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by michwo 

Posted: 29 October 2017
Word Count: 245
Summary: A translation by me of a ballad by Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884), a scholarly German from Lübeck.

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It made Mary Stuart tremble
When, through a secret door, late,
Bothwell came without preamble,
Loud to avow an act of hate.
Her pretty face, drained, lifeless now,
She twisted like a woman scorned.
He wiped the sweat from off his brow
And claimed the deed to have performed.
“I killed him for a mouth like yours
Was not fashioned for his kisses.
Tonight, as town clocks struck eight hours,
Darnley’s body proved my wishes.”
She cried out then:  “God forgive a
Sinner!  Take all my gold and flee!”
Then he laughed.  It made her shiver:
“What good is gold for blood to me?
I love you well, and if in hell
I must my crime awhile atone,
It’s just for you my soul I’d sell,
My fairest devil, you alone.
The hand that can a king strike down
Can, after his death, take his queen.”
It seemed to Mary that her crown
She’d forfeited, her own death seen.
He lifted her.  She had not bled
Though through her flesh his armour bit.
Her hair over her shoulders spread
As out towards his horse they lit.
He placed a ring upon her hand
And seated her upon his steed.
While storm clouds raced above the land
Of Dunbar Castle they had need.
The night was black as if each star
Had ceased to shine they knew not why
And now and then a lightning far
Like blade of axe flashed through the sky.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 22:10 on 30 October 2017  Report this post
Hello Michael – As soon as I read your poem about Mary Stuart and Bothwell, I digressed in a big way. Since this is a story from Scottish history, I wanted to translate it into Scots. I know you are a remarkable linguist and interested in language generally, and you may already know this, but Scots was from the 13th until the 18th century one of two major languages in Scotland, the other being Gaelic. It was the language of government, the law courts, the church, the Royal court when there was one, and the people of the Southern and Eastern lowlands. I’m sure you know there’s a long ballad tradition in the language too, including accounts of historical events. 
Of course, as I’m not a good translator I got bogged down very quickly. The last stanza seemed to lend itself best to the Scots, and I managed that much.
The night was black as if each star
Had ceased to shine they knew not why
And now and then a lightning far
Like blade of axe flashed through the sky.
The nicht wes mirk’s if ilka starn
Had stint its leam they kentna why
An whiles a blent o fire-flaucht far
Like claymore bled glenced owre the sky.
Key words
mirk – dark
ilka – each
stint – cease
leam – glow
blent – flash
fire-flaucht – lightning
claymore – heavy two-edged sword
bled - blade
glenced – flashed
‘Sky’ – the common Scots word for sky was lift, cognate with German Luft, but it would have spoiled the rhyme.
As a linguist I’m sure you will understand that Scots is not a dialect of English, but a sister language, differing from English to about the same extent as West Frisian differs.
Well, that was a digression! I hope it will be of some interest to you, and I solemnly promise to comment on the poem very soon.

Cliff Hanger at 11:06 on 31 October 2017  Report this post

An whiles a blent o fire-flaucht far

That's so very beautiful. I have a couple of poems that I would really like to be in Scots but I just don't have the wherewithall. If you decide to translate this one Michael, and you enjoy it, perhaps you could help me out there.



michwo at 19:37 on 31 October 2017  Report this post
Thanks for massaging my ego, Jane, as if it needed massaging, but there's a big difference for me as a native speaker of standard English translating into French, which I can more or less manage to do, but French to English is much easier for me, I have to say, and Standard English  into the language of Robbie Burns.  James Graham would be the person to turn to for that for sure.

michwo at 19:41 on 31 October 2017  Report this post
I know someone whose birthday falls on Burns Night, James.
He's Algerian and a devout Muslim.  I'm not sure if haggis is regarded as halal to be honest.

Dave Morehouse at 16:26 on 01 November 2017  Report this post
May I say, "Well done!" all around? My greatest hurdle has always been translating English to English. blush I stand in awe at the skill you both possess. 


James Graham at 21:45 on 01 November 2017  Report this post
First of all, it’s interesting that a German poet should have written about Mary Stuart – and in ballad form too. But of course her life and death inspired others too, notably Schiller in his great play Maria Stuart, which I’ve seen on stage and will never forget.
I like the way the poem ends, apparently turning away from the two protagonists and describing a starless, stormy night, but using these to anticipate Mary’s downfall and death. The lightning ‘like  blade of axe’ of course points to her execution. For me, Mary is a prime example of the often cruelly flawed monarchical system, her life constricted by the need to maintain the hereditary power of the Stuart family, packed off to the French court in early childhood, forced to submit to arranged marriage, etc. Reading this version of the Bothwell-Darnley episode, I’m more than ever saddened by Mary’s fate.
The poem takes us quite dramatically through the aftermath of the murder of Darnley. I’m not sure that the events took place exactly as described, Bothwell abducting Mary almost immediately after the murder; but the ballad-writer is allowed some poetic licence. As far as I can tell, Michael, your translation captures  the drama pretty well, and the poem reads smoothly and rhymes naturally. With a couple of minor exceptions, I see no need to interfere.
The fourth stanza made me pause a moment. The rhythm of the second line would be smoother if it read:
Sinner!  Take my gold and flee!
The poem is in the traditional ballad tetrameter, but in this line ‘all’ adds an extra, quite emphatic, syllable. I thought the following line could be improved by replacing ‘then’ with something that adds a little meaning:
He merely laughed.  It made her shiver
That’s all. A good read, and not at all out of line with the Scottish ballad tradition.

James Graham at 21:59 on 01 November 2017  Report this post
P.S. A gentle reproof, apropos a previous comment. English people, and Americans, often refer to Burns as 'Robbie'. His friends and acquaintances would never have called him that. Rab, most likely; occasionally Rabbie - the latter usually in a humorous tone. Never Robbie. (Some Scots do it too.)


michwo at 13:55 on 02 November 2017  Report this post
There's another 1851 ballad in German by Theodor Fontane, better know as a novelist for "Effi Briest", entitled "Maria und Bothwell" in which Mary Stuart thanks Bothwell for getting rid of her troublesome husband Darnley .  She comes over as a seductive temptress too in a Robert Walser short story entitled "Kerkerszene" ("Dungeon Scene") which is set the night before her execution in 1587.  A young man called Mortimer comes to visit her, obviously smitten.  Maybe she gets a mention in "Fire over England", a  1936 novel by A.E.W. Mason which was made into a film only a year or so after its first appearance in print.  I've been lapping up both "Gunpowder" on Saturday nights on BBC1 and "Elizabeth I's Secret Agents" on BBC2 on Monday nights at 9 pm.  The first episode of the latter was all about Mary Queen of Scots and how annoyed Elizabeth was with William Cecil for doing the necessary after the Babbington plot was brought to light and Mary was shown to have consented to treason.  It's all very 'cloak and dagger' I have to say.

James Graham at 16:53 on 03 November 2017  Report this post
Sounds as if Mary has been romanticised, caricatured even, especially in that Robert Walser story if she’s portrayed as a seductive temptress. A  male writer can have a lot of fun turning a female historical figure into one of those. Haven’t read the story, though, and this may be too harsh. I like Geibel’s poem, though, which may be somewhat fictionalised but doesn’t diminish the real Mary Stuart. Her life was indeed full of cloak and dagger stuff, but it was a life she didn’t choose.


Cliff Hanger at 17:38 on 03 November 2017  Report this post
A somewhat tragic finale but also displaying her defiant attitude until the end (wig and little dog). I wonder if any women have written poems about her. They may be framed somewhat differently (perhaps not). What jumps to my mind straight away is her relationship with Elizabeth (another woman whose life was all about survival through image making).


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