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

16-and-under category, commended

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Read the winning entries from previous years

Matilda Stepek

Passions of a Ghostly Fury

While the Thraces fight with bows, and the Iazyges with spears,
While the Ganges runs warm, and the Danube cold,

While the oak stands like the mountain,
While the plain grows soft grass,
While the Tiber flows with clear Tuscan waters,

I will wage war on your house; even death shall not end my anger.

But instead, by my Shades a savage weapon will be granted to my hand.
For too, when I disperse into empty air
My bloodless ghost will remember your hateful character
Then too, my remembering ghost will pursue penance for your deeds and my bony form your face.

Wherever I am, I will endeavor to crawl from the Styx's shore
And, avenging, stretch my icy hands to your face.

You will perceive me watching, in the silent shadows of night.
I shall appear to you, and drive sleep away.
Finally, in whatever you are doing, I will fly before your eyes and moan,
so that there may be no rest in your house.
Savage strokes, the serpent and its sound intertwined, shall be given to you.

And always funeral torches will smoke before your guilty face.

Translated from Latin by Matilda Stepek

Ovid, Ibis 133-142; 151-158

pugnabunt arcu dum Thraces, Iazyges hasta,
dum tepidus Ganges, frigidus Hister erit,
robora dum montes, dum mollia pabula campi,
dum Tiberis liquidas Tuscus habebit aquas,
tecum bella geram; nec mors mihi finiet iras,
saeva sed in Manes Manibus arma dabit.
tum quoque, cum fuero vacuas dilapsus in auras,
exsanguis mores oderit umbra tuos.
tum quoque factorum veniam memor umbra tuorum,
insequar et vultus ossea forma tuos.

quicquid ero, Stygiis erumpere nitar ab oris,
et tendam gelidas ultor in ora manus.
me vigilans cernes, tacitis ego noctis in umbris
excutiam somnos visus adesse tuos.
denique quicquid ages, ante os oculosque volabo
et querar, et nulla sede quietus eris.
verbera seava dabunt sonitum nexaque colubrae:
conscia fumabunt semper ad ora faces.



Translation commentary

I chose to translate the extract 'Passions of a Ghostly Fury' from Ovid's Ibis, because ancient literature provides a valuable insight into cultures that might otherwise be lost. When translating from any language, there are challenges involved in preserving the poet's intent. The distance between our time and Ovid's, and the fact that Latin is a 'dead' language, enhances these difficulties.

Many words in Latin do not have an exact English equivalent. So, on several occasions I had to decide between a more accurate translation or one that I felt was truer to the spirit of the poem.

For example, I translated 'verbera seava dabunt sonitum nexaque colubrae:' as 'Savage strokes, the serpent and its sound intertwined, shall be given to you.' Here, 'hiss' would have been a more technically accurate translation. However, I felt 'the serpent and its sound' maintains the chaotic and monstrous imagery of the Underworld conveyed in the original Latin.

Structurally, replication seemed inappropriate as Ovid relies on techniques that could not be translated into the English. For instance, the line 'tecum bella geram / wage war on your house' uses plosive consonants to contrast with the sibilance of the previous line, 'Tiberis liquidas Tuscus habebit aquas / the Tiber flows with clear Tuscan waters'. These auditory differences, which emphasise the contrasting imagery, aren't as prominent in English. Instead I used form to emphasise the contrast, by introducing a line break.

Ancestral honour played a big role in Roman culture - praying to the Gods and ancestors for aid in revenge was standard. Therefore, I felt it was important to highlight the formal, solemn nature of the vengeance oath. I used 'for too' (line 8) followed by 'then too' (line 10) despite both being translated from 'tum quoque', to give this sense of calculated preparation.

Matilda Stepek