The start of a journey: SMP judge Ian McMillan on translation

By Ian McMillan

I remember vividly when my journey into poetry in translation started; it was 1974 and I was walking from the bus station in Manchester to Piccadilly Railway Station and in those days, at the bottom of Piccadilly Gardens, there was a bookshop called Grass Roots Books that was packed with magazines and pamphlets and chapbooks and anthologies. There was a box of poetry collections reduced in price and two of them were by poets in translation and I bought them to read on the train.

One was Shadow Land by the German (East German as he was then) poet Johannes Bobrowski, translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, and the other was Helsinki by the Finnish Poet Pentti Saarikoski, translated by Anselm Hollo. They were both published in a series called Poetry Europe by a half-forgotten publisher called Rapp and Whiting. Although I was writing and reading poetry at that time, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read any work in translation, and on that train trip my mind was opened and blown at the same time.

Here was work that challenged my ideas of poetry and that gave me images that have lingered with me ever since; here were poems that unfolded maps before me and invited me to explore. Bobrowski ended a poem with the lines ‘your black alder will wither,/and die at the fence tomorrow’ and Saarikoski began a poem with ‘I bought a horse from a madman./He had drawn it himself/ and it was a regular horse/but for the eyes: they were in its nostrils.’

I was hooked, and I almost missed my stop. A journey begins with a single step; my journey began with a single moment in a long-gone bookshop. And this, for me, is a journey that will never end, as I travel poetry’s endless universes of translation, always getting so immersed that I forget to get off at my station.


Ian McMillan is a writer and broadcaster based in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. He’s produced books of poetry for children and adults as well as a couple of volumes of memoir. He’s presented The Verb, Radio 3’s weekly language and literature show, for over twenty years and he’s always really excited to encounter new writing by new writers. He’s currently translating the opera The Barber of Seville into Yorkshire dialect, which makes him very happy!

He is the Chair of the Judges for the 2024 Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation. Submissions are open until Sunday, 31 December 2023.