Having mentioned Christian Morgenstern‘s werewolf poem in a comment on a recent posting, I thought I’d pass it on to readers, with a few comments. First, the German text, from Alexander Gross’s website. The poem takes off from the fact that the first element of Werwolf ‘werewolf’ is (accidentally) homophonous with the interrogative pronoun wer, which is declinable, with distinct forms for each of the four grammatical cases in German — a feature that is sometimes thought to make the poem “untranslatable”. But just as many people have taken up the challenge of translating Lewis Carroll into other languages, so Morgenstern has drawn translators; three approaches will follow.
Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib und Kind und sich begab
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab
und bat ihn: »Bitte, beuge mich!«
Der Dorfschulmeister stieg hinauf
auf seines Blechschilds Messingknauf
und sprach zum Wolf, der seine Pfoten
geduldig kreuzte vor dem Toten:
»Der Werwolf«, sprach der gute Mann,
»des Weswolfs, Genitiv sodann,
dem Wemwolf, Dativ, wie mans nennt,
den Wenwolf, — damit hats ein End.«
Dem Werwolf schmeichelten die Fälle,
er rollte seine Augenbälle.
»Indessen«, bat er, »füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!«
Der Dorfschulmeister aber mußte
gestehn, dass er von ihr nichts wußte.
Zwar Wölfe gäbs in grosser Schar,
doch »Wer« gäbs nur im Singular.
Der Wolf erhob sich tränenblind–
er hatte ja doch Weib und Kind!
Doch da er kein Gelehrter eben,
so schied er dankend und ergeben.
Gross’s English translation:
A Werewolf, troubled by his name,
Left wife and brood one night and came
To a hidden graveyard to enlist
The aid of a long-dead philologist.
“Oh sage, wake up, please don’t berate me,”
He howled sadly, “Just conjugate me.”
The seer arose a bit unsteady
Yawned twice, wheezed once, and then was ready.
“Well, ‘Werewolf’ is your plural past,
While ‘Waswolf’ is singularly cast:
There’s ‘Amwolf’ too, the present tense,
And ‘Iswolf,’ ‘Arewolf’ in this same sense.”
“I know that–I’m no mental cripple–
The future form and participle
Are what I crave,” the beast replied.
The scholar paused–again he tried:
“A ‘Will-be-wolf?’ It’s just too long:
‘Shall-be-wolf?’ ‘Has-been-wolf?’ Utterly wrong!
Such words are wounds beyond all suture–
I’m sorry, but you have no future.”
The Werewolf knew better–his sons still slept
At home, and homewards now he crept,
Happy, humble, without apology
For such folly of philology.
A translation by Jerome Lettvin (from the literary review the fat abbot, number 4, Fall-Winter 1962 — I actually have an original of this one):
Ontology Recapitulates Philology
One night, a werewolf, having dined,
Left his wife to clean the cave
And visited a scholar’s grave –
Asking “How am I declined?”
Whatever way the case was pressed
The ghost could not decline his guest,
But told the wolf (who’d been well-bred
And crossed his paws before the dead).
“The Iswolf, so we may commence,
the Waswolf, simple past in tense,
the Beenwolf, perfect, so construed,
the Werewolf is subjunctive mood.”
The werewolf’s teeth with thanks were bright,
But, mitigating his delight,
There rose the thought, how could one be
The ghost observed that few could live,
If werewolves were indicative;
Whereat his guest perceived the role
Of Individual in the Whole.
Condition contrary to fact,
A single werewolf Being lacked –
But in his conjugation showed
The full existence, a la mode.
A rhymed paraphrase by Gary Bachlund, who set the piece to music (here):
One night a Were-wolf slipped away
From his Were-wife and his Were-wolf child,
To the grave of a rotten schoolmaster
To decline himself as noun-beguiled.
Ghost-like gray the schoolmaster rose
From out of the gravestone’s head,
And spoke to the Wolf, crossed paws suppose
To beseech a philologist long dead:
“The Were-wolf,” spoke the spirited man,
“Of the Were-wolf, in the genitive penned,
To the Were-wolf, is the dative scan,
And objective, a Were-wolf; that’s the end.”
Such cases flattered the wolf called Were,
Its Were-wolf eyeballs rolling widely wide.
“However tense, all remains a blur;
What’s singular? What’s plural?” he cried.
Alas the corrupted schoolmaster confessed
“Incorruptible are most grammatical rules.
While wolves is plural, as you’ve guessed,
Wolf is singular, in most of our grammar schools.”
With this, the Were-wolf howled and cried,
“I am not singular! I’ve a wife and child!”
And so the Were-wolf rushed home to bride
And Were-wolf child, tensely reconciled.