Yang Lian and Brian Holton win first Sarah Maguire Prize

Yang Lian and Brian Holton win first Sarah Maguire Prize

Anniversary Snow by Yang Lian, translated from Chinese by Brian Holton and others (Shearsman Books), has won the inaugural Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry In Translation.

Run by the Poetry Translation Centre, the award recognises the best book of poetry by a living poet from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East published in English translation.

The winner was announced at an online event hosted by the Poetry Translation Centre on 25th March. The winning poet and his translators will share a prize of £3,000.

Alongside many translations by Lian's longtime translator Holton, the book features additional translations by L Leigh and Liang Lizhen, alongside translations made from collaborations between Yang Lian and leading English-language poets Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, W N Herbert, George Szirtes and Joshua Weiner. These latter poets worked directly with Lian on the translations without knowledge of Chinese.

The book, the latest in a 25-year working relationship between Lian and Holton, is grounded in the historical roots of Chinese culture. However, the judges said it went far beyond that, “reinterpreting with poise and intelligence the very essence of our existence, from the changing landscape that surrounds us, the appeal of the natural world and the inner beauty of language, exemplifying its political force and its philosophical teachings”.

Lian, who was born in Switzerland but grew up in Beijing, is one of the founders of the “Misty” school of contemporary Chinese poetry. His poems became well known and influential inside and outside of China in the 1980s, especially when his sequence "Norilang" was criticised by the Chinese government. Lian later became a poet in exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages.

He said:  “My 25-year collaboration with Brian Holton is, you may say, a heaven-sent affinity. Through 13 books, up to Anniversary Snow, we have been the founders of our own little tradition, which is a unique phenomenon in contemporary Chinese poetry translation.

Anniversary Snow has won the Sarah Maguire Prize, like a happy conjunction of time and space, between the Chinese language, which continues its 3,000 years of creative transformation, and English, the language with the widest global coverage, for in poetry each mutates into the profundity of the other. The poet-translators in this book who have no Chinese are the finest example of this deep exchange.”

Holton said: “From the very start, he seemed to know exactly what a translator needs... For our first book, I didn’t know how close I was to getting his voice right until we met for the first time at the London Poetry International in 1994... The English voice I made for Yang Lian sounds like my own voice now. I wonder what I would have sounded like if I had never met him?”

Poet and translator Alireza Abiz, chair of the judges, said: “Poetry enriches the culture that is receptive to translation. In the UK, very often when we talk about underrepresented languages and cultures we try to depict poetry translation as giving voice to those cultures, which is true but ignores the fact that English culture and the English language also benefits from translation. I hope that the Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry In Translation can bring this value to the surface so we can appreciate the role translation has to play in enriching English language poetry.”

The prize is supported by the estate of Sarah Maguire, the British Council, the Garrick Charitable Trust, and the donations of the friends of Maguire, a champion of international poetry who passed away in 2017.