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

Open 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


Norbert Hirschhorn

The King


I am the Lord of the room.
My crown is morning dust,
the floor my castle.

I am the Lord of the room,
The Bestower, beside me books are useless
A Corinthian Column, unlike the hat rack.
The Ever-lasting, like damp on the wall.

Windows are my days,
a stool my three-legged horse.

I am the King of Kings,
of nothing but the table,
the notebooks on the table,
the fingers creeping into this softness.
Of nothing but what belongs to me:

A King of doors and wrinkled clothes,
of pictures hanging crooked on the wall.

A King of words that flitter
in space like flies.

The King of cold
and savage separation
King of croup
and rotten teeth

A King in frozen time
and sometimes fallen.

Pallid King
Nothing King

I, King

Translated from the Arabic by Norbert Hirschhorn
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The King Arabic original Fouad M. Fouad

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Translation commentary

The term 'poetry of witness' is close to a clich̩, but how else can a Syrian poet Рdisplaced from his home in Aleppo, members of his family missing or killed Рtestify to the barbarity of the war waged on the Syrian people by their own government? I live part-time in Lebanon and see firsthand the plight of over one million refugees who have fled here for some hope of safety. Wars end, poetry lasts. Here the poet hopes for, expects the demise of the tyrant in a grandiose misery.

Since I am not literate in Arabic, the author of the original poem gave me a word-by-word literal translation. In making the poem into English we worked together to keep the metaphors and images intact; but I could not imitate the cadence of the Arabic, especially the hard glottal kaf whose repetitions in classical Arabic poetry connotes fear, impending doom. I did, however, use words with the subtler palatal 'k' and 'c'. What was lost on one side was gained on the other.

The Syrian poet and I spent many sessions not only on his work but also in free-wheeling discussions of English and Arabic poetry. These enriched both of us.

I chose not to try for a Latinate rendering, but, congruent with the subject, I went for short and sharp Germanic words. Where the poem in Arabic uses internal rhymes I have chosen to use more consonance.

Norbert Hirschhorn