Sheenagh Pugh

Poet and novelist

Translating the Not Quite

From Alemannic to English

I should explain that my involvement with the poet Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) is very peripheral. In the 70s, 80s and 90s I was translating a lot of German poetry into English, but it was almost all from my favourite period, the Thirty Years War – Gryphius, Hofmannswaldau, Fleming, Dach and their less famous contemporaries.  Now and again, something else would catch my eye, usually when I was leafing through some anthology or other, and that was how, at some stage, I'd come to translate a short poem of Hebel's called Auf den Tod eines Zechers (On the Death of a Drunkard)- text and translation at appendix 1. It is basically a rather affectionate portrayal of the local drunk which plays on typical pub names: the man is a noted hunter, for when he comes to a new town his first quest is always for a Lion or a Bear, and as a good Christian he makes, each night, a pilgrimage to the Cross. The poem intrigued me because it was somewhat more serious than first appeared, as witness the final couplet, which reminds us that where he now is, we shall all one day be. The conceit of the pub names demonstrates the way drink dominates the man's life, yet his quests for Sun, Star, Lion and the rest seem also to acknowledge the possibilities in him, the hidden talents of which the first verse speaks, not altogether in mockery. I liked its non-judgemental, affectionate tone.

 What had first drawn my interest to it was the dialect in which it was written, Alemannic, which I hadn't come across before. I was interested to see that as a variant on standard German it wasn't particularly hard to read, once you got used to its distinguishing features. But when I translated the poem, I did not attempt to indicate that it was a dialect piece, mainly because I didn't think it really mattered in this case. The poem is not written in persona; rather it sounds like the voice of Hebel the parson, amused and tolerant of human failings, and I rendered it into standard English.

 It was a long time before I translated anything else of Hebel's. I'd read other short pieces without especially wanting to translate them, but one longer poem had stuck in my head for a long time. This was Die Vergänglichkeit (Transience) – text and translation at appendix 2 -  a conversation between a father and son in an ox-cart which turns into a meditation on the end of the world and in the process accidentally paints a picture alarmingly like the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. My translation at one point reads:


 If you drive right up the Milky Way,

into the hidden town, and take a look

back down, what'll you see? Why, Rötteln Castle!

Mount Belchen and Mount Blauen, all charred

coal-black, like two old, fired towers,

and in between, nothing but scorched earth.

No water in the Wiese, all bare and black

and dead quiet, however far you look.


This seemed so strangely contemporary that I had, even at the time, wanted to translate it. What made me hesitate was that this time, the poem was a dialogue, entirely in voice, and the fact that both voices were speaking something that wasn't quite standard German did not seem possible to ignore altogether.

 Had I been fluent in any particular regional dialect of English, I might have thought about using it. But I’m not, and the idea of faking it just isn’t on for anyone of Welsh descent who has sat through Henry the Fifth wanting to throw something at Fluellen (or preferably at Shakespeare, if he were only available). 

 In the end I settled for something rather more generic. The father and son in the ox-cart are clearly countryfolk; they farm in a village called Wiesleth and have never, by the sound of it, been further from home than Basel, the nearest big town, which they know quite well.  They are no fools, though the older man is more hard-headed and practical than his imaginative son, who is scared of the ghost stories his father laughs at. It’s impossible to guess how much, if any, formal education they have, or whether, in conversation with strangers or educated folk, they would or could speak something closer to standard German than they use here.  But throughout the poem they are talking, in a family situation, and above all the translation needs to reflect that, to be in an idiom people like them might credibly use for conversation. It has to sound as much as possible like spoken, rather than written, language.

 So the first feature of their language, in translation, has to be a hell of a lot of contractions. This, after all, is the chief way in which spoken language differs from written, and Hebel himself uses them very freely in this poem, witness his way with pronouns and articles, where "es" and "das" invariably contract to 's, while "die Sonne" becomes "d' Sunne".  There is of course a direct English equivalent for that, in those northern dialects which contract "the" to "t". But I didn't want to use it, because it sounded a bit too stagey; if I'd had my man speaking of "t'ox" insteand of "the ox", he might as well say "Ee lad", twanging his braces the while like the perfect stage Northerner, and be done with it.  So, apart from letting them say 'em instead of them, which seemed to me less of a stereotype,  I went for verb contractions instead, these being natural to most kinds of spoken English I can think of. Not an "am" or an "are" survived the elision; every time I caught them about to use the auxiliary verb "will", in went the apostrophe, even in circumstances where I might normally have thought twice about the sound it made – "sheep and goats 'll graze over me", "the rot'll set in." The only "will" that beat the cull was one at the very end of the man's apocalyptic vision of the end of the world:


but at the end it'll all catch alight

and burn and burn, all the land, and no one

to put it out, and how will things look then?


Leaving the uncontracted "will" in that sentence was not, as far as I recall, consciously done; by then I was in the man's voice and it just felt like what he would say at that rather significant moment. I might not have wanted to imitate a particular dialect but we always want our characters to have a distinctive idiolect. There are some repeated phrases in the old man's speech, and I tried to make them colloquial in a slightly old-fashioned way, so that he has tricks of speech like saying "it's all up with the house", and later "it's all up with Basel". "That's the way of it" and "that's a fact" are also among his turns of phrase, and he says "oh aye" instead of "oh yes", the closest to dialect vocabulary that I was willing to go.

 If I were neurotic about utter faithfulness in translation, I would feel guilty about one thing. In my translation, I don't think the boy's language is quite as colloquial as his father's, and though I can't tell for certain, having read no Alemannic outside a few poets, I see no real linguistic difference between the two speakers in the original poem, except for the father's habit of using the kind of pet phrase referred to above. I didn't set out to make any difference between them myself, but as I worked on the poem it began to seem natural that the boy would be more open to outside influences, perhaps likelier to have had some kind of schooling, and their idiolects began to part company somewhat.

 Hebel's original is undoubtedly farther from standard German than my translation is from standard English. You can tell from the idiom of the translation that these are country people, and that they are speaking colloquially; that's about all. Every time I moved any farther from standard English, I found myself fearing the pitfall of sounding patronising towards these people. Dialect, in English, is not just a regional but a social marker, and anyone using a dialect they were not actually born to is, I think, in grave danger of making a sound something like "look at the funny regional people" – that, after all, is exactly what Shakespeare did. I have heard a Scottish friend complain that theatres in her part of the world have a hard time presenting serious plays in Scots English, because audiences assume that anything in Scots must be a comedy.

 From the time I spent in Germany, I did not get the impression that speaking something other than Hochdeutsch marked one socially in quite the same way non-standard English still can. More importantly, I certainly had no impression that Hebel in any way wanted to sound patronising towards these characters he had created, nor that he found them or what they had to say amusing.  When translating, something always goes missing; the task of the translator is to decide what can be lost if needs be and what absolutely cannot be done without.  In the end I felt that Hebel's intent in this poem depended quite a lot on taking the main speaker seriously and respectfully, for what he is saying about life, death and the hereafter, though expressed in simple and colloquial terms, is not a million miles from what Hebel himself, as a parson, must have thought.

 It is, as it happens, quite a long way from anything I think. Lacking Hebel's faith, I cannot comfort myself with the old man's enchanting fantasy of "what if every star's a village", and having lived a far less hard life than this farmer, his utter lack of nostalgia for this world, at the end of the poem, is alien to me; I could never look down at Earth, as he imagines himself doing, and say "you can keep it". But that's another thing about translation, and in fact one of the things that most attracts me to it; you find yourself in the voice of another, saying things that in your own voice you would never think of uttering but which, in the context of the character and for the duration of the poem, constitute truth.


Appendix 1

 Auf den Tod eines Zechers


 Do hen si mer e Ma vergrabe.

's isch schad für sini bsundere Gabe.

Gang, wo de witt, such no so ein!

Sel isch verbei, de findsch mer kein.


Er isch e Himmelsglehrte gsi.

In allen Dörfere her und hi

se het er gluegt vo Hus zu Hus,

hangt nienen echt e Sternen us?


Er isch e freche Ritter gsi.

In alle Dörfere her und hi

se heter gfrogt enanderno:

»Sin Leuen oder Bäre do?«


E gute Christ, sel isch er gsi.

In alle Dörfere her und hi

se het er untertags und z'nacht

zum Chrütz si stille Bußgang gmacht.


Si Namen isch in Stadt und Land

bi große Here wohl bikannt.

Si allerliebsti Kumpanie

sin alliwil d'Drei Künig gsi.


Jez schloft er und weiß nüt dervo.

Es chunnt e Zit, goht's alle so.


(Johann Peter Hebel : Gesamtausgabe, Band 3, Karlsruhe 1972, S. 172-173)



On the Death of a Drunkard (translation)


They've just buried a man I knew,

and now his special gift's gone, too.

Seek where you will, you'll never find

a man like him: one of a kind.


His hobby was astronomy;

in any town where he might be,

he'd search the houses, near and far,

hoping to see a Sun or Star.


He was a daring hunter, too;

in every town that he passed through,

he'd always start by finding out

if there were any Lions about.


He was a proper Christian man;

when he was staying in some town,

each night, discreetly, without fuss,

he'd go, a pilgrim, to the Cross.


The gentry loved to have him stop;

a Duke has often put him up.

Indeed, he had the kind of charms

you look to find in a Queen's Arms.


And now he takes his rest, dead dry,

as, some day, shall you and I.


(Sheenagh Pugh, Selected Poems, Seren 1990, p163)


 Appendix 2


Die Vergänglichkeit,
Gedicht in alemannischer Mundart


Der Bueb seit zum Ätti:
Fast allmol, Ätti, wenn mer's Röttler Schloß
so vor den Auge stoht, se denki dra,
öb's üsem Hus echt au e mol so goht.
Stoht's denn nit dört, so schuderig, wie der Tod
im Basler Totetanz? Es gruset eim,
wie länger as me's bschaut. Und üser Hus,
es sitzt so wie ne Chilchli uffem Berg,
und d'Fenster glitzeren, es isch e Staat.
Schwetz, Ätti, goht's em echterst au no so?
I mein emol, es chönn schier gar nit si.


Der Ätti seit:
Du guete Burst, 's cha frili si, was meinsch?
's chunnt allesjung und neu, und alles schliicht
sim Alter zue, und alles nimmt en End,
und nüt stoht still. Hörsch nit, wie 's Wasser ruuscht,
und siehsch am Himmel obe Stern an Stern?
Me meint, vo alle rüehr sie kein, und doch
ruckt alles witers, alles chunnt und goht.
Je, 's isch nit anderst, lueg mi a, wie d'witt.
De bisch no jung; Närsch, ich bi au so gsi,
jez würd's mer anderst, 's Alter, 's Alter chunnt,
und woni gang, go Gresgen oder Wies,
in Feld und Wald, go Basel oder heim,
's isch einerlei, i gang im Chilchhof zue
briegg, alder nit! und bis de bisch wien ich,
e gstandne Ma, se bini nümme do,
und d'Schof und Geiße weide uf mi'm Grab.
Jo wegerli, und 's Hus wird alt und wüest;
der Rege wäscht der's wüester alli Nacht,
und d'Sunne bleicht der's schwärzer affi Tag,
und im Vertäfer popperet der Wurm.
Es regnet no dur d'Bühni ab, es pfift
Der Wind dur d'Chlimse. Drüber tuesch du au
no d'Auge zue; es chömme Chindeschind,
und pletze dra. Z'letzt fuults im Fundement,
und's hilft nüt me. Und wemme nootno gar
zweitusig zählt, isch alles z'semme gkeit.
Und 's Dörfli sinkt no selber in si Grab.
Wo d'Chilche stoht, wo 's Vogts und 's Here Hus,
goht mit der Zit der Pflueg


Der Bueb seit:
Nei, was de seisch!


Der Ätti seit:
Je, 's isch nit anderst, lueg mi a, wie d' witt!
Isch Basel nit e schöni, tolli Stadt?
's sin Hüser drin, 's isch mengi Chilche nit
so groß, und Chilche, 's sin in mengem Dorf
nit so viel Hüser. 's isch e Volchspiel, 's wohnt
e Richtum drinn, und menge brave Her,
und menge, woni gchennt ha, lit scho lang
im Chrützgang hinterm Münsterplatz und schloft.
's isch eitue, Chind, es schlacht e mol e Stund,
goht Basel au ins Grab, und streckt no do
und dört e Glied zum Boden us, e Joch,
en alte Turn, e Giebelwand; es wachst
do Holder druf, do Büechli, Tanne dört,
und Moos und Farn, und Reiger niste drin
's isch schad derfür!und sin bis dörthi d'Lüt
so närsch wie jez, se göhn au Gspenster um.
D'Frau Faste, 's isch mer jez, sie fang scho a,
me seit's emol, - der Lippi, Läppeli,
und was weiß ich, wer meh? Was stoßisch mi?


Der Bueb seit:
Schwetz lisli, Ätti, bis mer über d'Bruck
do sin, und do an Berg und Wald verbei!
Dört obe jagt e wilde Jäger, weisch?
Und lueg, do niden in de Hürste seig
gwiß's Eiermeidli g'Iege, halber fuul,
's isch Johr und Tag. Hörsch, wie der Laubi schnuuft?


Der Ätti seit:
Er het der Pfnüsel! Seig doch nit so närsch!
Hüst, Laubi, Merz!und loß die Tote go,
sie tüen der nüt meh! Je, was hani gseit?
Vo Basel, aß es au e mol verfallt.
Und goht in langer Zit e Wandersma
ne halbi Stund, e Stund wit dra verbei,
se luegt er dure, lit ke Nebel druf,
und seit si'm Kamerad, wo mittem goht:
"Lueg, dört isch Basel gstande! Selle Turn
seig d'Peterschilche gsi, 's isch schad derfür!"


Der Bueb seit:
Nei, Atti, isch's der Ernst? Es cha nit si!


Der Ätti seit:
Je 's isch nit anderst, lueg mi a, wie d'witt,
und mit der Zit verbrennt die ganzi Welt.
Es goht e Wächter us um Mitternacht,
e fremde Ma, me weiß nit, wer er isch,
er funklet, wie ne Stern, und rüeft: "Wacht auf!
Wacht auf, es kommt der Tag!" Drob rötet si
der Himmel, und es dundert überal,
z erst heimlig, alsg'mach lut, wie sellemol,
wo Anno Sechsenünzgi der Franzos
so uding gschosse het. Der Bode schwankt,
aß d'Chilchtüm guge; d'Glocke schlagen a,
und lüte selber Bettzit wit und breit,
und alles bettet. Drüber chunnt der Tag;
o, b'hüetis Gott, me brucht ke Sunn derzue,
der Himmel stoht im Blitz, und d'Welt im Glast.
Druf gschieht no viel, i a jez nit der Zit;
und endli zündet's a, und brennt und brennt,
wo Boden isch, und niemes löscht. Es glumst
wohl selber ab. Wie meinsch, sieht's us derno?


Der Bueb seit:
O Ätti, sag mer nüt me! Zwor wie goht's
de Lüte denn, wenn alles brennt und brennt?


Der Ätti seit:
He, d'Lüt sin nümme do, wenn's brennt, sie sin
wo sin sie? Seig du frumm, und halt di wohl,
geb, wo de bisch, und bhalt di Gwisse rein!
Siehsch nit, wie d'Luft mit schöne Sterne prangt!
's isch jede Stern verglichlige ne Dorf,
und witer obe seig e schöni Stadt,
me sieht si nit vo do, und haltsch di guet,
se chunnsch in so ne Stern, und 's isch der wohl,
und findsch der Ätti dört, wenn's Gottswill isch,
und's Chüngi selig, d'Muetter. Obbe fahrsch
au d'Milchstroß uf in de verborgni Stadt,
und wenn de sitwärts abe luegsch, was siehsch?
e Röttler Schloß! Der Belche stoht verchohlt,
der Blauen au, as wie zwee alti Türn,
und zwische drin isch alles use brennt,
bis tief in Boden abe. D'Wiese het
ke Wasser meh, 's isch alles öd und schwarz,
und totestill, so wit me luegtdas siehsch,
und seisch di'm Kamerad, wo mitder goht:
"Lueg, dört isch d'Erde gsi, und selle Berg
het Belche gheiße! Nit gar wit dervo
isch Wisleth gsi; dört hani au scho glebt,
und Stiere gwettet, Holz go Basel g'füehrt,
und brochet, Matte g'rauft, und Liechtspöh' g'macht,
und g'vätterlet, bis an mi selig End,
und möcht jez nümme hi." Hüst Laubi, Merz!


Johann Peter Hebel: Gesamtausgabe, Band 3, Karlsruhe 1972, S. 129-133


 Transience: a conversation

A father and son are driving home at night in an ox-cart. The boy speaks:


"You know, Dad, when Rötteln Castle looms up

like that, nearly every time, I can't help thinking

of our house ending up that way.

Just look at it; doesn't it send a shudder

through you, like that figure from the Dance

of Death in Basel? You get more scared

the more you look at it. And our house,

why, it sits square as a church on the hill,

lights in all the windows, couldn't be finer….

Honest, Dad, will it ever be like that?

It just doesn't seem as if it could."


"Oh, but it can, then; that's a fact!

Things come new: folk start young, old age

creeps up on 'em, they all come to an end.

Nothing stands still. Don't you hear the water

rush by; don't you see star after star

up there? You'd think none of 'em stirred,

but they're all on the go; everything is.


Oh aye, that's the way of it, you needn't gape

like that! You're young still; well, so was I,

but I'm not now. I'm getting on, all right,

and if I go towards Gresgen or Wies,

fields or woods, Basel or back home,

I'll end up in the churchyard just the same,

like it or not, and when you're like me,

a grown man, why, I'll not be there;

sheep and goats'll graze over me,

that's a fact. And the house isn't getting

any newer; the rain soaks it shabbier

night by night, and by day the sunlight

blackens it. There's worm in the woodwork

ticking away; rain gets in at the loft,

wind whistles through the cracks… And now you

close your eyes too, and it's your grandson

mending the old place. But in the end

the rot'll get a good hold, and then

it's all up with the house. And by the year

two thousand, say, every house in the village

has fallen in, all gone to ground.

Why, where the church stands, and the mayor's place,

and the parsonage, they'll be ploughing

one of these days-"


                                 "Oh no, come on!"


"Oh aye, that's the way of it, no use

looking like that! Isn't Basel a likely town?

Why, it's got houses, I've seen many a church

not so big, and there's more churches

than houses in a village. Any amount

of people, and money, and fine folk,

and many a man I knew, been lying now

a long time asleep in the cloister

behind Cathedral Square… And no help

for it, lad, one day it's all up

with Basel; all gone to ground.

Well, maybe here and there a limb

showing still: a beam, an old tower,

a gable. There'll be elder growing,

beeches in one place, pines in another

and moss, and fern, and the herons nesting

- poor old place - and if folk then

are as daft as now, they'll be seeing ghosts,

the White Lady, she's at it already,

so I've heard tell, and headless horsemen

and God knows who… What's that nudge for?"


"Hush, Dad, keep it down till we cross the bridge

and get past the hill, and this forest!

Haven't you heard about the savage huntsman

who haunts here? And look in the bushes

down there, that must be where the girl lay,

the one who sold eggs, that was found

half-rotted, a year back… The ox knows:

just listen to him snort!"


                                        "What, our Laubi?

He's got a cold, that's all! Don't talk

so silly… Get on, Laubi; you too, Merz!

And you: let the dead be; they'll do no harm

to you… Now what was I just saying?

Oh yes, about Basel falling down.

And some travelling man years from now,

half an hour, an hour's ride away,

he'll look across, if the weather's clear,

and say to his friend that's beside him,

"Look, that's where Basel was. That tower

was St Peter's, they say; shame it's gone!"


"Oh no, Dad, you're joking; it won't happen!"


"Oh, that's how it'll be; you needn't look

like that! And there'll come a time, the whole world

'll burn to nothing. A watchman 'll walk

at midnight, a stranger no one knows,

bright as a star, calling 'Wake up, wake up!

The day's here!' And the sky turns red,

and there'll be thunder all round, quiet

then loud, like the French cannonfire

in '96. That'll shake the ground!

The church towers'll rock, the bells

sound for service, all by themselves,

and all the world'll be praying. But come day,

God help us, we won't need the sun,

with the lightning, and the earth in flames.

And there'll be more yet, too much to tell,

but in the end it'll all catch alight

and burn and burn, all the land, and no one

to put it out, and how will things look then?"


"Oh Dad, I don't want to know any more!

Except… what'll happen to the people

in all that burning?"


                                  "Why, they'll not be there

when it goes up, the people; they'll be-

where'll they be? Never you mind: be good,

live a decent kind of life, wherever

you are, and do what you know's right!

See how bright the sky is with stars?

Well, what if every star's a village,

and further up, further than you can see,

a great fine town like Basel? You behave

yourself, you'll end up in a star like that,

and have fine times, and if it's God's will,

you'll find your dad there, and your poor mother.

If you drive right up the Milky Way

into the hidden town, and take a look

back down, what'll you see? Why, Rötteln Castle!

Mount Belchen and Mount Blauen, all charred

coal-black, like two old, fired towers,

and in between, nothing but scorched earth.

No water in the Wiese, all bare and black

and dead quiet, however far you look.

So you see that, and you say to your friend

that's beside you, 'That's where the Earth was,

and that mountain used to be called Belchen.

And not far off was Wiesleth. I lived there,

spanned my oxen, carted logs to Basel,

ploughed and drained and cut wood and lived

my little life there, till the day I died,

and you can keep it!' – Get on, Laubi, Merz!"


(Sheenagh Pugh, Selected Poems, Seren 1990 pp 164-68)



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