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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, commended

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Ken Cockburn


My diminutive wife
had crossed the tracks
to accost a stranger.
My kingdom for a horse, I thought,
and jumped into the car. But there and then
someone followed me, and behind him
another, and soon they were coming
out of the fog in an endless procession,
headlight to taillight, blazing with grief as
a stranger on the other side of the tracks
was breaking up their marriage, and bellowing
with fury at being unable even to hear
the constant moaning, twelve thousand
this one night between Osterholz-Scharmbeck
and Bremen. I bared my teeth,
my bullbars; the traffic ground
to a halt, the cows, as dawn approached,
stood slightly off the ground.
But you just lay there, asleep.
And on your collarbone I could see putt-putting
the artery of innocence.

Translated from the German
by Ken Cockburn



Meine kleine Frau
war über die Gleise gegangen,
um einen fremden Mann anzufassen.
Ein Königreich für ein Pferd, dachte ich,
und warf mich ins Auto. Doch hinter mir her
sofort ein andrer, den wieder ein andrer,
verfolgt, verfolgte, und schon kamen sie
quer durch den Nebel, in endloser Reihe,
Lichtauge an -auge, und blinkten vor Trauer,
weil ihnen ein fremder Mann hinter den Gleisen
die Ehe zerstörte, und röhrten vor Zorn,
nicht auch noch das dauernde Stöhnen zu hören,
in dieser Nacht zwischen Osterholz-Scharmbeck
und Bremen zwölftausend, ich fletschte die Zähne,
Stoßstangentiere; da brach der Verkehr
zusammen, gen Morgen die Nebel
leckten das Gras ab, die Kühe
standen ein Stück in der Luft.
Du aber lagst da und schliefst.
Auf deinem Schlüsselbein sah ich
das Äderchen der Unschuld tuckern.

Thomas Rosenlöcher

Reproduced by kind permission of Suhrkamp Verlag

Translation commentary

I have translated Rosenlöcher's poems since 2005, but came across this poem only recently, in a 2012 collection. Like much of his work, it blurs the real and imagined. I like its tragi-comedy, its mix of melodrama and pain, and its humorous, self-deprecating resolution.

The original, 21 lines long, is written in free verse; the line-lengths grow longer until line 14, then shorten again. The English broadly but inconsistently follows this pattern; in English the opening lines are shorter than in German, the closing lines longer, as I preferred conveying accurately the meaning of the lines in what is I hope idiomatic English.

The poem consists of five sentences; four are short and syntactically straightforward, while one (lines 5 to 18) contains the poem's main narrative and drama. I have retained these, only shuffling some images in the main sentence to help the English flow.

Line 1 describes the wife as small, little, short; 'diminutive' is a more complex word, but I felt carries the sense of the original less clumsily than shorter alternatives. The German in line 4 reads literally 'a kingdom for a horse', which (according to Google) is common in German, but it's less so in English, so I have retained the Shakespearian 'my'.

The original ends with the dynamism of a verb ('tuckern' / 'putt-putting'). I could have replicated this in English ('the artery of innocence putt-putting'); and as it stands the penultimate line in English is (at 12 syllables) one of the longest in the poem. Nonetheless I felt the translation ended more strongly on 'innocence', and that the impact of the last line was enhanced by its brevity, so decided against extending it simply better to match the German measures.

Ken Cockburn