The Stephen Spender Prize honours poetry translations, which anyone can submit with a brief commentary. There are three age categories, with this year's 14-and-under going to Alexia Sloane and the 18-and-under to Sam Norman. In the "open" category – for adults, in other words – this year's first prize has gone to my friend and teacher Iain Galbraith for a gorgeous rendering of Jan Wagner's poem Quittenpastete/Quince Jelly. Iain also has two poems in the "commended" section, another Wagner one and one by the Austrian poet Peter Waterhouse. German contemporary poetry did very well this year in general, with a Michael Krüger poem translated by Hans-Christian Oeser also commended. Plus one by Rilke, translated by last year's Schlegel-Tieck Prize winner Ian Crockatt.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I have problems with some German contemporary poetry. Read aloud, which is the main way I consume it, it often seems so cryptic to me – filtered through my language issues, perhaps – that I wonder what's the point of publishing it, if no one else in the world has the vaguest chance of understanding anything. The work of Jan Wagner (and indeed Peter Waterhouse and Michael Krüger) is different: when I hear it, or read it, I understand something of what it's about, to me at least. In fact with Wagner there's a lot of other stuff going on, playful trickery with metre and sound and authorship, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating it at first hearing, or first glance. And Iain's versions give a wonderful impression of that initial accessibility with complexity hiding underneath – the winning poem is written in Sapphic stanzas, for goodness' sake, but you still get a moment out of someone else's life and an appreciation of nature's bounty. Tangy. I assume that takes a very long time to get right.
I once stood very close to Jan Wagner at a crowded event – I don't know him personally – and admired his lovely skin. Next year Arc Publications will be publishing a collection of his poems in Iain Galbraith's translation, Self-portrait with a Swarm of Bees.