Poets' Corner - Th' Bowgy Mon by Nigel Cooper



A picture inspired by Schubert's musical setting of Goethe's Erlkönig and the title page of Franz Schubert's Erlkönig.

My mother, Iris nee Tromans, who died aged 70 in 1991, had her roots in Halesowen, Cradley, Quarry Bank and Oldhill. Around ten years after her death I decided it was high time I found out more about this part of my heritage. My first step was to renew my contact with relatives in the Black Country and beyond, and with their help I pieced together a good account of the family within living memory.

However, no one knew very much about earlier times. Not being able to travel to the Black Country easily, I turned to the internet, and the old Cradleylinks.com website was one of the first and most important local resources that I discovered. With the help of that site and others such as Rowleyregis.com I was soon exchanging vast amounts of information about my Tromanses, Smiths, Hubbles, Ganners and Attwoods with newly discovered distant and not-so-distant relatives. Of the Cradleylinks webmasters, for example, it turned out that Jill Guest is my third cousin on the Tromans side; we have discovered a lot of shared family memories. Nigel Brown is also an astronomically distant relative - at a best estimate he is my ninth cousin once removed, with our common Attwood ancestors back in the seventeenth century.

Last year (2006) I was able to combine this interest in my family history with another passion - translating poetry. The poem that I have translated here was written around 1905 in the dialect of German spoken in Strasbourg. It is a parody of Goethe's ballad Erlkönig (Erl King, 'alder-tree king') - best known outside German-speaking countries from vocal settings by Schubert and other composers. Erlkönig ends in tragedy: riding home during a storm, a father ignores his young son's pleas to save him from the enticements of the will-o'-the-wisp, and at the end of his journey he discovers that his child is dead in his arms. In the Strasbourg parody, the suspense and the sinister undertones are likewise maintained until the last verse; however, we then discover that the father and his (now considerably older) son are both very much alive if somewhat the worse for wear, having drunk rather more new wine than is good for them.

The parody was crying out to be translated, and Black Country dialect seemed the ideal medium for this. Not only is the language particularly close to its Germanic roots, but the sentiments of the poem are also very much in keeping with the slightly surreal self-mockery that is so typical of Black Country humour.

Of course it was necessary to change all the local references, and what could have been better than using people and places from my own family history? My grandfather, Ernest Tromans, grew up near Belle Vale Forge on the River Stour before moving to Halesowen. His nineteenth-century forebears had kept the Boat Inn by the canal tunnel in Oldhill. My grandmother Cissie's sister, Lily Harris nee Hubble, won't have known a fat lot about new wine, but I'm told that she was famous in Coombeswood for her home-brewed beer.

Black Country is, strictly speaking, my native language but I only spoke it until I was two, when my parents and I moved away and became southerners. I therefore needed a local expert to whom I could turn for advice - and so my thanks are due to Jill Guest for her help in fine-tuning the translation in impeccable Cradleyese.

I've included the Strasbourg dialect original in case there's anybody out there who wants to compare the two versions. The translation received a commendation in the 2006 poetry translation competition of the Stephen Spender Trust, sponsored by The Times. The same text appears on the Brindin Press poetry translation website together with some more examples of my work.

Nigel Cooper, May 2007
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Th' Bowgy Mon trans.© Nigel Cooper 2006
D'R Erlekininni by C Knapp, Strasbourg, 1905

'Oo's ridin' se laet thro' the nite se wild?
It's a faither wi' 'is child.
'E's strapped 'is son tew 'im so as 'e'll keap warm,
An' so 's 'e doe fall off, 'cos i's blowin' a storm.

"Our kid, 'ow come as yo'm lookin' se pael?"
"Oh Dad cor yo see over there in Belle Vale?
Th' bowgy mon's comin', 'e'll gi' me a poke!"
"But tha's where th' forge is, i's jus' chimney smoke."

"Come 'ome wi' me yung un, an' then on the way
Ah'll showen ye some clever games as we'll play
In th' flowers on th' towpath afore it gets laet -
Then m' mam'll put faggets 'n paes on yer plaet."

"Am ye deaf? Am ye blind? 'Cos i's drivin' me mad!
Cor yo 'ear 'ow th' bowgy mon talks ter me, Dad?"
"Shut yer trap, carm yer down, pur a sock in it, son!
Stop yer weretin' will ye, ah'm very near done."

"Nah come on my child, bist a-gooin' wi' me?
When m' daurters 'm dancin' i's lovely ter see.
On Sundy m' wenches 'm all at a ball
At Th' Boat up O'd 'Ill - yo'm a-comin' an' all!"

"Look Dad con yo see that beyewtiful wench?
'Er's a-dancin' a jig over there by that bench."
"Ay no wench, i's the wind, ay no shadder o' doubt,
Now stop actin' se saft or ah'll gi' thee a clout!"

"Am ye comin' me bewty? Get down off that 'orse!
If yo doe come quietly ah'll tek yer by force."
"But Dad cor ye listen ter me when I 'oller?
Th' bowgy mon, 'e's grabbin' 'old o' me collar!"

Now faither gets gewse bumps an' rides wum like 'ell.
'Is missus is waitin', 'er knows 'im tew well.
"Our kid sid th' bowgy mon down by th' river -
I 'ope 'e's alrite, 'cos 'e's all of a shiver."
'Er's loffin': "Ah knowen wha's up wi' yo tew,
Yo'n both 'ad tew much on our Lily's 'ome brew!"

Wer ritt eso spoot durch Nacht un Wind?
Dis isch e Babbe mit sim Kind,
Er het sine Knäkes fescht an sich g'schniert,
Fur dass er net kejt un as er nit friert.

"Mon enfant, dü bisch eso bleich un blass?"
"Oh Babbe, luej emol dort in der Gass
Kummt der Erlekinni un will noch mer griffe."
"Jo Plän, dis isch e Newelstriffe."

"Min liewer Bue, kumm geh mit mir
Gar gfitzti jeux mach i mit dir,
Viel Bläemle wachse-n-am chemin d'halage,
Mini Mueder gitt der e Flade mit fromage."

"Oh Babbe, i glaub dä bisch daub un blind,
Hörsch nit wie der Erlekinni redd' mit dim Kind?"
"Sej ruewi, soit tranquille, halt d'Schnurr, min Bue,
Mit dine Plän haw i jetz ball genue."

"Mon cher enfant, witt nit mit mer gehn,
Mini Döchter springe-n-un tanze scheen.
Sin allerti Maidle un gehen mit der näs
Am Sunndaa uff Schilke zuem Baal ins Roth' Hüs."

"Luej Babbe, sich'sch nit Erlekinni's Mamselle
Dort uf de Matte de Quadrille stelle?"
"Horch Krippel, dä fangsch an mich ze säije,
Der Wind duet nurre durch d'Hecke fäije."

"Mon enfant, mich reizt dini scheeni G'stalt,
Un kumm'sch nit vun aase, no bräch i Gewalt."
"Ach Babbe, ach Babbe, so hör doch min Klaaue,
Jetz packt mi der Erlkinni bim Kraaue."

Der Babbe krejt d'Gänshät un ritt was er kann;
Vor'm Häs steht d'Mamme und passt uff ihr Mann.
"Denk", saat er, "der Klein het der Erlkinni gsehn,
Wenn nurre dem Kind nix Leids isch g'schehn!"
D'Mamme lacht un het mit em Finger gewunke:
"I maan als, Ihr zwei han viel 'Neier' getrunke!"


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