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

18-and-under category, winner

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

Maryam Zaidi

The Lemons

Listen to me – laureate poets
only seem to move among plants
with rarely used names: boxwood, privets or acanthus
as for me, I love streets that lead to grassy
ditches where in partly dried up puddles
young boys grab at some scrawny eels:
the narrow streets that follow these banks
descend onto tufted reeds
and unfold onto the orchards, among the lemon trees.

Perhaps it is better if the chorus of the birds
dwindles, swallowed up by the azure sky;
you can hear the whispers of the friendly branches
more clearly now in that almost immovable air,
and the essences of this fragrance
that cannot separate itself from the earth
pours into our chest with a restless sweetness.
Here by some miracle, the war
of adverse passions is stilled,
here even the poorest of us can reach our share of wealth –
the fragrance of the lemons.

Look, in these silences when things
yield themselves and seem close
to revealing their ultimate secret,
sometimes we expect
to unearth an error in Nature,
the world's dead point, the link that comes loose,
the thread that, untangled, might finally lead us
to the heart of a truth.
Our gaze searches all around,
The mind probes, assents, disconnects
in the fragrance that sweeps over us
when the day grows faint.
These are the silences where one sees
in every fading human shadow
some disturbed Divinity.

But the illusion is lost, and time returns us
to noisy cities where the azure sky only shows itself
in fragments, high up, between the cornices.
The rain then wearies the earth;
the tedium of winter thickens over the roofs,
daylight becomes miserly – the soul bitter.
Yet one day through a gate left ajar
among the trees of a courtyard
we catch a glimpse of the yellow lemons;
and the frost in our hearts thaws,
and into our chests pour
their songs –
the golden trumpets of sunlight.

Translated from Italian by Maryam Zaidi

I limoni

Ascoltami, i poeti laureati
si muovono soltanto fra le piante
dai nomi poco usati: bossi ligustri o acanti.
lo, per me, amo le strade che riescono agli erbosi
fossi dove in pozzanghere
mezzo seccate agguantano i ragazzi
qualche sparuta anguilla:
le viuzze che seguono i ciglioni,
discendono tra i ciuffi delle canne
e mettono negli orti, tra gli alberi dei limoni.

Meglio se le gazzarre degli uccelli
si spengono inghiottite dall'azzurro:
più chiaro si ascolta il susurro
dei rami amici nell'aria che quasi non si muove,
e i sensi di quest'odore
che non sa staccarsi da terra
e piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta.
Qui delle divertite passioni
per miracolo tace la guerra,
qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza
ed è l'odore dei limoni.

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s'abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l'anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d'intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno piú languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità.

Ma l'illusione manca e ci riporta il tempo
nelle città rumorose dove l'azzurro si mostra
soltanto a pezzi, in alto, tra le cimase.
La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s'affolta
il tedio dell'inverno sulle case,
la luce si fa avara – amara l'anima.
Quando un giorno da un malchiuso portone
tra gli alberi di una corte
ci si mostrano i gialli dei limoni;
e il gelo del cuore si sfa,
e in petto ci scrosciano
le loro canzoni
le trombe d'oro della solarità

Eugenio Montale

© Mondadori Libri SpA, Milano


Translation commentary

In 'I limoni', Eugenio Montale distances himself from past literary conventions. The poem is memorable because it focuses on quotidian life – not the 'superior' poetry of the prestigious 'poeti laureati' (laureate poets) and their use of florid language. Montale instead captures the roots of his personal experiences. Montale paints a nostalgic picture of the Ligurian landscape where he spent summers with his family: the lanes, the bird-chorus, and the all-encompassing scent and sight of the local lemon trees. The poem goes on to become a more existential look at the truth in human experience, but the final stanza grounds Montale's philosophical thoughts back in reality. There is a sense of the 'mal di vivere' (the pain of living), through the multifaceted references to the arrival of winter. Montale conveys that even through the monotony of winter, contentment awaits him in the form of an orchard of lemon trees.

The dry sounds in the original Italian were a challenge to translate: the 'z's and 'c's within 'mezzo seccate' (half-dried-up) and 'gazzare' (to uproar) had to be translated into harsher words to match with the Italian double consonants. Another task was to try and keep to the lyricism of Montale's original form. This was somewhat difficult in the final phrase of the poem, where the subject 'le loro canzoni' (their songs) is purposefully separated from its sentence in the previous line. Here, I made a decision to preserve the original version. The most difficult thing, however, was when to substitute singular for plural and vice versa. For example, in the original Italian, the young boys are grabbing at a singular 'sparuta anguilla' (scrawny eel), but I have decided to take some liberty and translate it as a plural, as it suits the English better.

Maryam Zaidi