Poetry Monthly Press, 2006 - £3.95
Mary Johnstone’s Smaa Spangs (Deutsch to Doric) is a chapbook collection of her translations from German into Doric (the Scots of the North East) of 15 poems from the German Lieder tradition. It comes accompanied by a CD of Johnstone reading and, on occasion, singing her versions of the poems, and at £3.95 for the pair, it’s an attractive package. Those who read German may find the inaccuracies with original titles on the contents page slightly bothersome, but this doesn’t detract from the pleasure in the translations.
Ten of the poems in the book deal with love, nature and folk tales. The other five are Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), chosen by the composer Gustav Mahler for his song cycle from an original group of 425 poems written by Friedrich Rückert after the death of two of his own children. Once I came across Johnstone’s Doric versions of these poems in Smaa Sangs, I was so drawn in that the other poems, pleasant enough in themselves, just couldn’t hold my interest.
Mahler set these five of Rückert’s poems as Lieder. Though affecting in any language, they can come across as overly sentimental. Mary Johnstone’s translations are nicely handled, however. In particular, ‘Fen yer Mammy’ (‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’) and ‘In iss Wedder’ (‘In diesem Wetter’) work beautifully in the Doric, which gives them an ease and natural flow, a moving simplicity not always found in English versions. I quote the first half of ‘In iss Wedder’. Get hold of a copy of this collection to see how it ends.
In iss wedder, iss bowstry wedder,
I wid niver hae let e bairnies oot;
somebody his tyced em awa:
I’d nae say in it.
In iss wedder, iss yowlin wedder
I wid niver hae let e bairnies oot,
I’d be feart they’d faa nae weel:
fit eese thinking aat noo.
The Common Reader says of Smaa Spangs:
If a recording of poems is produced to accompany a collection, then this is the way to do it. The CD is tucked neatly inside the back cover and it’s held in place with an adhesive strip so there’s less chance of the pamphlet and CD being separated. The title of each poem is read aloud and every poem is on the CD so it’s fairly easy to read and listen at the same time. This is the first time I’ve come across Doric and I think without the CD I might have struggled to know how to pronounce the words. Doric isn’t that hard to understand but for difficult words there is a glossary.
Johnston’s voice is a joy to listen to and ‘Feal Spring’, the first poem, was so soothing to listen to that I actually felt very comforted by the words:
Noo sair hert, dinna be vext,
aathin noo maan be mendit,
aathin maan be mendit.
‘Aside e Sea’ had a sing-song lilt about it so I wasn’t really surprised to find ‘Hedder Rosikie’ actually was a song, sung in a clear, sweet voice. Johnston’s poems are not just read they are performed beautifully and with great emotion. She writes on the back cover “There is a music in the Doric I hope readers will hear”. Read and listen to Mary Johnstone. You will hear the music.