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The 2017 Stephen Spender prize – a callout for poetry translators


The Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation opens for submissions on 27 February. Award judge Margaret Jull Costa reflects on today’s need for translators

I was thrilled to be invited to be one of the judges on the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation alongside Sean O’Brien and Olivia McCannon. Thinking about the generosity of the competition itself – which invites submissions from translators of any age, translating any poem from any language – triggered memories of my first proper encounters with translated fiction, when, as an 11-year-old, I was issued with a ticket to the local library. I still remember the delightfully bookish smell and the sound of the date stamp kerthumping down on my chosen book.

Most of all, I recall the freedom of being able to choose whatever I fancied reading. There were the red-and-grey covers on the Dostoevsky shelf, where I also discovered the other great Russians, although I was shamefully ignorant of the fact that these books had been written in another language and translated into my language by someone whose name I didn’t even notice. ( I now know it was probably that prolific pioneer Constance Garnett). I discovered Dickens and Austen, but also Tolstoy and Zola and Flaubert and Cervantes (in a much-shortened version). These voices were all brought to me, miserable monoglot that I was at the time, by anonymous English voices. They opened up whole worlds to me. Now, with the closure of so many libraries, and so many national borders, with an ever more parochial media, the world is in danger of becoming a much narrower, more ignorant place.

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