Ulrich Flemming's website > KrautBlog > Christian Morgenstern, Humorist

Christian Morgenstern: Four Poems

Note that what the Germans call a Nachdichtung takes liberties with the original to preserve its meter and rhyme scheme, or deviates in other ways from a literal translation to stay closer to the tone or spirit of the original.

© 2015 Ulrich Flemming for the translations

Der Hecht (The Pike)

German Original (1905)


Literal Translation

Ein Hecht, vom heiligen Anton
bekehrt, beschloß, samt Frau und Sohn,
am vegetarischen Gedanken
moralisch sich emporzuranken.

Er aß seit jenem nur noch dies:
Seegras, Seerose und Seegrieß.
Doch Grieß, Gras, Rose floß, o Graus,
entsetzlich wieder hinten aus.

Der ganze Teich ward angesteckt.
Fünfhundert Fische sind verreckt.
Doch Sankt Anton, gerufen eilig,
sprach nichts als: "Heilig! heilig! heilig!"

Converted by St. Anthony
a pike and all his family
embraced with moralistic zeal
the vegetarian ideal.

Henceforth the pike would only eat
sea grass, sea roses, and sea wheat.
But wheat, grass, rose did reappear
abominably from his rear.

The pond turned wholly poisonous.
Five hundred fishes perished thus.
But Anthony, called in distress,
said nothing but, "God bless! God bless!"

A pike, converted by St. Anthony,
decided, together with wive and son,
to climb upwards morally
along the vegetarian idea.

He ate from then on only this:
Sea grass, sea rose1, and sea grits.
But grits, grass, rose flowed, oh horror,
out again appallingly from behind.

The whole pond was infected.
Five hundred fishes croaked.
But St. Anthony, called hurriedly,
spoke nothing but, "Holy, holy, holy!"2

Christian Morgenstern: Alle Galgenlieder. Insel Taschenbuch 6 (1976) p51

1A water lily is called a Seerose (sea rose) in German. Seegrieß does not exist—after all, Grieß (grits) is a milled product. Morgenstern invents the plant following the naming pattern established by Seegras and Seerose.
2In the sense of a blessing. Note also that there is a hymn starting "Heilig, heilig, heilig/heilig ist der Herr." (Holy, holy, holy/holy is the Lord.)

Die beiden Esel (The Two Asses)

As I said in the post on my blog, one source of inspiration for Morgenstern were figures of speech that he took literally. A translation of a poem created this way would make sense only if there were a similar phrase in the target language—otherwise, the whole point would be lost. I found such a rare coincidence in the present poem: A dummer Esel in German is literally and figuratively the same as a "dumb ass" in English. And so, here's my attempt to translate Morgenstern's Die beiden Esel.

German Original (1905)


Literal Translation

Ein finstrer Esel sprach einmal
zu seinem ehlichen Gemahl:

"Ich bin so dumm, du bist so dumm
wir wollen sterben gehen, kumm!1"

Doch wie es kommt so öfter eben:
Die beiden blieben fröhlich leben.

Not too enchanted with his life,
an ass once told his lawful wife,

"I am so dumb, you are so dumb,
the two of us should die now, come!2"

But it should come as no surprise
that they decided otherwise.

A gloomy ass once said
to his lawful spouse,

"I am so dumb, you are so dumb,
we want to go and die, come!"

But as is happens just so often
the two remained happily alive.

Source: Ibid. p53
1The correct form would be komm. Kumm shows how dumb the ass really is (and that Morgenstern needed a rhyme here).

2Because "dumb" and "come" rhyme, I cannot mirror Morgenstern's little rhyming joke.

Der Lattenzaun (The Picket Fence)

German Original (1905)


Literal Translation

Es war einmal ein Lattenzaun,
mit Zwischenraum, hindurchzuschaun.

Ein Architekt, der dieses sah,
stand eines Abends plötzlich da —

und nahm den Zwischenraum heraus
und baute draus ein großes Haus.

Der Zaun indessen stand ganz dumm,
mit Latten ohne was herum.

Ein Anblick gräßlich und gemein.
Drum zog ihn der Senat auch ein.

Der Architekt jedoch entfloh
nach Afri- od- Ameriko.

A picket fence once could be seen
with space to look through in-between.2

An architect who knew the site
appeared quite suddenly one night —

and took the space out of the fence
and built with it a residence.

The fence, by then, looked rather mean,
with slats and nothing in-between.

Since everybody hated it
the Senate confiscated it.

The architect, though, ran away
to Afri- or Americay.

There once was a picket fence,
with in-between space, to look through.

An architect who saw this
stood there suddenly one evening —

and took the in-between space out
and built with it a big house.

The fence meanwhile stood there quite stupidly,
with pickets without anything around (them).

A sight dreadful and mean.
That's why the Senate confiscated it.

The architect, however, fled
to Afri- or Americo.

Source: Ibid. p59
1In order to satisfy the requirements of the given meter and rhyme scheme in the last line, Morgenstern makes multiple mistakes in terms of common usage or spelling. The attempt is so bold-faced that the reader has to laugh; i.e., the poem ends with a real punchline.

2I could not think of any way to capture the sheer quirkiness of the first couplet—the unexpected use of Zwischenraum (in-between space) where one would normally use Lücken (gaps) and the resulting near rhyme (-raum/-schaun) in the second line. Of course, it is precisely this use of Zwischenraum that leads to the absurd story unfolding in subsequent lines.

Das aesthetische Wiesel (The Aesthetic Weasel)

German Original (1905)


Literal Translation

Ein Wiesel
saß auf einem Kiesel
inmitten Bachgeriesel.

Wißt ihr,

Das Mondkalb
verriet es mir
im stillen:

Das raffinier-
te Tier
tats um des Reimes willen.

A weasel
put some teasel
on top of an easel.

On whose

The moon calf1
had news
at some time:

The liter-
rate critter
did it just for the rhyme.

A weasel
sat on a pebble
in the midst of a brook's ripple.

Do you
know why?

The moon calf
divulged it to me

The art-
ful animal
did it for rhyme's sake.

Source: Ibid. p42

1See comment 3!

1. The first three lines of the German original describe an animal that has put itself in an implausible situation "for rhyme's sake". I don't see any great significance, per se, in it being a weasel: Wiesel simply rhymes with two words in German that allowed Morgenstern to achieve his purpose. In English, "weasel" also rhymes with two words that can be used for the opening three-liner, but to me, the resulting situation is much more forced—how many people know what teasel actually is? I could not come up with any other rhymes involving a weasel and would have preferred to use a different animal altogether, for example, "A rat/sat on a mat/wearing a hat". But I did not have the nerve to do that—it would have required changing the title to "The Aesthetic Rat", which would have gotten me farther away from the original than I'm prepared to tolerate right now.

2. In the original, lines 4, 7, 9, and 10 all end in the same rhyme (without sharing an apparent meter). I could not find any satisfactory way of mirroring this in my translation. All I could manage was to have lines 4 and 7 rhyme and, separately, lines 9 and 10. Believe me, this was difficult enough, given that these lines had to be very short (you would lose the cheekiness of the German original otherwise)—if you ever try your hand at a rhyming poem, you will notice that it becomes the more difficult the shorter the lines are because you are given less and less slack.

3. I thought initially that the moon calf was another one of Morgenstern's invented animals, only to learn, after a little research, that the term "moon calf" has existed both in German and English long before Morgenstern's time. In the narrow sense, it used to refer to a calf with birth defects, which were attributed to the influence of the moon. In the broader sense, it could refer to any misshapen creature (see, for example, The Tempest III.2, where the deformed Caliban is called "moon calf"). Which is not to say that Morgenstern's moon calf is of the traditional kind. It may well be that he found the name intriguing and treated the animal as yet another mythical creature in his invented bestiarium. His use of the definite article suggests as much: There is only one moon calf, and it apparently has access to privileged knowledge about the aesthetic impulses of forest animals.

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