Tuesday, January 10, 2006

conjugated Were-wolves

In my last post I made passing reference to were-wolves. And it reminded me of an apparantly un-translateable poem in German playing on the different tenses of 'were' in relation to wolves.
Here for fans of Christian Morgenstern's poetry is 'The Werewolf', first in English, and then for the bilingual purist, in German for easy comparison.


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.


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.

This translation is Copyright © 1957 & 1989
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.


Lynette Adams said...

Interesting translation, considering the English talks about the absence of his future tense, whereas the German talks about the absence of his plural form. In both cases, however, the fact that he has a family proves the linguistic issues to have no basis in reality.

Honza said...

Forget philology, what about physiology? Anatomically, a werewolf should'nt be able to speak in German OR English. The jaw shape is wrong, the teeth would get in the way and the tongue is way too long! If he didn't speak with a terrible lisp (with lots of dribbling), he would, at best, speak like Scooby-Doo! A werewolf would be better off learning a language with many vowels and few consonants, a Polynesian language for instance. Or, as an alternative, perhaps Xhosa, which can be reduced (in basic form) to a series of clicking sounds, which could be made by knocking those teeth together...