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

18-and-under category, commended

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

Vassil Gilbert

A short summer night

A short summer night

A short summer night
Amidst the river's reeds
A crab's bubbles

Making the first move
to cross the shallow water
A summer's moon

A short summer night
By the side of lapping waves
A lonely fire

A short summer night
The waters have fallen
in the Oi river

An early dawn
Cloaking the short night
Mount Higashiyama

A short summer night
Atop the woolly caterpillar
Beads of dew

A short summer night
By the Rokuri pine tree
Gone by, much too soon

Translated from Japanese by Vassil Gilbert

蟹 芦 短
の 間 夜
泡 流 や

夏 浅 ぬ
の 瀬 け
月 わ が
 た け
 る の


大 二 み
井 尺 じ
川 落 か
  ゆ 夜
  く や

東 夜 明
山 を や
  か す
  く き

露 毛 み
の む じ
玉 し か
  の 夜
  上 や

更 六 み
た 里 じ
ら の か
ず 松 夜
  に や

Yosa Buson


Translation commentary

I have selected seven haiku by the 18th century master Yosa Buson, who appeals to me with his rather visual style, compared to other masters such as Matsuo Basho.

The choice and arrangement (as if a poem) was inspired by one of Buson's paintings: both haiku and painting present glimpses of a summer night by the river, emphasising its elusiveness – something I have often contemplated by the River Deben where I live.

Haiku's shortness of expression mimics the instantaneity of these glimpses of summer, so I attempted to follow the traditional metre of 17 syllables. The greatest challenge was keeping to the metre but simultaneously effectively conveying the emotion of the haiku and still being accurate to the Japanese. I managed to overcome this quite well in all but one of the haiku. I felt that it was acceptable to have it non-conformant as haiku can be flexible, and if I were to interfere with what I have written I would likely compromise much of the text's power.

Another challenge was how not to impose my own interpretation, as every word not only carries meaning, but encapsulates feeling, expectation and outlook, and this should be left to the reader. For example, in the fifth haiku, does the sun cloak the night with its light, thus banishing it? Or does mount Higashiyama cloak the night with the shadow it casts as dawn breaks? I added the word 'mount' to provide the context the reader needs to interpret for themselves.

Finally, when translating, I found some words challenging because they are not popular in the modern Japanese which I am studying: for example 流るゝ 'nagaruru' which I had to research and found out that it was an Old Japanese way of expressing 流れる 'nagareru'.

Vassil Gilbert