Translation Challenge 2019 – Adjudication – Antonia Lloyd Jones

Wioletta Greg, the poet whose work was chosen for this translation competition, grew up in Poland, where she spent her childhood in a village near the city of Częstochowa. As an adult, over a decade ago she moved to Great Britain, where she has lived mostly on the Isle of Wight. So in her work we have a foreigner’s perspective on our country, a perspicacious foreigner with extreme sensitivity to the world around her, able to verbalize its beauties and iniquities with equal skill.

These three poems show features of her range, and present the translator with various challenges. ‘Inspekcja z Londynu’ – ‘Inspectors from London’ – passes cynical comment on the treatment of low-paid foreign workers, but to do it Greg uses not just precise images but biblical metaphors and irony. In ‘Wiadomość z wyspy Wight’ – ‘Message from the Isle of Wight’ – she lyrically evokes the gentle atmosphere of her home there, but strikes a sinister contrast by hinting at her personal difficulties. In ‘Wyspa koronek’ – ‘Isle of Lace’ – she recounts an old woman’s oral history of a lace factory; this poem includes unambiguous narrative images and exquisite personification of nature.

In all three poems the description is vivid, the vocabulary precisely chosen. Greg’s imagery is not impressionistic but distinct. So the challenge for the translator is to paint the same word pictures, without losing the atmosphere, including the contrasts and undertones.

The top entries for the poetry translation contest were of an extremely high standard, and it was hard to choose between them.

In ‘Inspectors from London’ the sad contrast between the superior inspectors and the helpless workers is at the heart of the whole poem. The winning entry, by Paul Kaye, caught this contrast with a thoughtful choice of phrasing that captured the tone of the original, for example: ‘God’s captains’ (for ‘Pierwsi po Bogu’), ‘The rest can jump ship’ (for ‘Reszta może sobie skoczyć’), and ‘When salt stings the wounds’ (for ‘Gdy sół jątrzy rany’).

In ‘Message from the Isle of Wight’ the crucial disparity is between the images of nature that remain timeless and unchanging in this place, and a young woman’s pain and fear as she hides away, numbing her existence. Once again, Paul Kaye’s translation struck that disturbing balance, not least through contrasting rhythms, showing a finely tuned ear for the music of the original.

In ‘Isle of Lace’, an 80-year-old’s gaze takes us into the past life of a whole community, recreated in five simple lines. Then comes another clock-stopping natural image (‘przymrozek prządł swój „francuski blond” – ‘the light frost spun its own French Blonde’), and the poem ends on a long, concluding line, like the closing peal of a song: ‘aby rozpierzchnąć go wraz z pierwszymi promieniami słóńca’, beautifully translated by Paul Kaye: ‘only to disperse it with the first rays of the sun.’

Honourable mention goes to Scotia Gilroy for her perceptive and well-crafted translations which came a close second.