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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
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years


Mark Grainger

The Evolution of Mankind


Chaps used to perch in the trees long ago,
hirsute and foul to the eye.
Then out of the primordial jungle they stole
and built up an asphalted world row by row,
thirty floors up to the sky.

They fled from the fleas and sat on their own,
in front of their widescreen TVs.
Now they sit and talk on the phone.
And they prattle on in the very same tone
as back when they sat in the trees.

They travel wide. They've mastered the car.
They've built an orbital station.
They brush their teeth. They've conquered tartar.
The Earth is an intellectual star
with modern sanitation.

They carry computers in their pockets.
They extract the gluten from bread.
They adorn all their walls with sockets.
They shoot up to the heavens in rockets
and stay six months overhead.

Whatever they cannot digest,
they burn to generate heat.
They split the atom. They cure incest,
and through stylistic studies attest
that Caesar had flat feet.

So, with a great deal of thought and art,
they gave mankind's progress its shape.
But setting all that apart,
it's clear that deep down at heart
they're still the same old ape.

Translated from German by Mark Grainger



Die Entwicklung der Menschheit


Einst haben die Kerls auf den Bäumen gehockt,
behaart und mit böser Visage.
Dann hat man sie aus dem Urwald gelockt
und die Welt asphaltiert und aufgestockt,
bis zur dreißigsten Etage.

Da saßen sie nun, den Flöhen entflohn,
in zentralgeheizten Räumen.
Da sitzen sie nun am Telefon.
Und es herrscht noch genau derselbe Ton
wie seinerzeit auf den Bäumen.

Sie hören weit. Sie sehen fern.
Sie sind mit dem Weltall in Fühlung.
Sie putzen die Zähne. Sie atmen modern.
Die Erde ist ein gebildeter Stern
mit sehr viel Wasserspülung.

Sie schießen die Briefschaften durch ein Rohr.
Sie jagen und züchten Mikroben.
Sie versehn die Natur mit allem Komfort.
Sie fliegen steil in den Himmel empor
und bleiben zwei Wochen oben.

Was ihre Verdauung übrigläßt,
das verarbeiten sie zu Watte.
Sie spalten Atome. Sie heilen Inzest.
Und sie stellen durch Stiluntersuchungen fest,
daß Cäsar Plattfüße hatte.

So haben sie mit dem Kopf und dem Mund
Den Fortschritt der Menschheit geschaffen.
Doch davon mal abgesehen und
bei Lichte betrachtet sind sie im Grund
noch immer die alten Affen.

Erich Kästner

© Atrium Verlag AG, Zürich 1932 and Thomas Kästner.
Reproduced by kind permission of the rightsholder



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Translation commentary

This poem by Erich Kästner is a satirical work that contrasts humanity's technological advancements with our unaltered nature. Although written in 1932, the continued relevance of its message today was the reason for my decision to translate the poem and for my chosen approach to the translation: to modernise the poem for 21st century readers.

This was compatible with my decision to retain the strict ABAAB rhyme scheme, which I feel is important for the poem's satirical and humorous tone. Translating from German to English while maintaining rhymes as well as literal meanings is not always possible, so it was necessary to change some surface meanings in the poem. At the same time, however, this provided ample opportunity to replace certain outdated references (e.g. pneumatic tubes for delivering post) with ideas more synonymous with technological advancement ('They carry computers in their pockets') or suggestive of current issues ('They extract the gluten from bread') for the modern reader.

Another problem for the translation was the original's use of unusual ideas and language. For example, is it possible to 'cure' incest? As a translator, there can be a temptation to flatten out a text's idiosyncrasies. The fear is that, if readers are aware that the text is a translation, they might assume that any unnatural-sounding word or phrase is a failure on the translator's part to produce an idiomatic translation. However, 'cure incest' sounds just as odd to a German reader of the original as it does to the English reader, so I chose to retain this striking phrase. Other examples ('Sie atmen modern' = 'They breathe in a modern manner') lent themselves less readily to literal translation, so I compensated by using incongruous phrases elsewhere, such as 'They've mastered the car'.

Mark Grainger