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

Open category, first-time entrant commendation

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

Fiona Garratt


My childhood knew two colours:
a green and a black.
At night I'd sink back
into each subtle nuance.
Until the final tremblings
of adolescence,
there was never any mention
of azures and oceans,
only meadows and rocks
absorbed the nights,
deaths and births,
twisting above
neighbouring houses
the bolt of storms,
floating over rooftops fortified
with bees and mice,
a cruel kite
of hail and clouds.
A clustering of well-stocked barns,
and the mountains as backdrop,
as sole architecture.
A solemn church,
never ceasing to play
the melody of baying dogs.
Consuming so much space,
this soundless eternity of the past
bound up
and sometimes to emerge
like a whisper.
My childhood knew two colours:
this solid green and black,
at night I'd sink back
into each subtle nuance.

Translated from French by Fiona Garratt

Les Couleurs

Mon enfance a connu deux couleurs:
le vert et le noir.
Je m'enfonçais, le soir,
dans chacune de leurs nuances.
Jusqu'aux dernières secousses
de l'adolescence
il n'a jamais été question
d'azurs et d'océans,
mais de prairies et de roches
qui absorbaient, la nuit,
les morts et les naissances,
faisant tourner au-dessus
des maisons voisines
le bâton des orages,
faisant flotter sur les toits renforcés
d'abeilles et de souris
son cerf-volant vicieux
de grêles et de nuages.
Une église sombre,
un bouquet de granges pleines,
et derrière, les montagnes,
pour seule architecture.
Elle jouait sans cesser
la musique des chiens qui aboient.
Elle prenait tant de place,
l'éternité silencieuse que le passé
et qui surgit parfois
dans un murmure.
Mon enfance a connu deux couleurs:
ce vert et ce noir purs,
je m'enfonçais, le soir,
dans chacune de leurs nuances.

Cécile Coulon

Reproduced by kind permission of the poet


Translation commentary

Cécile Coulon (1990 – ) is a contemporary French novelist and poet whose work is widely presented on social media and within France's literary scene. After the successful reception of her sixth novel, Coulon unveiled her first poetry collection, 'Les Ronces' [The Brambles], in 2018 and won the Prix Guillaume-Apollinaire.

Coulon favours prose poetry and free verse forms that explore fragmentation, compression and repetition. This poem attracted me because its vivid imagery evokes a conflicting view of the poet's childhood: an ominous yet protective eye is cast over the natural landscape of her formative years.

As the poem is a dramatic monologue in which we are privy to the speaker's private thoughts, my objective was to preserve the intensity of the narrative scene. I therefore remained close to the source text by keeping syntactic structures short and maintaining the commonplace but precise lexis. I used fewer signifiers, such as fewer prepositions, articles and pronouns, to condense meaning and render the target more idiomatic. I deleted the prepositions in line 9 and the definite articles in line 11 to compress the cluster of ideas and quicken the rhythmic flow. Retaining both pronouns in lines 4 and 33 was problematic, so I omitted the second pronoun and inserted the modifier 'subtle' to allow for sibilance and to accentuate the connotation of subtlety in 'nuance'.

Finally, the subject pronoun in line 23 was awkward to translate as it refers to the feminine noun in line 19. As grammatical gender isn't a feature of English, the explicit reference is lost. My solution was to insert line 19 in front of line 23, to omit the pronoun and then to use a present participle. This transfers the overt reference to 'the church' into the target, while preserving the more covert references to the poet's childhood.

Fiona Garratt