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

Open 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


Ben Fergusson

dust


whenever the door is closed, the dogs too are
silent in their houses, no more flights, no
lawnmowers and no ticking clocks, nothing disturbs, only

the hem of the curtain polishing the floor, a finger of light
touching my eye. fever feelings. the wood softly cracks.
only a wasp pounding the window. outside the pine

trees rock. in the room, under my bed, where someone
lies with a dull knife, the lint balls quake. dust.
dust. i hear the wasp, who is above me. the clatter

of plates from the kitchen, glass clink, now cutlery:
who, if I scream, will hear me then, it's only the animal film
on channel three and the conversation in full swing

and certainly nothing there for me, caught in endless
afternoon light. dust. dust. am i the insect, the boundlessly
exhausted, in this bed my mother lay as a child.

Translated from German by Ben Fergusson



staub


wenn die tür geschlossen wird, sind auch die hunde
still in ihren hütten, der flugverkehr ist eingestellt, kein
rasenmäher und kein weckerticken, nichts stört, nur

der saum der gardine, der am boden schleift. ein lichtstrahl,
der mein auge trifft. fiebergefühle. das holz knackt leise.
nur eine wespe, die ans fenster schlägt. drausen wiegen

die tannen. im zimmer, unter meinem bett, wo einer
mit stumpfem messer, zittern die flusen. staub.
staub. ich höre die wespe, die über mir ist. das klappern

von tellern aus der küche, gläserklirren, jetzt der besteck:
wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn, ist erst der tierfilm
im dritten programm und das gespräch in vollem gang

und nichts davon für mich bestimmt, gefangen im endlosen
nachtmittagslicht. staub. staub. bin ich das insekt, das maßlost
erschöpfte, in diesem bett lag meine mutter als kind.

Nadja Küchenmeister

Originally published as 'staub' in Alle Lichter © Schöffling & Co. Verlag,
Frankfurt am Main, 2010 (Reproduced by permission of the rightsholder)


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Translation commentary

Nadja Küchenmeister (b. 1981) is a multi-award-winning German poet from Berlin. In her poem 'dust' she beautifully weaves together the nightmarish and the quietly domestic in a monologue that may simply describe the experience of someone convalescing at home, or something far more threatening. In translating the poem, I have carefully kept to the rhythms of the German and have worked hard to capture the sense of feverish hyper-sensitivity evoked by Küchenmeister's interplay of soft and hard sounds and the uncomfortable broken syntax of the verse.

I have kept the all-lowercase form of the German, an approach that has been popular in German poetry since the middle of the last century, aiming to flatten the hierarchy of the words. The effect in German, with its capitalised nouns, is much more visually pronounced than in English – compare 'der saum der gardine, der am boden schleift' and the correctly capitalised 'Der Saum der Gardine, der am Boden schleift.' In the English translation, the lowercase 'i' of the first-person pronoun 'I' is the only place that an English reader really feels the strangeness of this effect for the German reader.

I have tried to retain the sense of many of the compound nouns in the German – 'fiebergefühle' (fever feelings); 'gläserklirren' (glass clink) – which would be more literally translated as 'feelings of fever' and 'clinking of glasses' respectively, but would lose the power of the original German nouns. German word order also allows Küchenmeister to split verbs from their subjects over stanzas – 'drausen wiegen / die tannen' – which in English sounds forced and old-fashioned. In these places, I have split the compound nouns to echo a little of the disorientating effect – 'outside the pine / trees rock.'

Ben Fergusson