• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

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

Open category, third 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

Francis Jones


Jeremiah, XXXI, 3

An oil-leak from the primum mobile,
For aeons now the sea's been losing heat
But keeps on running to the inner beat
Of its first cause; the blue beneath the spray
Teems with the larvae of the world that we
Perceive, and the suspicion now unfurling
That it might shape-shift to a beast, to whirling
Molecules and fire: the roar of the sea.

Although that sum can't be reduced to mere
Amounts, it's parsed to scenes inside your mind,
Which balks at thoughts of endlessness with bounds:
The sea lasts on as shards, as glints, in sound's
Faint after-images which stay behind
When storms have passed, and freeze inside the ear
As quietness; you cannot hope to know
The secret, real name of that blue, and so

You say: the sea, at which your thoughts veer round
At random – ships, a quay, a summer day –
Since, by routine, imagination plays
The sixth sense back as images and sound.
You'd like eternity to fit your need
To put it into words, and so you feed
The flame in which all mortals burn away,
Forever as the selfsame paraphrase

Of some forgotten master copy. Sea,
Sea seen in sun, and booming through some stranded
Columbus's recurring nightmare, or
Meek waters which comply with the decree
That heaven's sluice-gates should stop off the flood.
Sea, lackey to the power which commanded
That it be, sea of muscle and of blood,
Blood from the ur-beast that's its metaphor –


Whatever you might plunge into the sea
Is lighter by the weight of pain displaced,
As Archimedes showed; the bronchial tree
Of one who's drowning shatters in the forced
Baptism – this transfiguration's blessed,
Though, by the nature of the will which caused
Its pain, for all things living are at best
A curve of imperfection: life is graced.

Don't blame the sea. And do not even blame
The emptiness which hides in the unsaid.
It all falls back to one pure line, look, ruled
By the horizon when the seas turn tame
And, like the fingernails of those who're dead,
Grow on in stillness; everything is spooled
Back to a quiet whose normality
Echoes a whisper in Gethsemane.

Perhaps the primum mobile has rusted
Fast, after the creation of the aim
Which proved its Maker right; the world's not going
To give up on the effort of foreknowing
Its shifts of shape. To keep faith, all the same,
With this foreknowing is the loyalty
Of sailors who, right till the end, have trusted
The sea.
           That roaring, listen: it's the sea.

Translated from the Serbian by Francis Jones


Јеремија, 31,3

To исцурело је уље из машине
Првога покретача; још се хлади,
Еон по еон, још изнутра ради
По такту прапочетка; из модрине
Куља врв ларви видљивога света
И све што садржано је у слутњи
Његовог озверења, колоплета
Молекула и ватре: море тутњи.

Ту целост што на збир несводива је
Ти разлажеш на призоре у духу,
Неувежбаном да свари, да схвати
Ограничени бескрај; море траје
У одломцима, у блеску, тишини
Паслике звучне слеђене у слуху
После олује; и не можеш знати
Ни право, тајно име тој модрини,

Па кажеш: море, а мислиш на свашта,
На летњи дан, на бродовље, на луке –
Поступком уходаним, којим машта
Претвара слутњу у слике и звуке,
Вечност би хтео да се саобрази
Потреби да је изричеш, и тако
Храниш и пламен где сагори свако
Смртан, увек у истој парафрази

Заборављеног изворника. Море,
Море на сунцу и у ноћној мори
Неког Колумба насуканог, или
Вода што кротко покори се сили
Кад затворе се уставе небеса,
Море послушник моћи што га створи,
Море од крви и море од меса
Празвери која храни метафоре –


Шта урониш у море, лакше бива
3a истиснуту количину бола,
По Архимеду; присилно крштење
Утопљенику гране плућа скрши,
А благослов је тог преображења
Природа воле што насиље врши,
Јер све је живо само парабола
Несавршенства, што милост је жива.

Не куни море. Не куни ни празнину
Што сакрива се у неизреченом.
Све се на једну чисту сведе црту
Обзора, када слегне се бонаца
И море расте ко нокти мртваца,
У непокрету; све се на тишину
Насушну сведе, у одјеку њеном
На шаптање у Гетсиманском врту.

И можда је зарибала машина
Првога покретача, после чина
Стварања сврхе која правда Творца;
И свет се не исцрпљује у слутњи
Испомераног свог преображења –
Но верност слутњи верност је поморца
Који до краја има поверења
У море.
           Слушај море: море тутњи.

Ivan V. Lalić

Reproduced by kind permission of Ivan V. Lalić estate


Translation commentary

Ivan V. Lalić (1931–1996), one of twentieth-century Yugoslavia's and Serbia's leading poets, was also a Mediterranean poet: the sea is a constant theme throughout his oeuvre. 'Sea', which I translated for an English-language compilation of Lalić's poetry (expected 2020), continues that theme. Its philosophical search for meaning characterises his later verse, but also reflects a personal tragedy: in 1989, Lalić's eldest son drowned when his yacht capsized in a storm on the Adriatic.

Virtually all of Lalić's mature work uses free verse, but in the 1990 collection which concludes with this poem, he turns to fixed forms, paying homage to his early-twentieth-century poet forebears. My translations, I felt, had to reflect that turn, though translating into free verse would have been easier. However, I converted the original's eleven-syllable line, often used for 'serious' South-Slav poetry, into iambic pentameter, as a close target-culture equivalent, and because it can carry a similar number of English ideas as the Serbian original. Following the original's largely irregular rhyme scheme made finding rhymes slightly less hard (though never easy), as rhyme-partners could be sought anywhere in the verse.

When the constraints of fixed form inevitably forced surface meanings to change, I sought to reflect Lalić's underlying image, or his wider poetics. Thus 'modrine' ('dark-blueness') became 'the blue beneath the spray' to rhyme with 'the primum mobile' (pronounced 'mobilé'): sea-spray often occurs in Lalić's poems. Sound-based challenges sometimes interacted with word-level challenges. The original's lines 1–2, say, has oil leaking from the 'primum mobile's engine' ('mašine Prvog pokretača') – a startlingly concrete image, especially as 'pokretača' also means 'starter-motor's'. I regretfully had to drop 'engine' in English, because the only available rhyme-words forced the lines to end where they did. But if translations are to live as poems in another language, they must find their own poetic pulse.

Francis Jones