“I have no country”: a poetry translation challenge

Following the success of last year’s challenge with Modern Poetry in Translation, this year we’ve teamed up again, asking you to co-translate a poem by Suhrab Sirat, a poet in exile. MPT editor Clare Pollard introduces the challenge…

This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judges: Gunisha Aggarwal, Alice Brooker, Veronika Cameron, Anna Gilmore Hezeen, Liv Goldreich, Jonathan Huish, Blaise Rebman, Zara Shams and Amber Syed.

Photo of the English Channel: the sun streaks throguh a cloud

“We launch this challenge during Refugee Week 2020.

Around the world, we see governments who would seek to dehumanise refugees. To portray them as a threat. To withhold hospitality and kindness from those in need, and instead let them drown in the sea, be caged at the border, freeze in a camp.

Cover of 'The Great Flight' issue of Modern Poetry in Translation: a drawn face looks at the reader. They have curly hair, a beard and wear a shirt.Refugee Week aims to change this shameful narrative, by foregrounding instead the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. Poetry can play a part in this. A few years ago, in Modern Poetry in Translation’s refugee issue, ‘The Great Flight’, Sasha Dugdale wrote movingly of how art can show us as human individuals, in opposition to ‘ugly notions of refugees swarming into Europe like rats or cockroaches’. Every poem confronts us with the reality of a person’s separate and singular existence – how we are all ‘complex, ineffable creatures, caught somewhere on this planet and dealing with it as best we can.’

I think there are few better ways to really listen to another person, to really spend time with their voice and their words, than by translating a poem. So, in honour of Refugee Week, I’d like you to try and translate this poem by Suhrab Sirat, a poet, writer and journalist from Balkh Province of Afghanistan who moved to the UK in 2014.

Sirat’s poem is in Persian, but you don’t need to know Persian to take part in this challenge. The poet has kindly offered a bridge translation in English, which we are asking you to adapt, co-creating a translation with Sirat himself.

You might begin by looking at the poem in its original form. If you are not a Persian speaker, the alphabet may at first seem undecipherable to you. Even without knowing the language though, what can you notice about the poem’s layout on the page? Study the line lengths, the stanza lengths. Can you recognise any formal features? Are rhyme or alliteration suggested by repeated words?

Next, read through the bridge translation. It is worth asking:

  • What do I think this poem is about?
  • What are my favourite things about this poem? Is there an image I find particularly compelling? Why?
  • Do I have any questions or uncertainties?
  • Has the form changed between the original and the bridge translation? If so, why?
  • Am I trying to make a very faithful translation, or a looser ‘version’ that is more concerned with catching the poem’s spirit? Am I going to allow myself to experiment with aspects such as layout or imagery? What aspects of the original poem do I need to keep and what am I willing to lose to make a poem that feels like the real thing in English?

Your final co-translated text might be very close to Sirat’s or a very distant relation, but however you approach the material I hope that spending time this closely with someone else’s words is an exercise in empathy and care.

Submit your poetic translation by Sunday 16 August 2020. We will publish the best entry in Modern Poetry in Translation, where we are always keen to support emerging translators. We also hope you will join our community and learn more – do follow us on Twitter @MPTmagazine or think about subscribing.

I am also facilitating a free online poetry translation workshop on Tuesday 14 July 2020 (2-3.30pm BST) over Zoom. We will be doing some translation warm-ups and creating a group translation of a different poem. You don’t need to know any other languages to take part, and you don’t need to ever have translated a poem before – you just have to be aged 25 or younger and interested in learning more. Please note that there are no more spaces on the workshop. We’ll get in touch with everyone who emailed us expressing their interest soon!

You can find more ways into translation in last year’s challenge, and the other features on translation across Young Poets Network.

Learn more about Refugee Week and how to get involved at refugeeweek.org.uk.”

Original in Persian


سهراب سیرت

روحم، نگاهم،‌ سایه‌ام، خوابم، شبم زخمی‌ست
بوسیده‌ام خود را در آیینه، لبم زخمی‌ست

پاییز شد هر فصل من، سالی پر از زهرم
میزان و قوسم تیرخورده، عقربم زخمی‌ست

گاوی که بر شاخش زمینم هست دیوانه است
دل، دل،‌ دلم، این پای‌‌درگِل‌‌مرکبم زخمی‌ست

بی‌سرزمینم!‌ کو زمین؟ اندازهٔ یک قبر
بی‌آسمانم! قرن‌ها شد کوکبم زخمی‌ست

کمرنگ شد آن مشق بابا آب یا نان داد
صفحه به صفحه خاک و خون شد…مکتبم زخمی‌ست!

در بین وجدان‌های خفته، بین یک گلّه!
شور و شعورم مرده و تاب و تبم زخمی‌ست

زخمی‌ست هر چه دارم از آغاز تا انجام
نامم،‌ کلامم،‌ خاطراتم،‌ مذهبم زخمی‌ست

Bridge translation by the poet in English: 


Suhrab Sirat

My soul, my gaze, my shadow, my dream, my night are wounded
I have kissed myself in the mirror
My lips are wounded

I am a year filled with venom, my every season is autumn
My Libra and my Sagittarius are hit by an arrow,
My Scorpio is wounded

The bull, on whose horns is my Earth, is mad
Heart, this heart, my heart,
This donkey stuck in the mud is wounded

I have no country, no land not even the size of a grave
I have no sky, it’s been centuries
Since my star is wounded

My homework of ‘Daddy gives bread, gives me water’ is fading out
Page by page, it’s dust and blood
My school is wounded

Among the flock of those with egos asleep,
My passion and logic are dead
My spirit and excitement are wounded

From beginning to the end, whatever I own is wounded
My name, my words, my memories, my religion are all wounded

Photo of the Lagoon Nebula: a purple cloud lit up in the centre, and surrounded by stars

Notes from Suhrab Sirat, the poet and translator

This poem is deeply personal to me. I grew up in a war-torn country and carry the burden of all the bad memories on the shoulder of my soul. I have been living in the UK as a refugee for the past six years, but I am still deeply connected to the traumas of living in Afghanistan.

The poem is in the form of ghazal, a classic form of Persian poetry although it has a modern theme and style. The Poetry Foundation’s definition might be useful:

Consisting of syntactically and grammatically complete couplets, the form also has an intricate rhyme scheme. Each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (the radif), and is preceded by the couplet’s rhyming word (the qafia, which appears twice in the first couplet). The last couplet includes a proper name, often of the poet’s. In the Persian tradition, each couplet was of the same meter and length, and the subject matter included both erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism.

In the translation, I couldn’t keep its original form, so it’s not an English ghazal and is without any rhyme and rhythm. In your translation, you could try to re-ghazalify it – or change the form in another way.

Some specific notes on language:

  • Persian is written right to left.
  • In my bridge translation, I have suggested ‘Woundistan’ or ‘Wound-i-stan’ (land of wounds) as the title. You can read about the suffix -stan here.
  • In this context, in Persian ‘my’ also means ‘I am’ so the first verse can also be translated as: I am soul, I am gaze, I am shadow, I am sleep and my night is wounded, which will be a secondary option for translation.
  • Afghanistan uses the solar calendar, and the zodiac signs are the names of months in this calendar. Libra, Sagittarius and Scorpio are the three months of autumn. The signs’ meanings are related and connected to other words. For example, Scorpio has venom, which is connected with the line before (a year filled with venom) and the Sagittarius’s sign has a bow and arrow which has a link with ‘hit by an arrow’. Furthermore ‘Teer’ or تیر in Persian means ‘arrow and bullet’ but is also the word for another Zodiac Month (Cancer).
  • The idea of the world resting on a bull’s horns is a myth. So when the bull is angry, the whole world is shaken all the time.
  • ‘This donkey stuck in the mud’ is an expression used in Afghanistan when someone (here, the heart) has an unsolved problem, as it’s not easy to pull out a donkey that’s stuck in the mud. The repetition of the word ‘heart’ reinforces this idea of being stuck.
  • In some traditions, people believe that every person has a star in the sky and the luck of that person depends on how shiny that star is.
  • ‘Daddy gave bread, gave me water’ is one of the first sentences that students practice to learn reading and writing in Afghanistan.
  • ‘Among the flock of those with egos asleep’: this was difficult to translate to English. In Persian, we have this expression that if a person is indifferent to everything, accepts anything, and doesn’t speak about injustice, then they are a person with a sleeping conscience/ethics/ego. So in some ways they could be like sheep. 

I very much look forward to seeing the outcome of the challenge. Good luck!

About the poet

Photo of Suhrab Sirat: he rests his fist against his mouth and looks at the camera through glasses
Photo: Kawoon Khamoosh

With four collections of poems, and dozens of literary commentaries, articles and reviews published in Persian/Dari, Suhrab Sirat is an exiled poet, writer, journalist, and former civil society activist from Afghanistan. Suhrab currently works for the BBC’s Persian service, mainly focusing on art, literature and refugee topics. He has a Bachelors Degree in Literature and Social Sciences from Balkh University and a Masters in International Politics and Human Rights from City, University of London. Suhrab also wrote lyrics for the first Afghan female rapper, lyrics include subjects on struggles of forced migration, standing against patriarchy and extreme religious views and women rights. Suhrab received death threats from extremist groups in Afghanistan because of his activities in promoting liberal views, anti-extremist poetry and producing reports and articles about women musicians, artists and politicians. He has forced to flee his home and seek political asylum in the UK in 2014. Suhrab is also an Exiled Writers Ink member whose first booklet of poetry in English will be published later this year by Exiled Writers Ink. He is currently involved in their Mentoring and Translation project. Read more of Suhrab Sirat’s work here.


Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies. The first-prize poem in this challenge will also be published in Modern Poetry in Translation, an international poetry magazine founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort that publishes the best of world poetry in English translation. You could appear in print alongside some of the leading poets and translators of the global poetry scene!

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 16 August 2020. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file; however, do bear in mind that the first-prize winner will have the text of their poem published in Modern Poetry in Translation. You can send as many poems as you like. Submissions must be in English, although you may include snippets in other languages.

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Translation challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 16 August 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Modern Poetry in Translation to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].

Clare Pollard. Photo: Justine Stoddart

Clare Pollard is the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation. She has published five collections of poetry with Bloodaxe, the latest of which is Incarnation (2017). Her translation projects have included a new version of Ovid’s Heroines (2013), which she toured as a one-woman show with Jaybird Live Literature, and a co-translation of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations (2017) which was The Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year 2017.


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Refugee Week logo: dots to the left

Published June 2020

6 thoughts on ““I have no country”: a poetry translation challenge

  1. Wow wonderful, I’m very glad to see this page and this poem was excellent, i love it and thanks for sharing.
    Wish you all the best

  2. Hello,

    Is it possible to accompany our translation poem with a short written text about our writing process?

    Thank you in advance for your response and wishing you all the best writing!

  3. Hello,

    If the form of my poem can not be properly typed into the body of the email, can I attach a word document instead?

    Thank you once again!

    1. Hi Veronika,

      Yes, you can in this case. You can also include a commentary but please note your entry will be judged on the merits of the translation, not the commentary.

      We look forward to receiving your translation.

      Best of luck!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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