Stuart Mudie 2013

Stuart Mudie is the winner of Translators' House Wales Translation Challenge 2013 (English category). His name was announced by the adjudicator, Ned Thomas, at the North Wales International Poetry Festival in October. A Bardic Staff was carved especially for the winner from local wood by Elis Gwyn. 

The challenge this year was to translate from Spanish into English three poems by the Cuban poet, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez.

The winner, Stuart Mudie, is a Scot in Paris. Before coming to France, he spent several years living and working in Spain, first in Galicia and later in Catalonia. While his day job sees him spending his time writing about computers, he is also a lyricist who works with several up-and-coming French bands that sing in English.

"I only took part in the Translation Challenge for the mental exercise of translating a more creative piece of work than any of the material I've been called upon to translate professionally in the past," Stuart explained, "and I certainly never expected to win this prize. After all, translating poetry doesn't really use the same set of skills as working on computer reference guides. I was also inspired by one of my poetic heroes, the late Scots Makar Edwin Morgan, whose translations into Scots and English helped me discover some of the work of many poets I would never otherwise have read."

Earlier this year in August, we awarded Mererid Hopwood with a Bardic Staff for her translations of the same poems into Welsh.

This is the Translation Challenge's fifth year - established to promote and celebrate the special contribution translators make to moving literature across frontiers, and to draw attention to literary translation as one of the creative arts. The winner of Translators' House Wales Translation Challenge 2012 was the novelist and children's writer, Angharad Tomos. A translation by one of the winners of Translators' House Wales - Oxfam Cymru Translation Challenge 2010, Alison Leyland, was published in spring 2013 by Seren: The Colour of Dawn by celebrated Haitian writer, Yanick Lahens.

The adjudication delivered at the North Wales International Poetry Festival

The task set was to translate three short poems by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, a Cuban poet who earlier this year spent time as writer in residence at Tŷ Newydd. Victor teaches at a university in the United States but I know he would want me to say that he is not a political exile there. His books are mainly published in Cuba though also more widely in the Hispanic world. His poems very often explore an inner world, as these three poems do, but they are not confessional or concerned solely with the individual. Instead they invite the reader to participate, to meet the poet on a kind of no-man's land for a joint voyage of exploration.

They present a challenge to the translator on all kinds of level. The first, of course, is simple linguistic understanding. In the third poem, quite a few translated Sabado as Sabbath rather than Saturday, which could be justified if at all only in a specifically Jewish context which is not what we have here. Then there is cultural understanding. I reported at the National Eisteddfod on the parallel competition to translate these poems into Welsh, and in this same poem translators into Welsh had one advantage. Welsh Bugail as well as meaning the shepherd on the hillside is also commonly used metaphorically for the nonconformist minister, the shepherd of his congregation, so it was possible simply to translate Pastor as Bugail. But translating into English required a choice to be made, and contextually it has to be a religious figure not a shepherd come down from the hills. Pastor is I think acceptable in English, Priest less so, since Pastor in Spanish refers only to a Protestant religious figure. Best of all in a British and certainly in a Welsh context, would be minister or even preacher.

There are places in each of the poems which allow for more than one legitimate interpretation, and in that case what I looked for was internal consistency of interpretation.That was also true when it came to style and register, the tone of voice. On the whole people were willing to be adventurous in respect of phrases and vocabulary and did not translate word for word, and I looked favourably on that so long as the register was consistent. But there was a very strong tendency even in the best entries to translate line by line, wanting to keep the form of the poem perhaps, but this could lead to constructions and cadences which are not very natural in English.

This raises an interesting general question. If you are translating a sonnet, let’s say, or a poem in ballad form, you have a clear choice whether or not to attempt the same form in the target language. Vers libre however is given its shape not by an outwardly imposed formal structure but by the cadences and rhythms of the language itself which cut their own shape in time. The aim of the translator must surely then be to find cadences and rhythms that sound as natural and inevitable in the target language. I would argue that this should take precedence over maintaining a visual parallelism of form between the original and the translation.

There were twenty-five entries in the competition to translate the poems into English. Reading them has been a pleasure but also a challenge to the adjudicator, since there were so many different elements to take account of. In the end I came down to a shortlist of three, but even entries which did not make it on to the shortlist nevertheless sometimes excelled in rendering particular phrases or lines, or even single poems. All things considered I am going to give the prize to the entry which has been labelled number 12.

Ned Thomas