The Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation

In 2014, I took part in The Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation and I was the 14 and under category winner.

I Have Read that Poets in China

I have read that in China, poets are very gentle.
And that one of them died because of the moon;
And the Chinese don't say he was mad
As, over there, it is a fairly common occurrence.
I have read that they become intoxicated with wine and the moon
And that their verses swing like long bamboos
Between the water emerging from their hearts and the mist of their quill
Which, in their country, clings to almost everything.
Their frail, dark, faithful and spring-like soul,
Splits the sky and the river like a flock of swallows
And the tears which trickle down the silk of their sleeves
Resemble slim, long and tender leaves from a willow
Maybe a Chinese person has filled my heart with
This song about water, the moon and flowers,
And with this gentle landscape, in black and in colour
Of a rush held in a fisherman's hand and trembling in the wind
Maybe my heart is quite typically Chinese
And will one of these days die because of the moon...
And what will people say, what will they say
About this occurrence, in a country like ours?

Translated from the French by Alexia Sloane

J'ai lu que les poètes, en Chine

J'ai lu que les poètes, en Chine, sont très doux. Et qu'il y en a un qui est mort de la lune; Et les Chinois ne disent pas qu'il était fou Car c'est, chez eux, une aventure assez commune. J'ai lu qu'ils s'enivraient de vin et de la lune, Et leurs vers se balancent comme de longs bambous Entre l'eau de leur cœur et les brouillards de plume Qui s'accrochent, dans leur pays, un peu partout. Leur âme frêle et sombre, printanière et fidèle, Fend le ciel et le fleuve comme un vol d'hirondelle, Et les larmes qui glissent sur la soie de leurs manches, Sont des feuilles de saule, fines, longues et tendres. Peut-être est-ce un Chinois qui m'a mis dans le cœur Cette chanson de l'eau, de la lune et des fleurs, Et ce doux paysage en noir et en couleur D'un jonc qui tremble au vent dans la main d'un pêcheur. Peut-être que mon cœur est un peu bien chinois Et mourra de la lune un beau jour comme un autre... Et qu'est-ce qu'on dira, et qu'est-ce qu'on dira De l'aventure, dans un pays comme le nôtre?

Jean Dominique

Notes

Translation commentary

I chose this fairly unknown poem by the Belle Epoque Belgian poet who wrote under the pseudonym Jean Dominique because I have a particular interest in Chinese culture and language. I came across it when I was searching for poems with a Chinese element and I instantly felt attracted by it. This poet is not very well known outside Belgium. Since coming across this poem, I have read more of her work and feel her poetry certainly deserves to be explored.

I particularly like the simplicity and beauty of her verses as well as their musicality. Through this poem, and while I cannot see as I am totally blind, I felt totally transported to China and could experience fully the atmosphere of the landscape the poet is depicting. I could imagine being there and hearing the sounds of the water, the leaves, the birds and the rush and bamboos trembling in the wind. The beautiful images of nature, the evocation of a slow and gentle death together with the poet's verbal sensitivity are recurring themes in her poetry and are evident in this poem. I like the simplicity of the vocabulary and the echo between the first and the last verse of a gentle death caused by the moon.

When translating, I was unfortunately unable to make the poem rhyme without moving too far from the original text which is why I may not have done it justice. This was my very first attempt at translating a poem from the original language into English. My goal is to translate the poem into Chinese and experience the beauty and musicality of the Chinese tones when reading it out loud. I am quite sure Jean Dominique herself would have liked that.

Alexia Sloane

Judge's Comments

Stephen Romer

‘To translate a poem is to dance in chains, as Paul Valéry put it, but this year's winners more than rose to the challenge. The winner of the 14-and-under category, Alexia Sloane, achieved a beautifully fluid rendering of a poem by the little-known Belgian poet of the Belle Epoque, Jean Dominique (real name, Marie Closset). This version came with a particularly attractive (and moving) commentary which admitted ruefully that reproducing the original rhyme scheme was unworkable in English. An intricate rhyme scheme in the source text is one of the first things an experienced translator learns to jettison.’

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