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

Judges’ comments

Read the 2020 winning entries
Read the winning entries from previous years
About the judges
Comments on the 2020 competition by judges:
Khairani Barokka, Mary Jean Chan and Daljit Nagra
Comments on the Polish Spotlight entries by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Khairani Barokka

It was a treat to read the entries for this year's Stephen Spender Prize. There was a significant increase in submissions from last year, and this is a remarkable achievement for each entrant, considering the pandemic. We sincerely thank all of you who took the time to create, to submit, to submerge in so many languages. We present to you poems that moved and delighted us.

In the open category, we celebrate first prize winner 'Wild West Cambridge At Dusk' for its creative idiosyncrasies, Stuart Lyons playfully presenting Xu Zhimo's charming descriptions of 'lush lush dense dense shagginess', of sky as 'mixed-star mosaic'. Then we have Marta Ciechanowicz's translation of Wisława Szymborska's 'The Joy of Writing', a journey of gratitude for the written word, keenly translated from Polish. In third place, Ben Fergusson's translation from German of Nadja Küchenmeister's 'dust', evoking 'fever feelings' through intense sensorial description. The commended entries are Oliver Fallon for his translation from Sanskrit of Kālidāsa's 'Conception of a New God' (verses 1.33–47), Peter Frankopan for Bella Akhmadulina's 'The Night of the Falling Apples' (Russian), and Christopher MacDonald for Temu Suyan's 'Twelve Todays' (Taiwanese Mandarin), each resonant and considered. We also have a special category commending first-time entrants. This year, those commendations go to Fiona Garratt for Cécile Coulon's 'Colours' (French), Lorna Amor for Ling Yu's 'The one who speaks' (Taiwanese Mandarin), and Mark Grainger for Erich Kästner's 'The Evolution of Mankind' (German), all of which showed sensitivity for 'each subtle nuance' (to quote Garratt's translation), remarkable for it being their first attempts.

In the 18-and-under category, we were uplifted by 'the golden trumpets of sunlight' in Maryam Zaidi's translation of Eugenio Montale's 'The Lemons' (Italian), taken by how 'the chain unravels, takes flight, re-joins' in Olivia Flint's translation of Pedro Serrano's 'The Schoolchildren' (Mexican Spanish), and felt deeply for Qiu Jin's inner monologue as both 'solitary sailboat' and 'heroic', in Isobel Birkeland's translation of 'Writing rhymes with Sir Ishii' (Chinese). Our commended entries are all skillful: Vassil Gilbert for Yosa Buson's 'A short summer night' (Japanese), Jasper Maughan for Rainald Simon's 'Stay' (German), and Cosima Deetman for Martin Piekar's 'Cyber Insomnia' (German).

For the 16-and-under category, Megan Turtle's strong translation from Russian of Joseph Brodsky's 'Do not leave your room' – in which 'Outside nothing makes sense, happiness included' – wins first prize. Alessandro d'Attanasio wins second for Giacomo Leopardi's 'Saturday in the Village' (Italian), sensitively conjuring up 'a day full of joy', and Alice Garcia Kalmus takes third for Mario Quintana's 'I write against an open window' (Brazilian Portuguese), jarring us with the 'thought of light fingers paint­ing me!'. Commendations go to Gabriela O'Keeffe's translation of an extract from Michael Davitt's 'Tears for America' (Irish), and Matilda Stepek for Ovid's 'Passions of a Ghostly Fury' (Latin), both passionate odes on politics and war.

Finally, in the 14-and-under category, Hannah Kripa Jordan wins first prize for the boisterous, charming 'And Yet – Our Tamil Life' (Tamil) by Manushya Puthiran, followed by Grace Wu's translation of Li Bai's 'muse of the moon' (Chinese), successfully conveying a self-avowed 'mystical and ethereal atmosphere', and third goes to Caroline-Olivia Edwards' translation of Cuban poet José Martí's 'Versos Sencillos, Verso III'. Commended are Vishal Saha, Maddie Stoll, and Omar Ullah, for Mario Benedetti's 'When we were kids' (Uruguayan Spanish), Ai Qing's 'Hope' (Chinese), and Kamini Roy's 'Lest they say something' (Bangla), respectively – all containing profundity in deceptively simple language.


Mary Jean Chan

As a recurring judge for the Stephen Spender Prize, I can safely say that the judges were once again treated to submissions of the highest quality from across our translation categories this year. The inaugural commendations for first-time entrants in the open category also allows us to celebrate translators who have submitted to the Stephen Spender Prize for the first time. The judges agreed that the Tamil poem 'And Yet – Our Tamil Life' by Manushya Puthiran was a worthy winner of the 14-and-under category, a poem full of wisdom for our difficult times, thoughtfully translated by Hannah Kripa Jordan. Second place goes to the 'muse of the moon' by Li Bai, translated by Grace Wu, who expertly expressed this classical Chinese poem in a fresh and vivid manner in English. In third place, we chose the Cuban Spanish poem 'Versos Sencillos, Verso III' by José Martí, with its crystalline imagery translated wonderfully by Caroline-Olivia Edwards. Our commendations go to Vishal Saha for 'When we were kids' (Uruguayan Spanish), Maddie Stoll for 'Hope' (Chinese) and Omar Ullah for 'Lest they say something' (Bangla), as these poems felt expansive and moving in multiple ways.

In the 16-and-under category, the judges selected Megan Turtle's translation of 'Do not leave your room' by the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky as our winner, as it speaks directly to our current predicament amidst COVID-19, with its clever use of biting satire expertly translated into English: 'Stay home for furniture will keep you company. / Practice wall-paper fusion. Barricade the door to protect us / from Chronos, Cosmos, Eros, the Virus.' In second place, we chose Giacomo Leopardi's 'Saturday in the Village', tenderly translated from the Italian by Alessandro d'Attanasio, who evokes rural village scenes with striking imagery: 'Then when every other light is quenched, / and all else is silent, / you hear the hammer striking, you hear the saw / of the woodworker'. Mario Quintana's 'I write against an open window' is third, translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Alice Garcia Kalmus. Despite its short length, the poem evokes the wonder of creating art as one oscillates between inspiration and daydream: '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'. Our commended poems go to 'Passions of a Ghostly Fury' by Ovid, translated by Matilda Stepek from Latin, and an extract from Michael Davitt's excoriating 'Tears for America', translated by Gabriela O'Keeffe, both of which captured the judges' attention.

In the 18-and-under category, we selected Maryam Zaidi's translation from Italian of 'The Lemons' by the poet Eugenio Montale as our unanimous winner for its lyric sensibility and ability to inspire hope through an appreciation of nature's bounty: '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.' In second place, we chose Pedro Serrano's 'The Schoolchildren', a poem translated from Mexican Spanish by Olivia Flint with tenderness and clarity, evoking the lovely image of a group of schoolchildren relishing one another's company: 'It is strange / this way of melding, of becoming one being. / As if they do not know who they are without following. / They seek each other, reach each other, become entangled.' In third place is 'Writing rhymes with Sir Ishii' by the Chinese revolutionary feminist writer Qiu Jin, translated by Isobel Birkeland with panache: '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.' Our commended poems were Vassil Gilbert's translation of 'A short summer night' (Japanese), Jasper Maughan's translation of 'Stay' (German) and Cosima Deetman's translation of 'Cyber Insomnia' (German), which stood out to the judges for their evocative imagery and clarity of voice.

Last but not least, the open category once again proved to be the most varied and challenging for the judges to agree upon. After much deliberation, we found ourselves returning to Xu Zhimo's 'Wild West Cambridge at Dusk', translated by Stuart Lyons. We were enamoured of the playfulness and irreverence of this translation, particularly in terms of the translator's use of syntax throughout, which allows the English version to take on a life of its own with lines such as these: 'braving cloud-billows cloud-tides / pip-pip pitter-patter afloat / in a blink the dusk-blaze subsides / see you later mate'. In second place, we were drawn to Wisława Szymborska's 'The Joy of Writing' for its lush metaphors, expertly translated from Polish by Marta Ciechanowicz: 'The written doe. Where is she running through the written wood?' In third place, we chose Nadja Küchenmeister's 'dust', translated by Ben Fergusson, for its atmospheric quality and ability to lightly convey deep-seated emotions: 'fever feelings. the wood softly cracks. / only a wasp pounding the window. outside the pine / trees rock.'

In terms of our first-time entrants in the open category, the judges chose as our winner Cécile Coulon's 'Colours' translated by Fiona Garratt from French, as we were impressed by its vivid lines: 'deaths and births, / twisting above / neighbouring houses / the bolt of storms, / floating over rooftops fortified / with bees and mice'. In second place, we picked Ling Yu's 'The one who speaks', translated from Taiwanese Mandarin by Lorna Amor, for its deep sense of place and appreciation of the landscape of Taiwan: 'I come from the first century / to say / that the tea trees / on the hillside / are glowing'. In third place, we picked Erich Kästner's 'The Evolution of Mankind', translated from German by Mark Grainger, for its futuristic vision and satirical tone: 'They travel wide. They've mastered the car. / They've built an orbital station. / They brush their teeth. They've conquered tartar.' Our overall commendations go to Kālidāsa's 'Conception of a New God' (verses 1.33-47) translated from Sanskrit by Oliver Fallon, Bella Akhmadulina's 'Night Falling Apples' (Russian) translated by Peter Frankopan, and Temu Suyan's 'Twelve Todays' (Taiwanese Mandarin) translated by Christopher MacDonald.

Congratulations to all our winners and commended translators. It has been a true joy to read your tremendous work.

Daljit Nagra

Having judged many prizes over the past two decades, I have to say, and without any detriment to any other competition, that this has been the most enjoyable to judge. Entries varied from adults to children, and translated poems were either classic poems that I have loved for years, or classic and contemporary poems that were unfamiliar to me. In several cases, the names of translated poets were new to me, and I found myself repeatedly searching for the exciting poets online and ordering their books where they had already been translated.

This is one way of saying that the poetry submissions were of an exceptionally high standard. I came across many translations that felt as though they had, always and only, been written in English, such was the quality of the translators' way of transforming poems from one language into another.

In the open category, there were many superb translations that missed out. Our winning poem justified its place because of its lively mix of language that dramatized a scene at Cambridge with linguistic vigour; the commentary was helpful in explaining the Joycean influence on the original. I also enjoyed the second prize poem almost as much as the winner, but alas it just missed out. The clean syntax and lineation of this poem captured the stark simplicity of the surface, drawing us into the complex thoughts of the poem, the feeling that art can hold us, momentarily, in a place of safety. The many strengths of our third prize poem, 'dust', included the exquisite precision of the details which sit beautifully against the voice of controlled despair; the explanation of the compound nouns in the commentary was also helpful in explaining key decisions.

There were several first-time entrants, and many showed great skill at capturing the tones of the original. Our three first-time entrant commendations were very different: 'Colours' had a dreamy quality that held back the terrors of the mind; 'The one who speaks' was a beautifully quiet poem about loss; while 'The Evolution of Mankind' was a confidently rhymed poem that humorously captured our beleaguered state of being.

There were many impressive entries in the 18-and-under category, especially the energised and grammatically exciting 'The Lemons', which showed a highly skilled translator at work; similarly, 'The Schoolchildren' was able to delay the true impact of the story through the deployment of syntax and run-on lines.

In the 16-and-under category, the second prize-winner, with 'Do not leave your room' shows a translator able to find a poem that is apt for the times; it is written simply, yet with verve, and conveys the fear of going outside as institutions and ideals collapse.

In the 14-and-under category, I was delighted that a poem translated from Tamil became our winner, especially as this indicates the wide range of languages our winning entries came from. 'And Yet - Our Tamil Life' is both funny and moving, and the translator's commentary was also an enjoyable read. In its original Chinese, 'muse of the moon' is visually simple on the page, but the translator has played havoc with the lineation to create a fresh and dynamic poem in English. 'Versos Sencillos, Verso III' was our third prize in the 14-and-under category, and I enjoyed the restraint of the lines as they developed the mood of hope cast against despair.


Antonia Lloyd-Jones

This year I decided to take the opportunity to introduce the potential contestants to some contemporary poets whose work they might not know, by providing a curated list of twenty-five poems for them to choose from. With the invaluable help of Maja Konkolewska, who has run school workshops in poetry translation for the Stephen Spender Trust and has an excellent ear for poems that appeal to children of various ages, I chose a range of poems aimed at the youngest as well as the oldest translators, from comical rhymes to be read at bedtime to sophisticated, philosophical verses. I wondered whether to categorise the poems by age, but realised that some of the comical rhymes are the most difficult to translate, so it would be wrong to impose limits.

Asked for their permission to use their work for the competition, the poets and their agents were very willing – I'm extremely grateful to them for being so open to the idea. Seventeen of the twenty-five curated poems were chosen for translation by the entrants, some of them several times. One of the most difficult and meaningful poems, 'A Song on the End of the World' by Czesław Miłosz, attracted the most entries, which was six.

It was interesting to see from the commentaries provided by the translators how even the youngest put careful consideration into their work, not just translating literally but with thought for the poet's intentions and methods. They have weighed up the effects produced by a particular choice of tense, punctuation, rhyme and rhythm, and have experimented to see if these need to be preserved or changed to serve the poet's aims better in English. There are plenty of encouraging signs here for the future of Polish poetry in English translation, I'm happy to say.

In the 10-and-under category, the entrants were not afraid to tackle rhyme and rhythm. The winner, Aaron Ferguson, ambitiously chose a playful poem by Zbigniew Machej, about fleas jumping from one dog to another. He has understood that the poem needs to hop from line to line, just like the fleas. The runner-up, Maximilian Hempler, has admirably retained the rhyme and rhythm of Łukasz Dębski's 'The Sawfish', with some imaginative use of phrases gleaned from British children's literature.

In the 14-and-under category, the winner, Alexander Fletcher, has produced a very impressive translation of 'Opposing Winds' by Tomasz Różycki, showing intelligence and maturity in his thought processes and sensitivity to the meaning and form of the poem. In her translation of 'Tea Party' by Agnieszka Frączek, the runner-up, Michaela Konkolewska-Grybė, can clearly see that the success of the poem relies on rhyme, rhythm, and comedy, and that clever alternatives to the literal meaning are the key to achieving the same effect in English.

In the 18-and-under category, Hanna Kisiala's winning translation of 'Homecoming' by Bronisław Maj conveys a complex poem with great empathy and skill, retaining the emotional momentum and beauty of the original. In second place, Skye Slatcher's translation of 'And that's why' by Adam Zagajewski shows awareness of the apparent simplicity of lines that offer a subtle message, which comes across convincingly. And in third place, Patrick Lynch has produced a bold translation of Czesław Miłosz's 'A Song on the End of the World' that successfully recreates the sinister contrast between ordinary life and its inevitable end.

Overall, the standard of entries was high, showing literary talent and imagination. Well done and congratulations to all our contestants.