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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

18-and-under, 3rd Prize

Read the judges’ comments
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Jennifer Cearns

Dead in the Water
by Georg Heym

Masts jut over the grey wall;
a scorched forest against early red,
black as slag and water
stares up, deathlike, at warehouses, the rotten, the decay.

A muffled echo along the quay
with the returning flood. City nightlight penetrates
through ashen white skin like electricity;
chafes the steamer resting in the dock.

Dust, fruits, paper in a thick layer,
and excrement bursts out from its pipes.
White dance dress is floating on oily sheen,
a naked throat and lead-white face.

The corpse wallows. The dress swells,
billows; a white ship tossed in gusts of wind.
Dead eyes staring widely, blindly to
Heaven. To pink clouds on high.

Purple water quivers in little waves:
– a water rat tracks this white human raft.
It pushes off, full grey head and black fur, launches.

But the corpse sails blithely on, torn by wind and
flood. Her fat belly bulges over the water’s surface;
a vacuous socket almost gnawed to pieces,
a cavern booming from the bites.

She drifts out to sea; Neptune saluting her from a wreck
as she devours the water.
She sinks.
Inwards, down to green depths,
to rest in the arms of a plunging sea monster.

Translated from the German by Jennifer Cearns

Die Tote im Wasser

Die Masten ragen an dem grauen Wall
Wie ein verbrannter Wald ins frühe Rot,
So schwarz wie Schlacke. Wo das Wasser tot
Zu Speichern stiert, die morsch und im Verfall.

Dumpf tönt der Schall, da wiederkehrt die Flut,
Den Kai entlang. Der Stadtnacht Spülicht treibt
Wie eine weiße Haut im Strom und reibt
Sich an dem Dampfer, der im Docke ruht.

Staub, Obst, Papier, in einer dicken Schicht,
So treibt der Kot aus seinen Röhren ganz.
Ein weißes Tanzkleid kommt, in fettem Glanz
Ein nackter Hals und bleiweiß ein Gesicht.

Die Leiche wälzt sich ganz heraus. Es bläht
Das Kleid sich wie ein weißes Schiff im Wind.
Die toten Augen starren groß und blind
Zum Himmel, der voll rosa Wolken steht.

Das lila Wasser bebt von kleiner Welle.
– Der Wasserratten Fährte, die bemannen
Das weiße Schiff. Nun treibt es stolz von dannen,
Voll grauer Köpfe und voll schwarzer Felle.

Die Tote segelt froh hinaus, gerissen
Von Wind und Flut. Ihr dicker Bauch entragt
Dem Wasser groß, zerhöhlt und fast zernagt.
Wie eine Grotte dröhnt er von den Bissen.

Sie treibt ins Meer. Ihr salutiert Neptun
Von einem Wrack, da sie das Meer verschlingt,
Darinnen sie zur grünen Tiefe sinkt,
Im Arm der feisten Kraken auszuruhn

Georg Heym

Translation commentary

I was immediately drawn to this poem for its harsh yet beautiful description. It seemed to me like a more realistic yet almost cruel rendering of the image of Ophelia lying drowned in water. Heym creates a meticulous description of just one snapshot image, and it was this that I set out to achieve in my translation.

The main difficulties I encountered in translating from German were concerned with adjectives that seemed to have no direct equivalent in English. An example of this was feist and I eventually decided to move away from the original slightly, instead using ‘plunging’. Similarly the verb entragen (to look out) didn’t seem to work in English, so I opted for ‘bulges’ instead. Metaphors also proved difficult, both to understand and translate. Upon realising the ‘manned white ship’ referred to in stanza 5 was the corpse, I decided instead to use ‘raft’, as, to me at least, it made the body seem more fragile.

Heym, however, sets this corpse against a harsh industrial backdrop, and I was careful not to move too far away from this with softer imagery. Rather than the direct translation ‘rubs’, for example, I chose ‘chafe’, as I felt this word was more abrasive. I also wanted to retain the feeling I experienced when first reading this poem: being almost submerged in relentless imagery and description. For this reason I decided not to keep the original rhyme scheme, as I felt the actual words and imagery used in English were more important. I also often omitted the definite article or used present participle verbs (a form that does not exist in the original German), and I hope that by my doing this, the poem has retained the sense of immediacy and continuous description that Heym clearly intended to create.

Jennifer Cearns