• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

'The competition creates a remarkable linguistic community where poetry can be appreciated, and translated for others to appreciate too.'

Students' reflections on taking part in the Stephen Spender Trust Contest
By Gabi Reigh

Last year, a group of students from The Sixth Form College Farnborough entered the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. Some of them were studying French, German or Spanish at A-level and wanted to use this as an opportunity to develop their language skills and explore new literature. Amelia Abbott, who studied A-level French, explained that translating 'L'ouragan' by the Senagelese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor gave her 'a powerful insight into the complexities of grammar and translation not covered on the A-level syllabus' and she 'found it really inspiring to learn more about francophone poets and how France has impacted the world both culturally and linguistically.'

For other students, the competition provided a catalyst for reconnecting with their heritage language. Nancy Lama speaks Nepali at home but cannot read it, so she worked on her translation with her aunt and they discovered new Nepali poetry together. I also felt a special connection with Xinran Liu, who emigrated to the UK at the same age as I did, at the beginning of secondary school. Xinran is a wonderful mathematician but still finds writing in English challenging, making her translated poem an even more impressive achievement.

I asked some of these students to say a few words about what they gained from the experience of experimenting with poetry translation for the first time, with the hope that it might inspire others to take part in the competition:

Xinran Liu

When I arrived in the UK at the age of 12, I used to feel nervous when I talked to people due to my limited English, which made me feel less self-confident. However, I also enjoyed the new experience of living amongst people from many different cultures. At first, I found English really hard to learn because Chinese is my mother language, and I'm not sure that I will ever feel as comfortable speaking or writing in English as I do in Chinese, but I feel that my language skills are improving. The reason I took part in the Stephen Spender competition is because I am very passionate about Chinese and English literature, and also because I wanted to introduce my favourite poet, Li Qingzhao, to other people. Translating her poem 'Dreamlike', I was touched by her suffering as she mourned for her husband and her desire to reimagine life as a dream free from pain.

Zoe Curry

I started teaching myself German alongside my GCSE lessons when I was 14. After a few years of reading grammar books, watching countless YouTube videos in German and listening to questionable rap music I was finally able to converse quite fluently. As my German improved, I began to seek greater linguistic challenges and started to read more, particularly poetry and books on German psychology. This encouraged me to take a closer look at the language; I became more aware of subtle nuances and how vastly they can affect the meaning of a phrase. Consider this example: what is the difference between "She told only him that she loved him" and "She only told him that she loved him"? For us, as native speakers, this is a difference that is easy to understand, however the ability to manipulate these nuances, and therefore analyse text in a foreign language comes (sadly) only with time and lots of practice!

In this sense, The Stephen Spender Prize seemed like a fantastic opportunity to do something a bit different with my language skills. Whilst I had previously dabbled in writing poetry in German, I felt my attempts seemed to lack the level of refinement that I could attain in English. Entering the competition was a brilliant chance to bridge this gap in my German knowledge. I picked the poem 'Die Pflicht' by Erich Muhsam as I had read it many years prior to the competition. I had liked its eerie tone and how it welcomed and toyed with the idea of death, salvation and duty. Choosing it for the competition had the unexpected benefit that I could delve far deeper into the poet's life… For many years, Muhsam was merely the name on the poetry book on my shelf but after reading about his engagement in politics, his time in prison and his struggles in a changing German society, I felt I had a deeper understanding of the poem. Moreover, I had gained an insight into a period of German history that I otherwise would have neglected. For me, the greatest reward of the competition has been awarding meaning to a text that, to my knowledge, has not been translated into English and is not often studied in schools. Erich Muhsam was brutally murdered in a concentration camp and so I cannot help but believe that in some ways, he died for our freedoms. As such I felt it important to preserve his work and message.

In short, I would encourage anyone, regardless of their proficiency in their foreign language to attempt the poem translation. Not only does a task like this breed interest in the written word, the poem and context, but the competition creates a remarkable linguistic community where poetry can be appreciated, and translated for others to appreciate too.

Evan Caton

I'm Evan, a second year A-level student studying French and Spanish, and I entered the competition with a poem written just before the advent of WWII. At first I don't think I really appreciated the translation process, but when I had a gander at what a friend of mine had submitted the previous year, and what he was working on for this year, I was struck by the beauty of the language in the original poem, and how delicately he had to work to translate it properly. I gained a greater understanding of the process that was required to transfer emotions, imagery, and subtle themes and contexts from one language and culture to another one. Through working with the poem I had chosen I learned more about the poet and the era that the poem came from, which was valuable as it was a period in history that we were studying for French A-level. I also learned a valuable lesson on how there are some things that simply don't translate in the same way, such as word choices that simply don't exist in another language. Lastly, I think I gained a far better appreciation of poetry as a whole.