Sunday, 28 June 2009

More about Morgenstern

Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) again. Despite finding "Korfs Verzauberung" interesting when I first encountered it, I'd never bothered to investigate further until now. Morgestenstern's bread-and-butter work was translation, along with essays and reviews; he was a fan of Nietzsche and Rudolf Steiner, and the bulk of his creative output comprised serious philosophical poetry expressing his adoption of the latter's Theosophy (see Zarathustra's Children by Raymond Furness). But his most popular legacy is his comic poetry, known from two collections published in his lifetime (the 1905 Galgenlieder - Gallows Songs - and the 1910 Palmström) and the posthumously published 1916 Palma Kunkel, the 1919 Der Gingganz and the 1932 Alle Galgenlieder.

Morgenstern's poems are typified by punning, rhyme and alliterative wordplay. Some feature strange creatures: Ralf the Raven, the Moonsheep, the centaurs Golch and Flubis, the Nasobēm 1 (which gave rise to a running joke about Snouters), the Midnightmouse, the Schildkrökröte (the "Tortoitoise"), and so on. Others feature the misadventures of eccentric characters (Palmström, Herr Korf and Palma Kunkel) in unreliable realities. Some are comic, some outright sinister. See Metaphorical maps of improbable fictions: the semantic parables of Christian Morgenstern (Robert Ian Scott, TheFreeLibrary) for examples of the content.

These poems are little-known outside the German-speaking world probably because they're seriously difficult to translate - "untranslatable" is a common description - as much of the language collapses under literal translation. For instance, the poem "Der Purzelbaum" ("The Somersault") is rooted, so to speak, in tree imagery because "Purzelbaum" literally means "tumbletree" in German; but this doesn't work in English because "somersault" has no such allusions.2 However, problems like this aren't always insurmountable; check out Nonsense poetry by Christian Morgenstern for some examples from The Gallows Songs (Christian Morgenstern's Galgenlieder: A Selection Translated, with an Introduction, Max Knight, University of California Press 1964). Knight's translations use creative modifications to preserve the metrics and rhyme, as with the beginning of "Das aesthetische Wiesel" ("The Aesthetic Weasel"):

Morgenstern original:
Ein Wiesel
sass auf einem Kiesel
inmitten Bachgeriesel.

Literal translation:
A weasel
sat on a pebble
in the middle of the babble of a stream

Max Knight translation:
A weasel
perched on an easel
within a patch of teasel. 3
Personally, I'd have altered the animal (though a mustelid is still possible) and kept the water:
A stoat
sat on a boat
in the middle of a moat
There's been a deal of discussion of how exactly Morgenstern's poems can be classified. Explorations in the field of nonsense (ed. Wim Tigges) describes him as a precursor of Dada and Surrealism - exemplified by "Das große Lalulā" ("a phonetic rhapsody") - and An anatomy of literary nonsense (also by Tigges) has an extended discussion of critical appraisal of Morgenstern. Standard comparisons are with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but he has his own style, probably more complex in its wordplay than either, and mostly focused on the verbal (in contrast to Carroll's focus on logic and mathematics). Morgenstern generally denied any philosophical or literal meaning to the nonsense poems, but the commentary in the Max Knight collection says that occasionally he offered possible interpretations. Take "Das Mondschaf" ("The Moonsheep"):

Das Mondschaf steht auf weiter Flur.
Es harrt und harrt der großen Schur.
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf rupft sich einen Halm
und geht dann heim auf seine Alm.
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf spricht zu sich im Traum:
"Ich bin des Weltalls dunkler Raum."
Das Mondschaf.

Das Mondschaf liegt am Morgen tot.
Sein Leib ist weiß, die Sonn' ist rot.
Das Mondschaf.

Literal translation:

The Moonsheep stands on a wide clearing.
It awaits and awaits the great shearing.
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep plucks itself a straw.
And then goes home to its mountain pasture.
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep speaks to itself in dream:
"I am the cosmos' dark space."
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep lies in the morning dead.
His body is white, the sun is red.
The Moonsheep.

Morgenstern said of this:

The moonsheep ... might be thought of as the moon itself — first on the wide expanse of the firmament, later vanishing behind mountains, in a "dream" seeing his tiny body as the universe, and appearing as a white disc in the morning.

Apart from the Max Knight examples mentioned above, translations of a few can be found online, Variously, see "The Moonsheep" ("Das Mondschaf") and "The Midnightmouse" ("Die Mitternachtsmaus"); Two "Untranslatable" Poems (nice translations of "Der Werwolf" and "Der Purzelbaum", the latter a very clever solution to the Purzelbaum / somersault problem); and the Google Books preview of Selected translations, by William Davis Snodgrass, which has "The Knee", "The Mousetrap", "The Spheres", "Palmstrom to a Nightingale which Would Not Let Him Sleep", "The Questionnaire", "The Pike", and "The Wallpaper Flower".

German-speaking readers: see the Digitales-Christian-Morgenstern-Archiv, which has an extensive collection of his works including all the humorous lyrics, at Portal:Humoristische Lyrik.

1. Nostrilopede?!
2. "Somersault" comes from the French soubresaut, which ultimately tracks back to Latin supra above + saltus leap (OED).

PS: I thought I'd have another go at translating one of the more straightforward ones, "Der Traum der Magd" ("The Maid's Dream"):

Am Morgen spricht die Magd ganz wild:
"Ich hab heut nacht ein Kind gestillt -

ein Kind mit einem Käs als Kopf -
und einem Horn am Hinterschopf!

Das Horn, o denkt euch, war aus Salz
und ging zu essen, und dann -"
"Halt's -
halt's Maul!" so spricht die Frau, "und geh
an deinen Dienst, Zä-zi-li-e!"

The maid this morning, talking wild:
"In the night I suckled the weirdest child -

a child with a cheese for a head, I say -
and a horn on the end of its little D.A.!

That horn, you thought, was made of salt
which you went to eat, and then -"
"Halt -
Halt your chat!" said the housewife, "Pay
Attention to work, Ce-ci-li-ay!"

Enjoyable exercise in a crossword-puzzle way, and it was interesting to see the difficulties. The main one was finding an English equivalent, and rhyme, for "Hinterschopf" (literally, "hind lock" or "hind tuft of hair"): "D.A." seemed a good option. The second was recognising "Zä-zi-li-e" not to be a nonsense-construct, but a split-up personal female name Zäzilie (Cecilia), which shows how important context is. In another Morgenstern poem, Zäzilie is revealed as a lazy and cunning housemaid who, on being told to clean the windows so well that no-one can tell there's glass or thin air there, takes out the glass.

- Ray


  1. This shows the serious difference between someone with a level (any level) of competence in another language and someone without.

    (I'm thinking, of course, of "Flow" and our exchange of comments which followed it)

    You are able to not only understand the specific problem here but to evaluate the translation, measure relative success, and posit an alternative strategy of your own.

    I could only consume the translation, make a literal one of my own, and recognise the discrepancies as artefacts of a theoretical problem which I understand in principle.

    That's four significant degrees of difference.

  2. I hadn't thought of any of that. Trouble is, I tend to focus on the deficiencies: I'm always conscious of how much weaker my grasp of spoken German is than with written.

  3. I remember that many years ago I read the line (I cannot remember the exact words but it was something like the following

    "Es gibt erloesende momente und wieder solche die es nicht sind... Nennt sie erboesende momente ob nomina fuer dich Gewich sind...."

    Is this from a Morgenstern poem?

  4. is this from a Morgenstern poem?

    Yes, Augurisch.

    Es gibt erlösende Momente
    und wieder solche, die es nicht sind -
    (nenn sie verbösende Momente,
    wenn nomina dir von Gewicht sind).

    Wie häufig, dass ein Wunsch uns brennt,
    es möchte dies und das geschehn!
    Doch das erlösende Moment
    bleibt in der Ferne stehn.

    Loose translation with some attempt to preserve the rhyme:


    There are redeeming moments
    and again, those that ain't -
    (they call besteaming moments,
    if you are of nominal weight.)

    How often, that a desire torments,
    it wants this and that to come about!
    But the redeeming moment
    Remains standing far off out.

    Note: erlösende / verbösende was difficult to translate: verbösende appears to be a Morgenstern wordplay, a coinage that means something like "angry-making", hence "besteaming".