• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2014
for the translation of Russian poetry into English
in association with The London Magazine

Judges’ reports

The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize
Sasha Dugdale's report
Catriona Kelly's report
Glyn Maxwell's report

Sasha Dugdale’s report

When I first read through the pile of translations submitted for the Brodsky Prize, I read in English, without looking at the Russian. This is because it seems to me that a successful translation must be self-sufficient in its new language. It must be a thing of interest, and perhaps of beauty, in English. This year a good number of the translations had a persuasive presence in English – they possessed integrity and voice, and much in them that was distinctive and interesting. The winning translation of Anastasia Afanasieva's poem about surviving the war in Eastern Ukraine combined a thoughtful and compassionate approach with perfect instinct for phrase, line break and rhythm. This apparently artless poem is constructed from snippets of narrative: the sort of thing you might hear in a news broadcast or on social media about a distant war. But it requires the translator to dig very deep and to filter the words through our own language's consciousness of war and survival in order to shape a poem in English that moves with the precisely awful banalities of war and comes to rest delicately and finally, 'if so, then we must be experiencing / moments after death'.

'White Day', from the poem of the same name by Tarkovsky, was a bold attempt to fashion the lyrical original into an English folk shape. On the whole we receive very few 'versions' or looser 'interpretations' so this was very welcome: rather than struggling to carry the still perfection of the original, 'White Day' conveyed the sense of timelessness in Tarkovsky's poem with repeating refrains in English and space around each couplet. In third place, Xenia Emelyanova's 'Spring rain beats on broken branches' was a clear and sinuous rendering of the Russian – no radical refashioning, but a good sense of how to cleave close to the Russian without compromising an English poetic line.

We were impressed with several other translations. Peter Oram's 'Moth' by Tarkovsky in an eye-catching concrete poem shape was beautifully translated with some memorable lines ('this miniature pharaoh's resting place'), and Inna Kabysh's poem 'If the Train's Already Gone' was rendered into English by Katherine Young with a dynamic and compelling rhythm and forward motion, which nicely countered the sentiment of the poem: 'If the train's already gone, we must somehow live / at the station: in the toilet, snackbar, under the dusty / ficus, the ticket window'.

I'd also like to mention an ambitious and interesting translation of 'A Pale Horse' by Valery Bryusov by a translator who goes by the pen name of Vlanes. This apocalyptic vision of fin-de-siècle St Petersburg, visited by fiery death for a brief moment before the normal street chaos and 'the furious flux of people' resumes, must be one of the most dense and frenetic symbolist vision-poems, and I salute the translator for this act of love.

Not everything is translatable. Some poems are worth translating to add to the possibilities of English, but some merely hint at tantalizing capacities in other languages, beyond our reach. The bigger gift of translation is to bring into English new ways of thinking and writing, new poetics and new music – and all of the translations we chose do this in their various ways.

Catriona Kelly’s report

When people talk about translating poetry, they often cite Edmond Jaloux's (in)famous aphorism about the incompatibility of beauty and fidelity. Three years of the Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender prize has convinced me there are as many ways to evoke a Russian poem as of skinning a unicorn – or better, painting one, since the whole art is to let the creature live. It helps that the contestants' choices are themselves so diverse. This year we had, just among the prize-winners, Xenia Emelyanova's limpid and assured 'Spring rain beats on broken branches', translated with a breath of the original rhyme scheme by Katherine Young; Peter Oram's version of Arseny Tarkovsky's 'White Day', a rare English version to echo successfully the parallelisms and rhythmic patterns taken from Russian folklore; and Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky's rendition of Anastasia Afanasieva's poignant and creatively bald portrait of the tragedy of civil war in Eastern Ukraine, evoking life's fragility with discreet craft.

We were looking for translations which pushed that bit harder, which combined precision and passion, which rewarded the material they began with by a fierce and uncompromising love. Quite a number were only just off the pace. Maksymchuk and Rosochinsky's version of Vladimir Gandelsman's 'Ode to a Dandelion' was marvellously rhythmic ('Pierced in. / Pierced in. / Picked, – serpent milk, / thin rim') and expertly captured the offhand reflectiveness of the original ('yet another rough draft of getting late'). Robert Isaf's 'The Final Day' by Alexander Blok was lusciously inventive ('jezebel' for the word usually rendered 'harlot', neologisms such as 'wickflames' and 'midnocturnal', images such as 'yawned azure'). There were flashes of inspiration in Pavel Gudoshnikov's often genuinely comic rendering of Vladimir Vysotsky's 'Ain't No More No Magic Wood', which turned Baba Yaga and magic carpets into objects from a cultural car boot sale: 'Woodland huts on chicken legs / Don't conform to building regs [...] The strategic flying rug / Decommissioned by some mug / On show now, yours to see, almost free...'). Peter Daniels's version of Vladislav Khodasevich's 'Everything Is Stony' began with a perfectly judged rendering of the original's wry despair and claustrophobic repetition: 'On the stone stairs / night moves along / At gateways and at doors / couples like statues, joined as if they're stuck / and heavy sighs. Cigars with heavy smoke'. One reads these small miracles with admiration – and, if one's a translator, envy.

Glyn Maxwell’s report

As the judge who judges only on the quality of English verse attained by the translations, I was thoroughly impressed by the standard this year – especially when so many of the translators are working in a second (even third) language. And as I'd only just finished reading 9000 poems for the UK's National Poetry Competition, I wasn't short of points of comparison. But I was struck above all by how remarkably diverse were the best translations this year…

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky's 'Untitled' by Anastasia Afanasieva is such a new translation, of such a new poem, on such a brand new miserable reality not so far away – Eastern Ukraine – that at every round I would think, merely, 'there's nothing much wrong with this for what it is' until there it still was, at the top of the pile, because it's so beautifully phrased, its movements are so authentic in terms of what's seen and felt, and its line-breaks are flawless. It manages without any punctuation whatever (except the colon at the top, which is introductory and perhaps unnecessary) and simply lets voice and silence ebb and flow, go on, get by, down the page and through the bleak day. There's nothing else it can do, it does nothing else, does it superbly.

To make me love Peter Oram's 'folk' rendering of Arseny Tarkovsky's 'White Day' is a remarkable achievement, given that I don't usually like folk renderings of anything (including folk) and I can seldom tolerate wild indentation. But this meets the ear with perfect integrity and craft, and deploys unknowingness with the utmost care. This amateur scholar of white space in verse admires it deeply.

Katherine Young's translation of 'Spring rain beats on broken branches' by Xenia Emelyanova is a quiet unshowy poem that simply couldn't be left behind. Its cadence has both a forlorn heartbeat and a freedom like birdsong. The sad eye takes me with it and the voice records what's left, too grave to be asked questions.

Among several other poems to give me pause, or delight, or both, I especially liked the subtle breath of Vladimir Gandelsman's 'An Ode to a Dandelion' (translated, again, by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky); the madcap, hit-and-miss swing of Vladimir Vysotsky's 'The Fore-Tale' (translated by Pavel Gudoshnikov); the powerful pocket-drama of Valerii Pereleshin's 'Not Envy' (translated by Muireann Maguire), and the tense dignity of Khodasevich's 'Everything Is Stony' (translated by Peter Daniels).