King's alumnus wins prestigious national poetry prize

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Our congratulations to alumnus and Fellow Commoner Stuart Lyons (KC 1962), who has been awarded First Place in the annual Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. Stuart's winning entry is a translation of the Chinese poet (and former King's student) Xu Zhimo's 'Wild West Cambridge at Dusk', rendered into English rhyming verse. More than 1,325 entries - translated from 80 languages - were received for the Prize this year, which was judged by the writers Khairani Barokka, Mary Jean Chan and Daljit Nagra.

A limited edition book of Stuart's collected translations of Xu's poetic works will be published in 2021, the 100th anniversary of Xu's arrival in Cambridge. Expressions of interest can be emailed to communications@kings.cam.ac.uk.

The full text of Stuart's translation of 'Wild West in Cambridge' alongside the original poem can be found on the website of the Stephen Spender Trust. An extract is included below:

一个大红日挂在西天 a big red sun hangs on the western sky
紫云绯云褐云 purple clouds crimson clouds brown clouds
簇簇斑田田 mottled fields in clusters lie
青草黄田白水 green grass yellow wheat white fens
郁郁密密鬋鬋 lush lush dense dense shagginess
红瓣黑蕊长梗 red petals black stamens long stems
罂粟花三三两两 poppies in flower in twos and threes
一大块透明的琥珀 one large lump of translucent amber
千百折云凹云凸 concave convex cloud-folds without number
   
南天北天暗暗默默 south sky north sky hugger-mugger hush hush
东天中天舒舒阖阖 east sky mid sky totally leisurely
宇宙在寂静中构合 universe gathering in tranquillity
太阳在头赫里告别 sun departing in supreme glory
一阵临风 a gust of wind
几声 “可可” some sounds bye-bye
   
一颗大胆的明星 a bold star arrogantly rides
仿佛骄矜的小艇 like a bumptious little boat
抵牾着云涛云潮 braving cloud-billows cloud-tides
兀兀漂漂潇潇 pip-pip pitter-patter afloat
侧眼看暮焰沉销 in a blink the dusk-blaze subsides
回头见伙伴来! see you later mate

 


In submitting the poem for the Prize, Stuart included the following commentary:

In the spring of 1922, Xu Zhimo read James Joyce’s newly published novel Ulysses. He was bowled over by Molly’s punctuation-free monologue in the final chapter. ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, depicting scenes around his home village of Sawston, was the result. When Xu sent it for publication, he included an introductory note. ‘A snake does not need feet in order to move,’ he wrote, ‘and a poem does not need punctuation.’  In Ulysses, he noted, there were ‘no capital letters, no  ‘ ……? : ---- ; ---- ! ( ) “ ”   but a cascade of truly great writing.’ 

I treated the exclamation mark in the standard Chinese text (stanza 3, line 6) and the inverted commas around 可可 (stanza 2, line 6) and 北京 (stanza 6, line 4) as probable interpolations and removed them from my English translation. Xu overcomes the need for punctuation through the clarity of his poetic writing. Every stanza describes an acutely observed phase of the closing day. His lines have colour, texture, sound and wit – ‘beijing’ refers to his pregnant wife.

Xu’s sometimes unusual choice of Chinese characters adds to the enchantment; he uses duplicated characters frequently and on occasion innovatively, a feature which I referenced through alliteration and assonance. I tried to respect Xu’s rhythmic and rhyming schemes and to be true to his imagery, while using vocabulary that was close to the Chinese but would strike a chord with English readers, for example in the star’s boat-ride across the clouds. In the last stanza, I aimed to express the scene though Xu’s eyes – the night sky as a mosaic, the needle of light from a darkened cottage and the pagoda-shaped shadows from the trees. ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’ broke new ground. It is rhythmically compelling and artistically spectacular.
 

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