Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Bumpety Bump rider

Illustration by Piia Rossi

For this week’s meeting of the Trailing Spouses Group, we were asked to look at the theme of frustration. I had written this post a while back with the spouses in mind, but frustratingly enough, could never seem to finish it. 

“Hoppe Hoppe Reiter” is a traditional German children’s nursery rhyme, which is as morbid as it is fascinating. Its verses tell the tale of a rider, and the various grim fates that could befall him. He could fall from his horse and what then? He could land in the swamp, give himself a scare by falling into the hedge or worse, be eaten up by ravens. It is a nursery rhyme that is full of what ifs?

Here is the original version :
Hoppe Hoppe Reiter
Wenn er fällt, dann Schreit er
Fällt er in die Graben
Fressen Ihn die Raben
Fällt er in den Sumpf
Macht der Reiter Plumps

And my rough translation

Bumpety Bump rider
If he falls, then he hollers
If he falls in the ditch
Then ravens will gobble him up
If he falls into a bog
Then he will land with a squelch

Bringing up children in Germany, this song has become more familiar to me than the nursery rhymes from my own childhood, and for my children it is certainly more culturally and linguistically relevant than “This is the way the lady rides”, for example. 

It is a “kniereitvers” which literally translated means, “ knee-ride-verse”, so the child sits on the knee, and at the conclusion of the song, the fall, you let the child “drop” between you knees. Children, of course, can’t get enough of it. They love the tummy turning thrill of being dropped, knowing that they will be caught before they really fall. 

For me, though, with its vivid descriptions of bumpy courses, pitfalls, failures and uncertainties, it strikes a chord.
I am not worried about being eaten by ravens when I step out of my front door, but, I still feel, after living in a foreign country for over ten years that I could easily fall on my face by saying the wrong word in German, cannot apply for a particular job because my qualifications are not recognised, and could offend someone by not addressing them formally enough. It probably won’t happen, it is probably just in my head, but it could. As the songs suggest, the dangers are ever present.

I looked up how other people had translated the song into English on the Internet.

What a difference there is between these three interpretations of the same line:
If he falls, then he shouts

If he falls he will be crying

If he falls, then he cries out

The first interpretation suggests defiance, the second defeat and the third a cry for help All valid responses to the topic of frustration and I have probably reacted in all three ways before!

When you come to a new country, I think the most frustrating thing to deal with is learning a new language. Even though I have been here for 10 years, I still need Klaus to check my emails and invoices for mistakes so that I feel I will be taken “seriously”.  I find this hugely frustrating to be dependent on another person in this way. It was my choice, though, to come to Germany but I can imagine the frustration of those who have come here for economic reasons or as a trailing spouse and are struggling to understand the basics.

In translation, there is an attempt to get close to the essence of the language. For me, this nursery rhyme serves as metaphor for the attempt to achieve closeness, not just to a language but also to a culture and way of life, and the pitfalls and possible frustrations that accompany it. But as the simple driving and repetitive tune implies, after falling on your face there’s no alternative but to get back up ‘on your horse’, even though you’ll likely be downed again at the next hurdle and so on, like a comical sketch.

If you can get over the frustration though, there are rewards.  Novels and music and nursery rhymes await you, and you can express some things in German that you can’t in English, which is why a lot of ex-pats speak Denglisch, a mixture of both. But for me, the litmus test of German proficiency is not at your local Goethe Institute but at your local bakery. These ladies guard their wares like linguistic sentries; any slip or wrongly pronounced nuance will be met by a merciless response.
“a what?” then a long protracted silence accompanied by a withering expression that quashes any confidence you ever had in your ability to speak German, even if you have lived there for half your life. This exchange can go on for ten minutes or more, as you are forced to repeat the same word over and over again in front of an ever growing queue of impatient customers, until begrudgingly the baker lady hands over your roll. Eat your heart out, Goethe (or your croissant), these are the true bastions of the German language.


  1. Great post Catherine, you really get it exactly as it is!

  2. Hmmm. Though I work with a lot of people (blokes mainly, funny that) who often work in either very bad German as English native speakers, or bad English as German native speakers. It seems a large dose of arrogance and an unfailing belief that you are brilliant in your job - even if you sound a bit like an idiot- can work wonders.

  3. Hi Piia, I am glad you liked it and thank you for passing it onto the other trailing spouses!

  4. Hi Kate, this is very true. It is not just language that stops us, but our own confidence or lack of it. Recommend 2 tablespoonfuls arrogance, one teaspoonful belief 2 times a day for starters. x

  5. I used to use this as the translation:
    Clippety clop goes the rider
    If he falls, he cries out
    If he falls into the ditch
    The ravens they will eat him
    If he falls into the swamp
    The rider he goes plomp!