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Stephen Spender prize – a judges’s perspective

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Allen Prowle’s translations of Dutch poet Rutger Kopland’s ‘Johnson Brothers Ltd’ was chosen from 299 entries spanning 46 languages to win this year’s Open category

Translation is an act of close reading. More than that, it is an art of listening, and in the execution it can also involve luck, like producing an inspired passage of brushwork. After a summer immersed in the music and meaning of the translations entered for this year’s Stephen Spender prize, my fellow judges and I chose winners from Dutch, Greek, Italian, German, Swedish, ancient Greek, Bulgarian and French. Despite 299 translations from 46 languages to choose between, consensus was quickly reached in this year’s Open (adult) category. The judges – Josephine Balmer, Katie Gramich, WN Herbert and myself – shortlisted all five of Allen Prowle’s superb translations of Dutch poet Rutger Kopland, and eventually chose as the winner the elegiac “Johnson Brothers Ltd”, a moving memory of the poet’s father. Second was Francisca Gale’s “Long-Distance Conversation” by Anéstis Evangélou, which delicately conveyed the poignancy of the original Greek and the rueful surprise at the end. Martin Bennett’s fine version of Guido Gozzano’s entomological “Acherontia Atropos” came third.

In the 18-and-under category, Anna Leader’s sensuous translation of contemporary German poet Jan Wagner’s ode to weeds that “sneak back like old guilt” took joint first place with Beatrix Crinnion’s version of Tomas Tranströmer’s “Allegro”, a praise poem to Haydn, whose melody “says that freedom exists” and shall never “render unto Caesar”. Maud Mullan’s elegant “A Lament at the Door” by the Ancient Greek poet Callimachus was awarded third prize.

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