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

14-and-under category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2020 booklet
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Vishal Saha

When we were kids

When we were kids
we looked up to the elderly –
they were just thirty
a puddle was an ocean, or a magnificent sea
things were so simple and just trouble-free
death did not exist; we lived happily.

when we grew up into boys
we looked up to the elderly –
they were just forty
a pond was an ocean, or a large, blue sea
and death was merely
a word used casually.

when we got married
we looked up to the elderly –
they were just fifty
a lake was an ocean, or a small, calm sea
death was just death, now a guarantee
but of the others for now, thankfully.

now we're old
there's nobody to look up to
we have reached the truth, finally
that the ocean is the ocean, not even a sea
and death begins to be
our final destiny…

Translated from Uruguayan Spanish by Vishal Saha

Cuando éramos niños

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For more information please

Cuando éramos niños
los viejos tenían como treinta
un charco era un océano
la muerte lisa y llana
no existía.

luego cuando muchachos
los viejos eran gente de cuarenta
un estanque era un océano
la muerte solamente
una palabra

ya cuando nos casamos
los ancianos estaban en los cincuenta
un lago era un océano
la muerte era la muerte
de los otros.

ahora veteranos
ya le dimos alcance a la verdad
el océano es por fin el océano
pero la muerte empieza a ser
la nuestra.

Mario Benedetti


Translation commentary

When I first read this poem, I was instantly struck by the beauty and simplicity of it. It follows the journey of a group of boys' lives and explores how death is perceived differently as we get older. The poem is abstract in some sense, implying that as kids the world seems so spectacular – but as we get older, we start to understand the reality of things (the changing description of the ocean). My first literal translation was confusing and it was hard to understand how the events connected together.

Initially, I found the second line of each stanza of the poem difficult to translate. I decided to say 'we looked up to the elderly' because it created an interesting new contrast and perspective. Furthermore, the poem provided other problems; for example, I thought it needed some extra phrases and words to improve the flow. I added the idea of the 'sea', in addition to the ocean, so that a realistic rhyme scheme could be used.

Another difficulty was that the ending of the poem: 'la muerte empieza a ser la nuestra' did not sound right translated into English. I managed to conclude the poem with 'death begins to be our destiny.' Also, in the first stanza, the word 'lisa' (plain) did not fit with the context of the poem appropriately, so I changed the word to 'trouble-free', which provided a better description of the boys' idyllic early years.

While translating this poem, I researched the poet, Mario Benedetti, who aimed to speak about political struggle, anger and love as passionately as possible. In 1973, Benedetti was forced to leave his home country, Uruguay, and travelled from area to area. He has described the pain and challenge of this exile in his book 'El desexilio y otras conjeturas'. I wanted this poem to also reflect the idea of a long journey, in which you travel from place to place.

Vishal Saha