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

Polish Spotlight 10-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

Alexander Norris

My Last Sonnet

Fare well!' – thus gloomy Byron left his wife,
And thus left many a swain his passing love,
But my farewell's occasion will be dumb
Though swollen eyes are always eloquent.

Now then, while Heaven its graciousness still bestows,
While the splendour of your sight still shines on me,
And future's curtain shows forth no black clouds,
I fare thee well, my love, fare well for good.

For good?... – perhaps your lips repeat with grief,
Perhaps your eye, in separation's hour,
Will even shed a tear, as memories awake.

But this grief, like a gliding vessel's trail,
Will pass, the tear will dry, when Fate conjures up joy,
And lost in fleeting memory will my remembrance be.

Translated from the Polish by Alexander Norris

Mόj Ostatni Sonet

Bądź zdrowa! – tak ponury Byron żegnał żonę,
Tak i niejeden luby lubą swą niestałą,
Lecz mych pożegnań chwila będzie oniemiałą,
Chociaż zawsze wymowne oczy wspłomienione.

Teraz więc, póki jeszcze Niebo jest łaskawsze,
Póki jasność Twych spojrzeń jeszcze dla mnie świeci,
A zasłona przyszłości czarnych chmur nie wznieci,
Żegnam Ciebie, o luba, żegnam Cię na zawsze.

Na zawsze?... – może z żalem Twe usta powtórzą,
Może nawet Twe oko w rozstania godzinie
Uroni łezkę, kiedy wspomnienia się wzburzą.

Lecz żal ten, jak ślad łodzi płynącej, przeminie
I łza oschnie, gdy losy radość Ci wywróżą,
I w pierzchliwej pamięci pamięć o mnie zginie.

Cyprian Kamil Norwid


Translation commentary

In this poem, Norwid expresses in a beautifully succinct way both the temporary pain of separation from a loved one, and the ultimate meaninglessness of this grief – two sentiments that are seemingly contradictory, and thus seldom encountered together. The vividness of his description of the situation of parting, highlighting both its aural nature (oniemiałą...wymowne...usta) and its visual side (oczy wspłomienione...jasność Twych spojrzeń), intensified by using very vivid images (such as the metaphor 'zasłona...chmur nie wznieci' and the simile 'jak ślad łodzi płynącej'). The combination of these literary techniques enhances the poignance of the poem's theme of departure, which I find particularly moving.

In translating this poem, I found the rhythm of the original Polish difficult to replicate in English, so I tried to translate it into a rather fluid form of iambic pentameter, the regularity of which gradually breaks down as the poem progresses; this was an attempt to reflect the growing variation within the Polish rhythm.

I found I couldn't reproduce the rhyming system of the poem in my translation without affecting the nuances that I was trying to maintain in translation; the succinctness of much of the Polish, too, was a challenge to get across without diminishing the meaning (for example, the line 'Tak i niejeden luby lubą swą niestałą').

In conclusion, this poem is a fascinating medley of emotions and rhetorical techniques with which I have enjoyed grappling to try to communicate the same sentiment in English, and to convey the poignantly resigned attitude of the poet to his departure from his loved one.

Alexander Norris