Poets who will not be lost in translation

Friday 5 December 2014

Writing a good poem can be difficult, and doing it in a second language more so. Yet more than 180 people, including school students, rose to that challenge from the Institute of Modern Languages Research (a member of the School of Advanced Study), the British Museum and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Competitors showed real imagination and creativity, producing poems based on all sorts of objects including clocks, bank notes, sculptures and a handcart. Inspiration for Nicola Jacques (Watford Grammar School for Girls) came from a model of Friedrichstrasse station, a training device used by the Stasi, the East German secret police, to track potential attempts at escape. Her poem Der Bahnhof (the station), written in German, expresses her dismay at the seemingly innocent object that was used to such a harrowing purpose, and won the student one of the first prizes in the secondary school category.

Contestants were allowed to use no more than 250 words, in German or English, and poems had to be based on one of the objects in the British Museum's ‘Germany – Memories of Nation’ exhibition. The poetic form is known as a Dinggedicht, a poetry of objects.

The competition had two aims: to encourage the writing and reading of poetry and to celebrate language learning in secondary and higher education. Supported by the German Embassy and the Goethe-Institute, it was divided into three categories, secondary schools, under-graduates and ‘others’.

Entries came from across the UK, and were more than double the number usually received for DAAD writing competitions. Some 90 poems were from secondary schools - 44 in English, 35 in German and 11 a mix of both languages - which impressed the judges. Made up of poets, writers and academics, they said the quality and maturity of the writing were superb with many poems succeeding in bringing the exhibits to life through clever use of metre, tone, rhyme and language.

‘It was interesting how the same objects come up again and again,’ said Karen Leeder, professor of modern German literature at Oxford University and a prize-winning translator of modern German poetry. ‘The best poems managed to say something about the thing itself and reflections on broader themes were channelled through a precise observation of the object under scrutiny’.

Winners and runners-up from each category will receive prizes ranging from scholarships for a summer language course in Germany to a guided tour through the exhibition on the German artist Kurt Schwitters (Merzbarn Wall) at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. All the winning entries will be read at a celebration at the British Museum on 12 December 2014.

’Running this competition has been hugely rewarding, because of the sheer quality of the poems we received and the intensity of the writers’ engagement with German culture, history and language,’ said Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex senior lecturer in German literature at (IMLR. ‘The number and quality of entries in German, sent in  by people of all ages and from all walks of life, exceeded all our expectations – a sure sign that the engagement, especially among learners at schools and university level, is alive and well.’

Prize winners
English-language poems:
First prize: Ruby Mason (University College London)
Poem title: Trümmerfrau (on a mosaic sculpture of a ‘rubble woman’)

German-language poems:
First prize: Rebecca Williamson (Durham University)
Poem title: Der Schweigende (on Ernst Barlach’s hanging sculpture of a hovering angel)

Second prize: Tom Pitt-Brooke (University College London)
Poem title: Notgeld (on bank notes printed in the inflationary years of the 1920s)

Secondary Schools
English-language poems:
First prize: Alanna Gilmartin (Oundle School)
Poem title: Never Alone (on Der Mittag, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich)

German-language poems:
First prize: Nicola Jacques (Watford Grammar School for Girls)
Poem title: Der Bahnhof (on a model of Friedrichstrasse station, a training device used by the East German secret police)

Second prize: Nicole Boyd (Woldingham School for Girls)

Poem title: 12 Stunden in Deutschland (on a clock made by German clockmakers in Strasbourg)

English-language poems:
First Prize: Anne Ryland
Poem title: Rubble Woman (on a mosaic sculpture of a ‘rubble woman’)

German-language poems:
First prize: Gerd Wagner
Poem title:  Der Leiterwagen (on a handcart used by German expellees from Poland at the end of the Second World War)

- Ends -

Note to editors:
1. For further information please contact Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653 / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk. Images available on request.

2. The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) was established in 2004 through a merger of the Institute of Germanic Studies and the Institute of Romance Studies, founded in 1950 and 1989 respectively. Until August 2013, IMLR was known as the Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies when it was renamed to emphasise its national research role and to embrace its wider remit. The Institute is committed to facilitating, initiating and promoting dialogue and research for the Modern Languages community. www.modernlanguages.sas.ac.uk

3. The School of Advanced Study, University of London (SAS) is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2012-13, SAS: welcomed 743 research fellows and associates; held 2,081 research dissemination events; received 26.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,529 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is a German national agency for the support of international academic cooperation. The DAAD currently provides financial support to more than 74,000 individuals every year by offering funding to students, researchers, and academics worldwide. The DAAD also actively promotes Germany as an international study and research destination, and, last but not least, plays a major role in promoting the German language at higher education level worldwide. The DAAD head office is located in Germany. However, with 15 branch offices across the globe, one of which is the DAAD London Office, and a further 50 international information centres, the DAAD is represented by a worldwide network. Read more about the DAAD