Jerry Lettvin was brilliant in so many areas that listening to him was akin to looking at stars on a particularly clear night. I had occasion to experience his brilliance in an unexpected way when, as a young graduate student, I published a translation of his in a literary magazine that I edited for a short while. (For those keeping score, the name of the journal was The Fat Abbot.)
The poem was by the German poet Christian Morgenstern. To most readers who had a working knowledge of German this poem would have seemed untranslatable. It certainly did to me. To Jerry it was something quite different. The poem is called Der Werwolf.
Here is the poem, my literal translation, and Jerry’s incredible tour de force:
Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib and Kind, und sich begab
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab
and 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.”
Der Werwolf schmeichelten der Fälle,
er rollte sein Augenbälle.
“Indessen,” bat er, “füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!”
Der Dorschulmeister aber musste
gestehn, dass er von ihr nichts wusste.
Zwar Wölfe 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.
A literal translation of the poem goes like this:
One night a Werwolf escaped
from his wife and child and went
to the grave of a village schoolmaster
and said to him, “Please decline me.”
The village schoolmaster climbed up
on the brass pommel of his tin nameplate
and said to the Wolf, who patiently
crossed his paws before the dead man:
“The Werwolf,” said the good man,
“the Werwolf’s, genitive then,
to the Werwolf, dative, as it is called,
the Werwolf, --there is an end to it.”
The cases flattered the Werwolf,
who rolled his eyeballs.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “add
the plural to the singular!”
The village schoolmaster however had
to confess that he did not know it.
While wolves may occur in large troops,
still “Wer” occurs only in the singular.
The wolf got up blind with tears--
he had after all a wife and child!
However, since he was no scholar,
he departed thankful and submissively.
The word play around which this poem turns is, of course, the homonymic relationship between the German interrogative pronoun “wer” meaning “who” and the first syllable of “werwolf” from Latin “vir” meaning “man.” The word refers to the mythical creature of the same name in English, the “werwolf.” In Morgenstern’s poem the werwolf is whimsically assumed to have the properties that arise from the first syllable of his name. It is a sophisticated grammatical pun that pretends that the werewolf is a creature of its name; literally, a “whowolf.” Having a wife and child, the “whowolf” wishes to be declined. He is, after all, a creature in a language in which declination is critical. Morgenstern, in the guise of the village schoolmaster, takes him through the singular cases only to disappoint the werwolf when it comes to the plural since, in German, “wer” has no plural declination. The werwolf is tearful but thankful.
Now ask yourself: How can this poem possibly be translated into English? My literal translation misses the point completely since the grammatical joke that drives the poem in German does not exist in English. One might even go so far as to say that Morgenstern’s Der Werwolf shows that translation is theoretically impossible. Not so fast, was Jerry’s response. Here is how he solved the problem:
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;
whereas 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.
Jerry’s version plays with the homonymity of the first syllable of “werwolf” and the subjective form of the verb “to be,” ie. “were.” For the benefit of his readers Jerry turned himself into an English Morgenstern.
That is not an easy thing to do.
Samuel Jay Keyser
May 19, 2011