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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

18-and-under, commended

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Emily Carpenter

‘The Erl King’
by Goethe

Who rides here so late through the wintry wild?
It is the father, with his child;
He holds the infant tight in his arm,
He keeps him safe, away from harm.

‘My son, why do you shield your face in fear?’ –
‘Do you not see, father? The Erl King is here,
Look! The Erl King, with crown and cloak’ –
‘My son, ’tis the mist, like a wisp of smoke.’

‘You, dearest child, come, take my hand!
We shall play lovely games in a magical land;
There are colourful flowers along the sea-bed,
My mother has cloaks made with golden thread.’

‘My father, my father, and do you not hear,
What the Erl King now whispers so sweet in my ear?’ –
‘Hush now, my child, it is only a breeze,
Which flutters and rustles through the trees.’ –

‘Would you like, fine boy, to come and play?
My daughters will care for you night and day,
My daughters each evening do dance and leap,
They will hold you and rock you and sing you to sleep.’ –

‘My father, my father, do you see now, quite near,
The Erl King’s daughters in the shadows here?’ –
‘My son, I see what you are looking at now:
’Tis the old willow tree with its silvery bough. –’
‘I love you, am drawn to your beautiful shape;
And, willing or not, child, you shall not escape.’ –
‘My father, my father, he is grabbing me now!
Father, the Erl King has hurt me somehow!’ –

The father now shudders and rides with full speed,
The groaning child between him and the steed,
He finally reaches the old farmstead;
But, in his arms, the child was dead.

Translated from the German by Emily Carpenter

Der Erlkönig

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

‘Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?’ —
‘Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?’ —
‘Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.’

‘Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel' ich mit dir;
Manch' bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.’ —

‘Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?’ —
‘Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.’ —

‘Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.’ —

‘Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?’ —
‘Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. —’

‘Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.’ —
‘Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!’ —

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh' und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translation commentary

Part of my reason for choosing to translate this poem was that, while it succeeds in being both beautiful and touching, it nevertheless contains relatively simple language. I read the poem during a German lesson and was rather dissatisfied with the translation printed next to it, as it seemed to me to fail to capture the poem well in English. Naturally, several of the German phrases do not translate well into English if they are taken too literally, so at points my translation does not entirely match the factual content of the poem in every detail. However, with this particular poem I felt that I wanted to try to retain the metre and rhyme scheme as much as possible. The forceful metre of Goethe’s poem helps to create a sense of the movement and also gives the outcome of the poem an added blow, as the steady, rhythmic verse in fact leads to a very tragic conclusion. The rhyme scheme has a similar effect in misleading the reader into a sense of security, and I attempted to preserve this as well. Of course, I did not keep the same rhyming sounds as the German words, as that would have restricted the translation too much, but I did maintain the same regular pattern as the original throughout. Both the metre and the rhyme scheme of Goethe’s verse lend the poem its essential childlike quality, and, as the poem’s inspiration came originally from Danish folk tales, I felt that these things ought to be kept intact in my translation. This of course made it a little harder to keep the meaning of certain lines entirely unchanged, but I feel that I have created a sensible balance between upholding the integrity of the meaning and also capturing the mood of the poem.

Emily Carpenter