats, scholars and lovers alike: they all assume that their experience is unique and unrivalled.

I enjoyed choosing words which reflect the sensory nature of Baudelaire's vocabulary. I particularly liked the way Baudelaire uses imagery to juxtapose light and dark throughout the poem. This perfectly represents the duality of cats, as one moment they are docile companions and the next they are small savage beasts which is reflected in Baudelaire's contrasting imagery.

The rhyme scheme was challenging and when I attempted it I found I lost some of the meaning of Baudelaire's dense, evocative vocabulary. Consequently, I focussed on the sense and tone of the language to convey respect and affection for cats because the poem packs a tremendous variety of the complex facets of cats into a short number of lines. 'Aloof' is not the exact translation of 'frileux' but as this perfectly describes a cat, I used it.

It is Baudelaire's clear understanding of the attitudes and behaviour of cats which inspired my choice of vocabulary. I used more formal language to mirror Baudelaire and demonstrate the aloofness of cats, scholars and lovers. I then tried to use colder language to convey cats' enjoyment of darkness and warmer language towards the end of my translation. I hoped to convey Baudelaire's sense of affection for cats, which I share, and our sense of wonder at their magnificence which has been constant through the ages.

Jonathan Webb