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

18-and-under category, third 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

Isobel Birkeland

Writing rhymes with Sir Ishii

Do not tell me women cannot be heroic,
I sailed the eastward winds alone for thousands of miles.

My poetic thought a solitary sailboat covering the vast ocean,
I dreamt of your three islands, exquisite under the light of the moon.

With sorrow I remember the copper camels of our nation, trapped and unable
to move forward
Ashamed, I have sweated my warhorse, yet achieved nothing.

Grieving over my homeland fills me with regret,
How can I spend my days here?
A guest, enduring your pleasant spring breezes.

Translated from Chinese by Isobel Birkeland


漫云女子不英雄,  万里乘风独向东。

诗思一帆海空阔,  梦魂三岛月玲珑。

铜驼已陷悲回首,  汗马终惭未有功。

如许伤心家国恨,  那堪客里度春风!

Qiu Jin


Translation commentary

This poem, written by Qiu Jin, a 19th-century Chinese poet, expresses her 'poetic thoughts' about the role of women in society, her life in Japan, and her regrets over leaving China. It is written in the form lüshi, which consists of eight lines of five or seven characters. Lüshi also often have parallelism between couplets: a theme developed in one couplet would be contrasted in the following one, thus making this poem seem rather disjointed. Although this poem was written with seven characters per line, I felt I would not be able to fully convey, in only seven words per line, the meaning created through the multiple meanings held by each character in the poem, so I chose to not obey this, but instead to make each line as concise as I could.

As this is a Chinese poem from the nineteenth century, there were some cultural references I had difficulties in translating. One such reference was '铜驼' which literally means 'copper camel'. I chose to translate this as 'the copper camels of our nation' on line 5, as '铜驼' refers to the bronze camel statues which guarded one entrance to the imperial palace in China, symbolising the palace and therefore China as a whole. I also chose to translate the last seven-character line of the poem as two separate lines, and I translated '堪' as both 'can', in line 8, and 'endure', in line 9, in order to emphasise what I perceived as the conflict of emotion the poet experienced in feeling out of place and guilty, living pleasantly in Japan while the inequality she fought against still existed in China.

Isobel Birkeland