One day in late autumn 1982 an unexpected letter and a fascinating book arrived at the offices of the Poetry Society in Earl’s Court Square. I was Chairman of the Society at that time and thought it might be well worth following up.

Our correspondent, Ion Ratiu, was a Romanian living in London who was in contact with the father, in Bucharest, of a 19 year old translator, Corneliu M. Popescu. The son had translated into English verse a substantial part of the work of the greatest of Romanian poets, Mihai Eminescu.

The saddest fact revealed in the book, a handsome Romanian edition of his work, was that Corneliu had died in the earthquake of 4 March 1977, the worst European earth tremor in our lifetime. Mr Ratiu was hoping the Poetry Society might commemorate the achievement of this prodigiously talented young man with some kind of publication or award.

I went with Brian Mitchell, then Director of the Society, to see Mr. Ratiu. After a delightful meeting we left his office with the munificent promise of a subsidy covering all the expenses of what we had suggested: a European Translation Prize for a book that rendered the work of a European poet into English.

It happened I was making a British Council visit to Romania in spring 1983, so I thought I could publicise the Prize in Corneliu’s own country. But I met some degree of apprehension, and embarrassment. The Romanian Communist authorities wondered why a Romanian exile in Britain should be subsidising such an award? Still, when they realised that it would be honouring a famous Romanian poet without carrying any political implications, they agreed to smile on the idea.

Tony Harrison was the winner of the inaugural prize, and was the first in a line of distinguished translators which included Ewald Osers and Francis Jones. Later, the British Council and the Arts Council of Great Britain took up the provision of funding. Eventually our first benefactor, Mr Ratiu, returned to Romania and became a presidential candidate and a distinguished senator (he died in 2000). Corneliu’s father, Mihai Popescu, who died in 1996, had great joy in attending almost every presentation, in London, of the biennial European Poetry Translation Prize in memory of his dead son.

Mihai would be delighted to know that the Prize given in Corneliu’s name will yet again be awarded in 2003. Our warmest gratitude is due to the Ratiu Family Charitable Foundation for making it possible next year – by emulating the original kindness of Ion Ratiu twenty years ago.

Read more in a Guardian article from 2003.

Alan Brownjohn

The Prize

The Popescu Prize has been awarded biennially by the Poetry Society for a volume of poetry translated from a European language into English.

Formerly the European Poetry Translation Prize (1983-1997) the Prize was relaunched in 2003, and renamed in memory of the young Romanian translator Corneliu M Popescu, who died in an earthquake in 1977, aged 19. Popescu translated the work of one of Romania’s leading poets, Mihai Eminescu, into English. The Prize’s founding sponsor was Romanian journalist, author and democracy campaigner Ion Ratiu. The prize, awarded to a translator, was supported by The Ratiu Foundation from 2003 to 2011.

The Ratiu Foundation

The Ratiu Foundation was established in London in 1979 by Ion and Elisabeth Ratiu to promote and support projects which further education and research in the culture and history of Romania. The foundation offers grants to Romanian students studying a wide range of subjects in the UK, principally for projects, postgraduate courses, conference participations, travel grants, and other short term courses including academic research. They enable talented graduates and young professionals to become familiar with the UK and gain skills, which they can adapt and apply in Romania. The Ratiu Foundation offers annual seed funding for innovative projects, principally in Romania, which foster Romanian arts and civilisation, heritage, civil society, democracy and environmental protection.