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

Open 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

Ollie Evans

nature – no thanks

Listen to 'nature – no thanks'

from time to time i like to watch
the poisoned trees
the infested fields
this louse-filled landscape
from the window of my compartment
where i feel fortified
with my tinctures
and tablets and
other ammunition
against the biting bacteria
the killer viruses
the giant enemy hoard
on me and in me
should i step outside perhaps
in the toxic green
where new fiends lie in wait
no thanks i say to all my friends
the valley hopping rock climbers
i've got more than enough
nature here inside

Translated from the German by Ollie Evans

natur – nein danke

von zeit zu zeit seh ich sie gern
die vergifteten bäume
die befallenen wiesen
diese verlauste landschaft
aus dem zugfenster meines abteils
wo ich mich gerüstet fühle
mit tinkturen und
tabletten und
anderer munition
gegen die bissigen bakterien
die killervire
das riesige feindliche heer
an mir und in mir
soll ich vielleicht hinaustreten
ins verseuchte grün
wo neue feinde warten
nein danke sage ich zu meinen freunden
den berg- und talsteigern
ich habe hier drinnen
schon genug natur

Elfriede Gerstl

Reproduced by kind permission of the Elfriede Gerstl estate


Translation commentary

Elfriede Gerstl (1932–2009) played an important part in the post-war Viennese literary scene. This poem combines her distinctive style and humour with themes of landscape and alienation. I emulate the poem's visual style. Kleinschreibung (lower-case writing) was typical of the radical poetry of the Vienna Group (with which Gerstl was associated) with its roots in Bauhaus modernism. The closest anglicising equivalent is lower-case first person pronouns, recalling e e cummings. While abolishing hierarchies between words, it also highlights the speaker's sense of alienation; as the subject isn't capitalised, they no longer take precedence over nouns and verbs. Metrically, I paid close attention to syllables and stress in order to create an equivalent rhythmic echo of the original.

Several word choices diverge from the German to highlight the interweaving of historical violence with the everyday. In line 16, I used the Germanic, 'fiends', instead of the French, 'enemies', in order to highlight the unsettling proximity between 'fiend' and 'friend' ('Feinde/Freunde'). For someone who survived the Holocaust in Vienna by hiding in cupboards, this ambivalence can be a matter of life and death. The etymological allusion also reveals a connection between the two languages that is both familiar and alienating; a tension that I think underlines the poem as a whole.

'Gerüstet' means both 'ready' and 'armed', like a soldier ready to attack, while 'fortified' could allude to a castle or a more quotidian sense of fortification against a cold. I decided that the combination of the two senses – the military with the everyday – was more effective than the more literal 'armed' as it gets at something that subtly underlines the entire poem (as well as much post-war Austrian literature): the silent historical violence that pervades everything from everyday language to the supposedly 'natural' landscapes of the Austrian and Teutonic Heimat.

Ollie Evans