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

Polish Spotlight 18-and-under 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

Skye Slatcher

And that's why

And that's why I walked the corridors
Of these big museums
Looking at paintings of the world
In which David is as innocent as a boy scout
And Goliath deserves a fate worse than death
Or on Rembrandt's canvases an eternal dusk reigns
A dusk of anxiety and focus
And I walked from hall to hall
Admiring the portraits of cynical cardinals
In Roman purple
Joyous peasant weddings
Passionate players of cards or dice
Looking at sailing ships battles and moments of reconciliation
And that's why I walked the corridors
Of these famous museums of these unearthly palaces
Trying to understand Isaac's sacrifice
Mary's sorrow and the serene skies over the Seine
And I always returned to the metropolitan streets
Where the chaos suffering and laughter continued -
Not yet painted.

Translated from Polish by Skye Slatcher

I dlatego

I dlatego chodziłem korytarzami
Tych wielkich muzeów
Patrząc na obrazy świata
Na których Dawid jest niewinny jak harcerz
Goliat zasługuje na nikczemną śmierć
A na płótnach Rembrandta panuje wieczny półmrok
Półmrok niepokoju i skupienia
I przechodziłem od sali do sali
Podziwiając portrety cynicznych kardynałów
W rzymskiej purpurze
Ekstatyczne chłopskie wesela
Namiętnych graczy w karty albo w kości
Oglądając żaglowce bitwy i chwile pojednania
I dlatego chodziłem korytarzami
Tych sławnych muzeów tych nieziemskich pałaców
Próbując zrozumieć ofiarę Izaaka
Smutek Marii i pogodne niebo nad Sekwaną
I zawsze wracałem na wielkomiejską ulicę
Gdzie wciąż trwały szaleństwo cierpienie i śmiech −
Jeszcze nie namalowane.

Adam Zagajewski

Reproduced by kind permission of the poet


Translation commentary

In these peculiar times of isolation and social-distancing, one form of entertainment I have found particularly comforting is a virtual museum or art gallery tour. So, when I was browsing the curated selection of poetry for the Polish Spotlight, and came across 'I dlatego' by Adam Zagajewski, I knew I had to choose it. It reflects on the beauty of paintings, concluding with a memorable statement about our lives, 'not yet painted'.

One challenge I faced, while translating, was retaining the tone that Zagajewski introduces. The poem has a sort of reminiscent, contemplative mood; keeping this was very important. Therefore, I tried to stay as close as possible to the exact imagery in the original, as this plays a key part in setting the atmosphere.

I found that panuje was a difficult word to translate, on line six. Panuje can mean 'there is', however I didn't think that this was the best translation – I wanted to ensure the line was as poetic in English as in Polish. I chose to use the verb 'reigns' instead, as this maintains the prominence of the dusk in the Rembrandt painting.

Often, we see Zagajewski using alliteration, for example 'p' on line six. I decided that I would not keep this in my version, because I couldn't find the appropriate words to fit both the tone of the poem and the repetition of a letter.

I think that the poem in its entirety poses a challenge to the translator as well as the reader. Zagajewski leaves to the imagination the reason for the speaker's journey through the museum. He/she could be looking for inspiration, an escape from reality. To me, however, it speaks of searching for something in a painting that he is missing in his own life, a sense of peace and tranquillity.

Skye Slatcher