• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

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

Judges’ comments

Read the 2019 winning entries
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2019 competition by judges:
Mary Jean Chan, Margaret Jull Costa and Olivia McCannon
Comments on the Polish Spotlight entries by Antonia Lloyd Jones

Mary Jean Chan

I was truly impressed by the quality of submissions from across our three categories, which amounted to nearly 2000 pages of translations and original verse. We agreed that the Middle Welsh poem 'Cad Goddeu' translated by Ide Crawford was a worthy winner of the 14-and-under category, with its vivid use of imagery and effective deployment of anaphora throughout. Jonathan Webb's 'The Cats' cleverly captures the humour and wit in the French poem by Charles Baudelaire, and is this year's second prize winner. In third place, we chose Orhan Veli's 'I am Listening to Istanbul', translated from the Turkish by Ebrar Aygin, which offers a wonderful balance between observation ('The Grand Bazaar is calm and cool') and inner revelation ('I know / A silver moon rises between the pine trees / I can sense it all in your heart's beating'). Our commendations go to Hannah Kripa Jordan for 'Incomplete Victories' (Tamil), Iona Mandal for 'Amolkanti' (Bengali) and Jasper Gabriel Birkin for 'Trees' (Dutch). All three translations captured a sense of our common humanity, and evoked a deep emotional engagement from the judges.

In the 18-and-under category, we selected Shrinidhi Prakash's evocative translation of an extract from Aimé Césaire's 'Notebook of a Return to My Native Land'. In addition to the translated poem, we particularly admired the commentary for providing a close reading of Césaire's thematic preoccupations and poetics. In second place, we chose Sagawa Chika's 'The Blue Horse', a poem translated from the Japanese by Lulu Walsh, which poignantly conveys the speaker's struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, punctuated by moments of comic relief: 'If I could only forget / the love and regret / and the patent shoes! / I got through – without jumping / from the second floor.' In third place is Bhupi Sherchan's 'Blind Man on a Spinning Chair', translated from the Nepali by Anusha Gautam. The translator's attentiveness to the original poem's fragmented form comes across in the translated poem's precise use of enjambment: 'Rumours flinch, / frightened by the headlights / as darkness descends'. Our commended poems were Scarlett Stubbings' translation of 'The Intruder's Work' (Breton) and Joseph Harrison's translation of 'The Reversal of the Tiber' (Latin), which stood out to the judges for their precise diction.

The Open category proved the most varied and difficult for the judges to agree upon. We were very enamoured of 'Going Home' by Itō Shizuo, translated by James Garza, which rose through the ranks to become our Open category winner with its subtle eco-poetics, sensual imagery, and ability to inspire hope in dark times. In contrast to the winning poem is the bleak vision inherent within 'nature – no thanks' by Elfriede Gerstl, which we chose as our second prize winner in light of its ability to capture a relatable sense of nihilistic despair as the speaker experiences the degradation of our natural world, expertly translated from the German by Ollie Evans. In third place, we chose Francis Jones's translation of 'Sea' by the Serbian poet Ivan V. Lalić, with its epic vision of the natural world and its keen attentiveness to rhyme and musicality. Our three commended poems were truly outstanding: Norbert Hirschhorn's translation of 'The King' (Arabic) by Fouad M. Fouad, Kevin Maynard's translation of 'Five Poems from the Borderlands' (Classical Chinese) by Nai Xian, and Alasdair Gordon's translation of 'Myris, Alexandria' (Greek) by Constantine Cavafy.

In sum, it was deeply heartening to see both classical and contemporary poetry continuing to be of interest to experienced and budding translators alike, across an ever-broadening variety of languages from around the globe.

Margaret Jull Costa

Once again, being a judge on the Stephen Spender Poetry Translation Prize has been a richly rewarding experience, an introduction to all kinds of poets, poems and languages. The principal joy, though, is the sheer enthusiasm for the translation process. In the 14-and-under category, I was immediately impressed by Ide Crawford's bold translation from the Middle Welsh of 'Cad Goddeu', so full of rhythm and sound and alliteration. Jonathan Webb's translation of Baudelaire's 'Les Chats' is another exercise in rhythm and sound, and the translation vividly conveys the wit and sensuality of the original. I found Ebrar Aygin's version of Turkish poet Orhan Veli's 'I am listening to Istanbul' utterly hypnotic and incantatory, a haunting evocation of place. I also particularly liked Yusuf Hassan's version of Octavio Paz's poem 'Acabar con todo' for the sensitive way he captured the beauty in what, as he says in the commentary, can seem like 'nonsense'.

In the 18-and-under category, I really enjoyed the sweep of Shrinidhi Prakash's winning translation of Aimé Césaire's 'Extract from Notebook of a Return to My Native Land', with its many astonishing lines: 'limping from littleness to littleness', 'this modest nothing of hard splinters'. Brilliant. Lulu Walsh's 'The Blue Horse' revels in the casual surrealism of Japanese poet Sagawa Chika – 'If I could only forget / the love and regret / and the patent shoes!' In 'Blind Man on a Spinning Chair' by Nepalese poet Bhupi Sherchan, Anusha Gautam – translating from her mother tongue – confidently reproduces the extraordinarily evocative images of the original: 'Numerous noises come and go / dressed in different outfits', 'All day / Like dried bamboo, / dozing / in my own hollowness'. I also enjoyed 'The Intruder's Work' lovingly translated from the Breton by Scarlett Stubbings.

As usual, the Open Category had the largest number of entries. The winning poem, 'Going Home' translated by James Garza (whose work was highly commended last year), was one that really stayed with me. It has such a convincing voice and – the ultimate test – is equally convincing when read out loud. As James says in his commentary: 'Here, in simple but carefully chosen language, is a real place.' We were all also very taken with Ollie Evans' version of Elfriede Gerstl's acerbically energetic 'nature – no thanks', which, as Ollie explains in his commentary, very sensitively unpicks the poem's subtext. Then there is Francis Jones' rhythmic translation of the Serbian poet Ivan Lalić's poem 'Sea', so full of sussurating s-words. Another poem that haunted me was Norbert Hirschhorn's version of Syrian poet Fouad M. Fouad's 'The King', translated in close collaboration with the poet. I also very much admired 'In the dark' by N.S. Sigogo, translated by Stephen Walsh from Ndebele, a language spoken by the Northern Ndebele people, or Matabele, of Zimbabwe – in which the darkness the poet describes speaks of many other possible darknesses. Other translations that impressed me, in addition to our commended entries, were Eva Bourke's playful translation of Jan Wagner's 'Small hymn to crows', Christophe Fricker's version of 'Embrace' by Matthias Politycki, and the 'whirlwind of imagery' in Patrizia Cavalli's 'Datura', another entry by our first-prize-winner James Garza. My thanks to all those who entered.


Olivia McCannon

This year, I was delighted to encounter poems from an ever-widening range of languages, including Nepali, Dholuo, Basque, Breton, Korean, and Klingon, as well as entries connecting with bilingual heritage. Different eras were well represented, with work from ancient languages surfacing alongside contemporary contexts – and plenty in between.

I was on the lookout for writing that held itself open to its source, which sought not to impose, or project, or correct, but to listen, and learn, and feel with. All of the winners and commended entries displayed these qualities and there were many more besides. It was a real pleasure to discuss such considered work with my fellow judges, and to see such a high standard overall.

In the 14-and-under category, we were won over by the lively metamorphic sequencing of Ide Crawford's 'Cad Goddeu' (Old Welsh), charmed by Jonathan Webb's elegantly feline Baudelaire (French), and drawn in by the vivid, felt presence of Ebrar Aygin's Veli (Turkish). Other standouts were Iona Mandal's touching 'Amolkanti' (Bengali), Hannah Kripa Jordan for her insightful work from Tamil ('Incomplete Victories'), and Jasper Gabriel Birkin for his memorable 'Trees' (Dutch).

In the 18-and-under category, Shrinidhi Prakash's translation of Césaire shows impressive maturity, with its close attention to the role of nuance in weaving a cohesive texture. Lulu Walsh, translating avant-garde poet Sagawa Chika (Japanese), creates 'a complex, alienating effect to match the strangeness of the poem's impact', taking risks to come in closer; while Anusha Gautam's confident translation of Bhupi Sherchan (Nepali) thoughtfully broaches the issue of what to do with language embedded in a particular 'collective consciousness'.

There were also accomplished offerings from Scarlett Stubbings (Duval), picking up on French/Breton power dynamics, and from Joseph Harrison (Virgil), who created a lovely metrical tension inspired by Old English and Welsh. I also enjoyed the hymnic accumulations of Sorrel Banfield's Manciet (French/Gascon), and the clear imagery of Lydia Mekonnen's Edda (Old Norse).

The open category was packed with impressive talent! Spender Prize returnee James Garza's 'Going Home' (Itō Shizuo) pulses with presence, the intense synaesthesia of a walker at night, becoming part of the world in and beyond the beam of a torch: 'and I hear it, the rustle in / the colour, and I hear it, / the way home'. With his finely tuned sensitivity to word choice and aural patterning, Ollie Evans captures the dark energy of radical Vienna Group poet Elfriede Gerstl, while Francis Jones brings close the voice of Lalić's sea, 'the wild waves' calling, through his surefooted use of enjambment, and skilled metrical balancing of lightness and weight.

We also loved and admired 'The King', a listening co-translation by Norbert Hirschorn and the Syrian poet Fouad M. Fouad; a sequence of living-breathing 'eyewitness snapshots of life in China's north-western borderlands under the Mongol Yuan dynasty' by Kevin Maynard (also commended in 2017), and Alasdair Gordon's beautiful flowing and quickening stream-of-consciousness Cavafy. I also enjoyed translations by Martyn Crucefix, of the Corsican poet Angèle Paoli, and by James Womack, of the Basque poet Rikardo Arregi.

Overall, I was heartened by the rise in translations and commentaries committed to creating authentic living connections between texts, and engaging with the complex ethical entanglements that shape the energetic tissue of translation.


Antonia Lloyd Jones

Once again, the Polish Spotlight prize for translators aged 18 and under, 14 and under, and 10 and under has provided an opportunity for British children to explore Polish poetry, whether they have Polish family roots or not.

For children growing up in an adopted country, it can be hard to keep in touch with the culture their parents knew at their age. Naturally, as they get older, they're more absorbed by the local culture that they share with their friends, and the songs and poetry their grandparents have told them about are left behind. But they're often curious about their 'secret' language, and the doors it can open for them. Initiatives like the Polish Spotlight give them valuable inspiration to find out what's on the other side of those doors.

As last year, the workshops organised to encourage children who speak Polish at home to get to know it and translate from it, and to explain its mysteries to their classmates, have brought in plenty of entries for the competition, most impressively in the 10-and-under category.

The workshops for children aged 10 and under from a number of primary schools focused on short animal poems by Jan Brzechwa – classics in Poland that every child grows up with. Their charm relies on humour, rhythm and rhyme, so the success of the translation depends on retaining all three of those qualities. I loved Harrison Nye's entry, 'Fox', because he managed to achieve just that, showing a youthful awareness of what makes a comic poem effective.

There were several other brave competitors who took on Brzechwa's longer verses, and one who chose a charming contemporary love poem. But the two translations that stood out for me were of works by classic authors now less familiar to schoolchildren in Poland. A commendation goes to Jakub Śliwa for his translation of 'Poland' by Antoni Słonimski, a nostalgic poem mourning his country's fate in the Second World War. Jakub wasn't put off by unfamiliar words, and the translation shows sensitivity to the poet's intentions, aiming to keep the rhymes where possible, and capturing the sense of homesickness – a remarkable achievement at an early age.

The winner, Roksana Tkaczyńska, chose 'In School', a poem by nineteenth-century author Maria Konopnicka, perhaps best remembered for her children's stories. This is a comic poem relying on rhymes, humour and pace, and Roksana has risen to the challenge excellently. 'There were words in Polish that you can't translate or they don't seem to work in English,' she has realised, and has then found imaginative ways to convey the poet's aims using different words, but keeping similar techniques.

In the 14-and-under category the workshops run at Highcrest Academy in High Wycombe produced a fine crop of translations of poems by contemporary poets, including Wanda Chotomska and Michał Rusinek, as challenging as the classics. One competitor made a brave attempt at tackling the opening verses of Poland's nineteenth-century epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz. Once again, it was Jan Brzechwa and Julian Tuwim – the other founding father of Polish comic verse – who inspired the most original entries, despite being fiendishly difficult to translate.

I loved the winning translation by Michaela Konkolewska-Grybė, of Tuwim's 'Glasses', because she understood that the success of the poem relies on using technical effects to heighten the humour. Her translation stood out for going the extra mile beyond straightforward translation into creativity. She explains her approach well in the commentary, revealing that there were several stages, some effort and imagination involved in the translation work. 'I honestly thought it would be easier and would take less time', she writes, showing that she has learned a basic lesson of translation. 'Overall I really enjoyed doing this,' she continues, 'I would recommend this to so many people, because even if you don't win, there is still a great memory that you will keep forever.'

There were fewer entries in the 18-and-under category, possibly confirming my theory that at this stage in life, teenagers coping with the demands of GCSEs and A Levels have less time to explore beyond the curriculum. So I was particularly impressed by the choices of poems, and to find that young Polish-speakers are aware of the work of Poland's greatest poets. The commentaries also showed a mature approach to the meaning of the poems and some intelligent thoughtfulness about what exactly successful translation involves. Two translations were of poems by the nineteenth-century Romantic poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid; again, his work is not for the faint-hearted translator. In his translation of 'My Last Sonnet', Alexander Norris shows a subtle understanding of the poem's emotional depth, as well as a creative approach to Norwid's techniques, boldly opting for a nineteenth-century tone in English, the success of which earned him a commendation.

One of the entrants chose a love poem by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, who died tragically young in the Warsaw Uprising – it's good to know that his beautiful poetry is alive and well among teenagers. Two of the entrants chose poems by twentieth-century Nobel prize winners, Czesław Milosz and Wisława Szymborska, the former recommended by the translator's grandmother. The outstanding entry was Zuzanna Osińska's translation of Szymborska's 'I am too close for him to dream of me'. Her admiration and enjoyment of the lyrical language of the poem comes across in her fine rendition of metaphors such as 'I hear a hiss / And see the shimmering scale of this word'. She untangles the translation knots competently, explaining for instance in her commentary the need to translate the word kasjerka (meaning 'female cashier') without losing its gender. She also shows a feel for the moment when the translator needs to let instinct take over: '…The best way to stay true to the poet's style was to play around with sentence structures… Szymborska herself was not a fan of poetry rules… and this was something I tried to emulate'.

Congratulations to all on their inquiring exploration of Polish poetry, and on their perceptive approach to the very difficult art of translating it. I hope they will feel inspired to let their curiosity and creative talents take them further down this path.