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The Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

14-and-under category, second prize

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2020 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Grace Wu

muse of the moon


The lucid moonlight                             lies                                   before
my bed

       I thought                          it was frost                   on the Earth

       To the light of the moon            I raise                               my head

But long                        for my home                       instead.


Translated from Chinese by Grace Wu



静夜思


床前明月光,

疑是地上霜。

举头望明月,

低头思故乡。


Li Bai

top


Translation commentary

While translating this poem, I faced problems mainly linked to poetic form, individual words and the atmosphere or air the poem created in the original language.

I found the most difficulty in translating the title. Translated to English, it literally means 'Quiet Night Thought'. I was far from satisfied by this title because it did not have the same breath or personality as the title of the original, and didn't seem natural in English. I decided to translate it as 'muse of the moon' ('to muse' as in 'to think'). Even though not the most accurate translation, it related the context of the poem while seeming more natural in English.

The poem rhymed on the end of lines 1, 2 and 4. I decided that I wanted to preserve this quality of the poem, because it would make my translation seem more fluid and natural. It was not particularly hard for me to create a rhyme for this poem, because 'bed' and 'head' were both mentioned. However, I did need to change the rhyming lines to lines 1, 3 and 4.

In Mandarin, most poems have this rhyming quality, coinciding with short, descriptive phrases of the landscape. I believe this makes Chinese poems particularly special and different because they paint a picture with so few words, allowing the reader themselves to imagine the scene. I enjoyed the simplicity of the poem because it created a mystical and ethereal atmosphere. To maintain this quality, I used simple, descriptive words, while also playing with gaps which created space and made the speaker seem lost and broken, due to the broken lines and phrases: essentially how Li Bai seemed to feel when writing this poem.

Grace Wu