Der Werwolf

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.

Der Werwolf

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:

The Werewolf

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
Hypostasized contingency?

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):

The Werewolf

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.

21 Responses to “Der Werwolf”

  1. Q. Pheevr Says:

    Here’s an attempt at a more literal translation—one that’s probably pointless, as the reader still needs to know German to get the joke:

    A Werwolf, ‘neath the silvery moon,
    Left his wife and cub so tiny,
    Sought out a German teacher’s tomb,
    And bade him: “Please, decline me!”

    The teacher then exhumed himself
    And, perching on his tombstone’s shelf,
    Addressed the wolf, who sat and listened
    With folded paws and eyes that glistened.

    Der Werwolf: the citation form.
    Des Weswolfs: genitive, as per norm.
    Dem Wemwolf is the dative, then
    Den Wenwolf (acc.), and that’s the end.”

    The Werwolf relished this declension,
    But still he sat in rapt attention:
    “The singular is well and good,
    But now the plural, if you would?”

    The teacher sighed and shook his head,
    So lately roused from righteous slumber,
    For wolves are plenteous, he said,
    But wer is always sing. in number.

    The Werwolf now was blind with tears.
    Of wife and cub was he bereft?
    But, still polite despite his fears,
    He thanked the teacher ere he left.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Q. Pheevr [well-known eggcornologist, and blogger on the livejournal A Roguish Chrestomathy: the pultaceous wisdom of a word weevil]: Something your translation gets that the other three don’t is the invariant singular number of the German interrogative wer — which is entirely parallel to the English invariant-singular interrogative who (but not the relative who, which goes with singular or plural verb forms, depending on the sense).

    Things like “Who were at the party?” and “I don’t know who were at the party” do occur, but they’re clearly non-standard usages, or inadvertent errors.

  3. Stephen P. Gross Says:

    Here is a condensed summary true to the playful spirit of Morgenstern.

    THE WHEREWOLF, by Stephen P. Gross

    A schoolmaster’s ghost sat on a tomb,
    Queried a werewolf at full of the moon,
    “Where wolf? What wolf? How’ll
    Whose Wolf play a plural rôle?
    Which wolf does en español?”
    When Wolf slunk in tears, forlorn,
    To Whom wolf’s wife and kids at home.

  4. Paul Says:

    Thanks for the convincing demonstration that Morgenstern’s delicious fun cannot be successfully rendered in English. Q. Pheevre alone succeeds because he translates the translatable and leaves the joke well wnough alone. In that case, however, why bother?

  5. Werewolf Words | Wordnik ~ all the words Says:

    […] For even more shapeshifters, check out this list, and this one for more dogs in myth. You’ll like this list for words on transformation, and this one, this one, and this one for words about the moon. Finally, Arnold Zwicky compares three diffferent translations for Der Werewolf, a German poem. […]

  6. Bob Richmond Says:

    There’s another translation that transforms the werewolf into a hoopoe (and a whosepoe, and a whompoe). See

  7. Bob Richmond Says:

    Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) is my favorite German comic poet. In 1967 – when lasers had just come on the scene and holography was much in vogue, I wrote this poem in imitation of a Morgensgtern ‘Korf’ poem.


    He invents the holopornogram.
    Scanning his beloved with a laser,
    he preserves his momentary pleasure
    in a Kodak holophotogram.

    Through customs, Boston, even the post office
    carrying this wholly blameless surface,
    he conveys her interference fringes
    (furtively. Perhaps his conscience twinges.)

    Alone, he views her image by projection,
    cuts it apart to still-whole fragments, finally
    snipping her down to nothing but convention,
    his coherent Holopornophyrne.

  8. Will Fitzgerald (@willf) Says:

    Here’s the text of The Hoopoe:

    One night, a hoopoe left his tree,
    His wife and child, and, when he found
    A Boardschool Master’s burial-ground,
    Begged: “Would you mind inflecting me?”

    The Boardschool Master, with a ssob,
    Mounted his tinplate tablet-knob.
    The hoopoe crossing patiently
    His wings before the dead man, he

    Said, “Whopoe, the subjective case;
    Posessive, in the second place,
    Whosepoe’s; objective, as they call
    It, whompoe; well, and that is all.

    The hoopoe, flattered by the grammar,
    His eyeballs rolling, then did stammer:
    “If now the plural you would add,
    I should feel singularly glad.”

    The Boardschool Master owned, however,
    He had not heard of such things, never!
    He know, quite numerous poes are,
    But “who?” that’s always singular.

    The hoopoe rose, with tears defiled,
    (If he had but no wife and child!)
    Yet, being no professor, went
    Away with thanks, if not content.

    A.E.W Eitzen

  9. Will Fitzgerald (@willf) Says:

    And Google translate doesn’t do half-bad:

    A werewolf one night escaped
    from wife and child and went
    at a village school teacher grave
    and asked him: “Please, I bow!”

    The village schoolmaster went up
    on his tin plate brass knob
    and said to the wolf’s paws
    patiently crossed in front of the dead:

    “The Werewolf,” said the good man,
    “The Weswolfs, then genitive
    the Wemwolf, dative, as mans calls
    the Wenwolf, -. so that one end hats ”

    The werewolf flattered the cases
    He rolled his eyeballs.
    “” Meanwhile, he asked, “but add
    singular to the plural still! ”

    The village schoolmaster, but had
    , confess that he knew nothing of it.
    Although wolves were in great company,
    but “Who” would be only in the singular.

    The wolf stood up blind with tears,
    but he had a wife and child!
    But since he is no scholar, just,
    he retired and give thanks.

  10. Cartoon 2: Homonym Vampire « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I feel like I could do some more work with linguistics/grammar jokes and supernatural creatures. Like exploring the family tree of the Interrogative Wherewolf: the Whenwolf, the Whatwolf, the Whowolf, the Whichwolf, and the lesser-known Whitherwolf (among others). [see "Der Werwolf", here] […]

  11. Monster Mash « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] been in this neighborhood before, in a posting on Christian Morgenstern’s poem Der Werwolf, which plays on the identity of the element Wer- […]

  12. Ariana Says:

    Hi Arnold,

    I’ve just come across your collection of translations of “Der Werwolf”. I know another one you might be interested in, where the werewolf is turned into a banshee:

    CHRISTIAN MORGENSTERN: The Banshee (An Approach)
    Translation by Max Knight

    One night, a banshee slunk away
    from mate and child, and in the gloom
    went to a village teacher’s tomb,
    requesting him: “Inflect me, pray.”

    The village teacher climbed up straight
    upon his grave stone with its plate
    and to the apparition said
    who meekly knelt before the dead:

    “The banSHEE, in the subject’s place;
    the banHERS, the possessive case.
    The banHER, next, is what they call
    objective case–and that is all.”

    The banshee marveled at the cases
    and writhed with pleasure, making faces,
    but said: “You did not add, so far,
    the plural to the singular!”

    The teacher, though, admitted then
    that this was not within his ken.
    “While bans are frequent”, he advised,
    “A she cannot be plurized.”

    The banshee, rising clammily,
    wailed: “What about my family?”
    Then, being not a learned creature,
    said humbly “Thanks” and left the teacher.


  13. Sérgio Corrêa de Siqueira Says:

    First, let me congratulate you on your work. I´ve heard the poem for the first time when was about half my actual age – 27, then – from a German girlfriend. As a Brazilian, I find the poem utterly untranslatable in Portuguese, or any other Latin language.The same thing happens when someone tries to render in Portuguese “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, by Lewis Carroll.
    Of all the English versions, I´ve found Gary Bachlund´s the funniest (and least precise), Gross´s precise but flat, and Lettvin´s the middle term.
    And as this is obviously the subject, what about the precise ethimology of werewolf?

  14. Bob Richmond Says:

    I thought I remembered something like this! Particularly since I contributed to it myself.

  15. Episode 19: A Few Good Werewolves – Ask a Medievalist Says:

    […] Concerning the etymology of werewolf, I wish to direct everyone’s attention to this poem by Christian Morgenstern, translated by Jerome Lettvin: […]

  16. Tony Percy Says:

    There is also the translation by R. F. C. Hull that appeared in one of the volumes of the Penguin ‘Comic and Curious Verse’. I could reproduce it here, if anyone is interested.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden Says:

    Now where have I heard of Jerome Lettvin before?, I thought on reading this post. Ah, right, he worked with Humberto Maturana and introduced the term “grandmother neurone” for a neurone that fires when you see a picture of your grandmother.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes indeed: Jerry Lettvin (1920-2011), [from the Wikipedia article, which is worth looking at in full] “American cognitive scientist, and Professor of Electrical and Bioengineering and Communications Physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)” — polymathic, contentious, intellectually contrarian, compassionate, enormously funny, and a genial supporter of the younger generation (including me).

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