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

Open 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


Peter Frankopan

The Night of the Falling Apples


Already mid-August. Across the rolling fields,
women in shawls stroll through the evening.
The time has come for noble wasps
to make themselves at home in the kitchen.

Just like the women who watch how their preserves are setting –
half-lazily, half-intently, half-carefully, half-blindly –
I gaze through the window as time moves by,
Disguising the passing of the summer.

The only person who would welcome the wasps' feasting
is someone who has never made jam.
Here a stronger concoction is brewing:
it eats you alive and looks on innocently.

I have never experienced a summer like this.
"Yes, and nor will you again!" – I hear it being confirmed.
I shudder: an apple has fallen
outside, just at the sound of the word "never".

My startled heart has begun to beat hard inside me,
pumping so strongly that I feel sorry for it.
Is it really possible that nothingness and chatter are so alike,
just like a neighbour who is annoying?

But no, it is August, the time of apples falling to the ground.
I just did not recognise what I had heard.
Annoyed at the lack of understanding by my heart,
it dropped with a bang onto the roof.

So be it. The shorter, the more valuable.
And so I sit in this position during the night of apples falling.
Nibbling and trampling on the bounty of nature,
sweet life is coming home after having all its fun.

Translated from Russian by Peter Frankopan



Ночь упаданья яблок


Attempts have been made to contact the rights holder of this poem.
For more information please

Уж август в половинe. По откосам
по вечерам гуляют полушалки.
Пришла пора высокородым осам
навязываться кухням в приживалки.

Как женщины глядят в судьбу варенья –
лениво-зорко, неосыпно-слепо –
гляжу в окно, где обитает время
под видом истекающчево лета.

Лишь этот образ осам для пирушки
пожаловал – кто не варил повидла.
Здесь закипает варево покруче:
живьем съедает и глядит невинно.

Со мной такого лета не бывало.
- Да и не будет! – слышу уверненье.
И вздрагиваию: яблоко упало,
на "НЕ" – извне поставив ударенье.

Жить припустилось вспугнутое сердце,
жаль бедного: так бьется кропотливо.
Неужто впрямь небытия сосетьдство,
словно соседка глупая болтливо ?

Нет, это - август, упаданье яблок.
Я просто не узнала то, что слышу.
В сердцах, что собеседник непонятвлив,
неоспоримо грохнуло о крышу.

Быть по сему. Чем кратче, тем дороже.
Так я сижу в ночь упаданья яблок.
Грызя и попирая плодородье,
жизнь милая идет домой с гулянок.

Bella Akhmadulina

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Translation commentary

This poem is by Bella Akhmadulina, a poet who became well-known in the second half of the 20th century in the Soviet Union. I came across Akhmadulina in the 1980s when I started studying Russian at school and was particularly drawn to the passion that Russian writers – and readers – have long had for poetry. Akhmadulina was part of a small group of poets who were so popular that they performed to packed-out arenas in the 1960s. Her work captures the feelings and voice of a generation that explored links between town and country, between past and present, and between societal and generational change.

I chose this poem because it shows how Akhmadulina is a master of hiding complex ideas behind simple, elegant language. She makes the reader work to understand what she is writing about. 'The Night of Falling Apples' is about the mundane – summer walks, wasps, jam-making and apples falling; but it is also about the passing of time, about the futility of trying to make sense of the world and about the tricks that the mind plays when it tries to find meaning in sudden sounds or experiences.

This poem appealed particularly during the summer of 2020 because we have been living through the passing of seasons and witnessing time evaporate. These experiences have tied almost the whole population of the world together during months of lockdown. Like the women watching their preserves, we too have all been watching time pass 'half-lazily, half-intently' while attempting to make sense of a world that has suddenly felt very different.

Unlike Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, whose works have become well-known outside Russia, Akhmadulina's poetry is unfamiliar to non-Russian speakers. I hope the Stephen Spender Prize can go some way to correcting that and encouraging more people to read her work.

Peter Frankopan