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

14-and-under category, commended

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


Hannah Kripa Jordan

Incomplete Victories

by S. Varalakshmi
View the original Tamil as an image

The heat of the sun goes down
And I play with the child,
As evening comes around.
I walk like a turtle
She like a tiny mouse.
She chases,
she catches,
And defeats me.
She throws the ball,
But I drop it—intentionally.
She laughs at my carelessness,
She jumps at her victory.

We play, as round us
Jasmine creepers bloom,
Banana bunches burst from their branches.
Around us rain falls abundantly,
The showers fill our tanks.
In our games I often lose
It never hurts—
Rather, losing to her makes me happy.

In another contest,
Losing frightens me.
The crowns of authority
Sling stones at me.
I don't want to lose this battle.
I am unsteady,
I stagger,
I fall.
I am the animal ceremonially prepared for Kavu
I shake with the knowledge of the coming sacrifice.
I am silenced.
It is impossible to raise my angered voice,
I choke.
What blocks my throat?
The games of life,
Overwhelming and endless,
Remain incomplete.

Translated from the Tamil by Hannah Kripa Jordan
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Translation commentary

I chose this poem because I think women's rights are important; I have been attending a women's group at school, and so this poem interested me. I find it interesting the way the speaker or 'mother' in the poem uses parallel comparisons in the first and last stanzas to describe the two kinds of 'games' that she participates in.

The verb is placed at the end of Tamil sentences. This makes translating Tamil poems into English harder as some lines seem less powerful when their structure is changed. Learning Latin, in which verbs are at the end of sentences, has made this easier and given me more confidence with Tamil.

The second stanza was the hardest part to translate, with the images that represent the mother's love for her child. In Tamil poetry landscapes are an important tool to describe mood and atmosphere. Jasmine, bananas and rain are very important symbols of happiness in Tamil poetry. So I have used positive adjectives to express this.

The word mudivattra in the poem's title has two meanings, 'incomplete' and 'endless'; I had to choose one to keep the two-word structure of the Tamil title. I chose 'incomplete' because 'incomplete' leaves some room for hope that maybe one day things will change and that she will win her battles. I found a way to use both words at the end to suggest the double meaning.

I kept the Tamil word Kavu which refers to animals sacrificed at religious ceremonies. The bull, decorated with jewels, robes and colour, is paraded through the streets before its head is chopped off. I felt it was important to keep Kavu because it so sums up what the woman is feeling. She is like the bull, with no escape, and no translation would make the symbol as effective.

Hannah Kripa Jordan