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

16-and-under category, third prize

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

Alice Garcia Kalmus

I write against an open window

I write against an open window.
My pen is the colour of the shutters:
Green! And what light, beautiful metalwork
That draws the sun on an empty canvas!

I don't know what crazy landscaper
Would mix the different colours… failing… succeeding
Always trying to make a new shade
Every day, colouring in the hours as they pass

Flashes of light dancing on the leaves!
I almost forgot what I was going to write
But why would I bother?
I also come from this landscape

I keep daydreaming, randomly, my thoughts dissolving in the air
And suddenly I am uplifted… enlightened… shuddering
At the thought of light fingers painting me

Translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Alice Garcia Kalmus

Escrevo diante da janela aberta

Escrevo diante da janela aberta
Minha caneta é cor das venezianas:
Verde!... E que leves, lindas filigranas
Desenha o sol na página deserta!

Não sei que paisagista doidivanas
Mistura os tons… acerta… desacerta…
Sempre em busca de nova descoberta,
Vai colorindo as horas quotidianas…

Jogos da luz dançando na folhagem!
Do que eu ia escrever até me esqueço…
Pra que pensar? Também sou da paisagem…

Vago, solúvel no ar, fico sonhando…
E me transmuto… iriso-me… estremeço…
Nos leves dedos que me vão pintando!

Mario Quintana

© Rua dos Cataventos, Editora Alfaguara, São Paulo, SP


Translation commentary

The main challenge in translating this poem was retaining the meaning of the old-fashioned language. The collection that this poem came from was published in 1940, so the manner of speaking is very different from modern-day Portuguese.

Furthermore, some words were very technical and not used colloquially, for example 'filigranas', meaning 'filigrees', which I changed to 'metalwork' to allow the reader to understand, whilst still encapsulating the original meaning. Another example is 'folhagem' meaning 'foliage', which I changed to 'leaves', a better-known word. 'Doidivana/s' is an old and rarely used word, technically meaning eccentric, but I thought 'crazy' was a better translation, as it isn't far from the original meaning and its use conveys the speaker's confusion at the behaviour of the imagined landscaper. I also struggled with metaphorical language. 'Página deserta' literally means deserted page, which in Portuguese sounds poetic, but I thought 'empty canvas' was a better translation as 'empty' has a more appropriate connotation, and 'canvas' alludes to the metaphorical 'painting' more clearly. Another example of this was 'acerta… desacerta…' meaning 'hits… misses…'. In Portuguese the meaning is clear, but in English this doesn't flow well, so I chose 'fails…'succeeds…' as the meaning is the same but it's more literary.

Another difficulty was translating 'Pra que pensar?' which translates as 'Why think?', but the speaker is trying to say 'Why would I think about what to write?', which is too long so I shortened it to 'Why bother?'.

The greatest challenge was translating the penultimate line. 'Transmuto' means 'transmute', which is again a very niche word and in this case is used metaphorically (the speaker doesn't change form, but his thoughts/feelings change very suddenly). Since it is implied that he feels happy, I changed it to 'uplifted' to make it clearer.

Alice Garcia Kalmus