The werewolf or who-wolf

I’ve discovered an interesting translation of the well-known poem Der Werwolf (‘The Werewolf’), by the German poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914). What led me to this translation was a blogpost on Language Hat about ontogeny. Someone commenting on that post mentioned a translation of this poem.

The translation is by Jerome Lettvin (1920– 2011). I hadn’t heard of Lettvin before. He was a cognitive scientist, and Professor of Electrical and Bioengineering and Communications Physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Jerome Lettvin – Wikipedia

Lettvin’s translation of der Werwolf appeared in 1962 in the literary review The Fat Abbott, published by Samuel Jay Keyser (Editor-in-Chief of the journal Linguistic Inquiry). That issue includes Lettvin’s translation of 12 poems from Morgenstern’s collection Galgenlieder (Gallows songs), as well as Lettvin’s essay Morgenstern and Mythopoetry.

Text of the poem

Here is Lettvin’s translation, set alongside the original.

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?’
Der Werwolf

Ein Werwolf eines Nachts entwich
von Weib und Kind, und sich begab
an eines Dorfschullehrers Grab und bat ihn: Bitte, beuge mich!
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),
Der Dorfschulmeister stieg hinauf
auf seines Blechschilds Messingknauf
und sprach zum Wolf, der seine Pfoten
geduldig kreuzte vor dem Toten:
‘The Iswolf, so we may commence,
the Waswolf, simple past in tense,

the Beenwolf, perfect; so construed,
the Werewolf is subjunctive mood.’
„Der Werwolf“ – sprach der gute Mann,
„des Weswolfs, Genitiv sodann,

dem Wemwolf, Dativ, wie man’s nennt,
den Wenwolf, – damit hat’s ein End.“
The werewolf’s teeth with thanks were bright,
but, mitigating his delight,
there rose the thought, how could one be
hypostasized contingency?
Dem Werwolf schmeichelten die Fälle,
er rollte seine Augenbälle. Indessen, bat er, füge doch
zur Einzahl auch die Mehrzahl noch!
The ghost observed that few could live,
if werewolves were indicative;

whereat his guest perceived the role
of Individual in the Whole
Der Dorfschulmeister aber mußte
gestehn, daß er von ihr nichts wußte.
Zwar Wölfe gäb’s in großer Schar,
doch „Wer“ gäb’s nur im Singular.
Condition contrary to fact,
a single werewolf Being lacked

but in his conjugation showed
the full existence, a la mode
Der Wolf erhob sich tränenblind – er hatte ja doch Weib und Kind!!
Doch da er kein Gelehrter eben, so schied er dankend und ergeben.

Literal prose translation

Here is my own fairly literal translation of the poem, into prose. For ease of reference, I have numbered the 6 sentences, but I have not tried to preserve breaks between the 4 lines of each stanza (except in stanza 3, which gives the 4 forms of the declension of an invented noun).

The Werewolf

  1. One night, a werewolf sneaked away from his wife and child. He set off for the village teacher’s grave and asked him: please decline me! [like a noun]
  2. The village schoolmaster climbed up onto the brass knob of his metal sign and said to the wolf, who was crossing his paws patiently in front of the dead man:
  3. ‘The Who-wolf’, – said the good man
    ‘the Whose-wolf, the genitive next
    the To-whom-wolf, the dative as it is called,
    the Whom-wolf, that one comes last. ‘
  4. The grammatical cases flattered the Werewolf, he rolled his eyeballs. And now, he asked, please add to the singular the plural as well.
  5. The village schoolmaster had, however, to concede that he did not know the plural. Although wolves exist in vast numbers, ‘who’ comes only in a singular form. 
  6. The wolf rose, blind with tears—after all, he had a wife and child!! But because he was indeed no scholar, he took his leave with thanks and devotion. 

That the pronoun meaning who has no plural is true not only of German but also of English, though not of some other languages. For example, the Hungarian for who (in the nominative case) is singular ki, plural kik.

The teacher’s invented compound

The idea underlying the poem is a play on the German word Werwolf (‘werewolf’). The form of the word suggests (falsely) that it is a compound of the pronoun Wer (‘who’) and the noun Wolf (‘wolf’).

In the 3rd stanza, the ghostly teacher rises from his grave and lists the 4 case forms of Werwolf. But the forms he lists aren’t the real case forms of Werwolf. Instead, they are his own whimsical creations, using the (real) case forms of the supposed components Wer and Wolf. The following table compares the true forms, the invented forms and the literal English equivalents of the components of each invented form.

CaseReal formInvented formEnglish
NominativeDer WerwolfDer WerwolfThe who-wolf
GenitiveDes WerwolfsDes WeswolfsThe whose-wolf
DativeDem WerwolfDem WemwolfThe to-whom-wolf
AccusativeDen WerwolfDer WenwolfThe whom-wolf
In modern German, the genitive of wer is wessen, though the shortened form wes was sometimes used in the past.

How Lettvin translated the invented compound

The mainspring of the poem is wordplay exploiting the coincidence that the German noun Werwolf looks plausibly like a compound containing the component wer (‘who’). That wordplay wouldn’t work in English because:

  • the first syllable of English werewolf doesn’t look or sound like who.
  • although it would be possible to preserve the sound play with an invented compound where­-wolf, the word where is invariable and does not decline.
  • the word who does decline, having the forms who, whose and (at least in some formal English) whom. So, creating a form who-wolf would reserve the playful idea of different forms for different grammatical cases, but it would lose the sound play on werewolf.

Lettvin found an ingenious solution: instead of inventing different forms for different noun cases, he invented different forms for different verbal tenses and moods:

  • in the 3rd stanza of Morgenstern’s original, the dead teacher lists the 4 whimsical case forms (der Werwolf, des Weswolfs, dem Wemwolf, den Wenwolf).
  • in contrast, Lettvin’s 3rd stanza lists 3 supposed tense forms: iswolf (present); waswolf (past) and beenwolf (past, or strictly speaking just the past participle). He adds an invented subjunctive form werewolf which happens to look identical to the real English word werewolf. All 4 forms are, of course, forms of the English be.

Lettvin’s translation is not about singular and plural pronouns, but about tenses and moods of verbs (past/present/perfect and indicative/subjunctive). So, Lettvin could not build the 2nd half of his translation on the fact that who has no plural.

Instead, Lettvin’s werewolf takes the teacher’s analysis as implying that (pseudo-English) were-wolf is a subjunctive form, and hence that the werewolf himself does not exist in reality. Following this line of thought, the werewolf ‘exists’ in reality only if you consider the full conjugation of the verb be in every mood (subjunctive and indicative) and every tense (present, past and perfect).

Imperfect execution

Lettvin’s approach is a clever answer to a difficult problem, but its execution isn’t ideal:

  • the list in Morgenstern’s original starts naturally with the normal basic (citation) form of his invented Werwolf (nominative, singular) and this is the same as the real word for this creature. In contrast, the translation starts with a basic form of the verb be (3rd present, singular, indicative) but this differs from the real English word for the creature (werewolf), which the reader doesn’t meet until the last item on the list. Lettvin’s translation might have been clearer if it had linked the real word werewolf and the invented were-wolf more explicitly. It might also have been better to put Werewolf first in the English list, instead of last.
  • Lettvin’s translation loses an important message expressed by the first 2 lines of the last stanza. The werewolf is in tears. That is because the teacher has said that Werwolf has no plural, but the Werewolf is not the only one of his kind: he has a wife and child.
  • Morgenstern’s original ends in a clear, concrete outcome: the werewolf leaves. In contrast, Lettvin’s translation fizzles out by ending in an abstract and somewhat unclear metaphysical statement.  
  • the wording of the last 2 lines of stanza 4 and all of stanzas 5 and 6 is difficult to follow, and in places almost impossible to understand. In tone, those 10 lines are also much more academic and learnèd than those lines in the original.

Several factors make the last 2½ stanzas almost impenetrable in places:

  • Lettvin’s stanza 5 runs into stanza 6. And the sentence spanning that boundary is itself complex and abstruse.
  • there is no explicit linkage between subjunctive in Lettvin’s stanza 4 and contingency in stanza 5.
  • Lettvin uses the rare verb hypostasize, which I had not come across before. Apparently, it means to regard or treat something abstract as real or substantial.
  • some of the phrasing is convoluted. For example, it is unclear how some phrases fit into the last 6 lines: ‘the role of Individual in Whole Condition’; ‘contrary to fact’; ‘a la mode’.

So what is Lettvin saying in the last 10 lines?

Although I am not sure, I think this is what the last 2½ stanzas of Lettvin’s translation are saying:

  • A thought disturbed the werewolf’s delight. The teacher analysed the basic form of werewolf as being in the (present) subjunctive (were-wolf), not in the present indicative (is-wolf). This implies that the werewolf is contingent. He does not actually exist, he is only taken to exist.
  • the teacher’s ghost comments that few real people could live if werewolves really did exist (in the indicative mood), rather than not existing (subjunctive mood).
  • The werewolf concludes that his role in actual reality is a modish contradiction. A werewolf does not exist by itself unless you conjugate his being in every mood and in every tense.

Ontology Recapitulates Philology

Lettvin gives his translation the clever title Ontology Recapitulates Philology. This play on words reminds readers of a famous saying by the naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. This saying expresses the idea—no longer held—that an individual animal’s ontogeny (its development from embryo to hatching) goes through stages resembling successive stages in the evolution of the animal’s adult ancestors (the phylogeny of the animal’s species).

Here, Lettvin’s title is saying that ontology (the Werewolf’s essence) repeats philology (the linguistic form of the name of his species).

Other changes by Lettvin

The most significant changes by Lettvin stem from his decision to focus on the distinction between different moods and tenses, rather than between different grammatical cases.

Other changes by Littvin changed the literal meaning in various respects:

  • Lettvin adds: ‘having dined’ and ‘to clean the cave’ (both stanza 1) and ‘Whichever way the case was pressed’— ‘who’d been well bred’ (both stanza 2). Presumably, he made these changes to fit the meter and the rhyme.
  • Lettvin introduces a new play on words in the 2nd stanza. He adds ‘could not decline’, in the sense of ‘could not refuse’. This echoes the use of decline me used in the 1st stanza to translate beuge mich, meaning ‘decline me’ in the grammatical sense. The verb beugen means (among other things) to decline a noun (or conjugate a verb), in other words to change the inflectional endings (affixes) on the noun (or verb).
  • Another change in stanza 2 added ‘guest’ and ‘ghost’, creating an explicit  contrast between those 2 words.
  • He deleted from stanza 4 the explicit reference back to the cause of the werewolf’s delight—the Fälle (‘cases’) mentioned in the 3rd stanza.The noun Fall means case, both in a general sense of eventuality and also in the specific sense of a grammatical case.
  • Lettvin lost a nuance of entwich: escaping (from his wife and child) (stanza 1)
  • He replaced reference to the werewolf being flattered and rolling his eyes by reference to the werewolf’s ‘delight’. (stanza 4) Other details removed: ‘brass knob’, ‘metal sign’ (both stanza 2); and from stanza 6 statements that the werewolf was no scholar and that the werewolf left.
  • He replaced Dorfschullehrer (‘schoolteacher’) by scholar (stanza 1).

Morgenstern and Mythopoetry

Lettvin’s short essay, Morgenstern and Mythopoetry, published with this translation talks about some of Morgenstern’s wordplay methods. He says that attempts to put Morgenstern into English fail to please any but German ears, just as translations of Lewis Carroll are funny only to an English speakers who know the original well. These attempts transpose word play into nonsense and strip the poems of their charm.

German names for cases

I’ve mentioned above the case forms of wer (wes / wessen], wem, wen) and the noun Fall (‘case’, including grammatical case). Although German grammatical analysis often uses the latinate forms Nominativ, Genitiv, Dativ and Akkusativ. Alternative forms Werfall, Wesfall, Wemfall and Wenfall also exist, although Duden says they are now antiquated but used in school grammars  

The ghostly teacher’s invented forms Werwolf, Weswolf etc, are reminiscent of these grammatical forms.


Lettvin made an ingenious attempt to render Morgenstern’s poem in English by transposing invented compounds containing real case forms of a pronoun into invented compounds containing real verbal forms.

It was a good attempt, but unfortunately the execution did not work well enough for an English reader to appreciate the wordplay in the poem without having an explanation of the key features of the German original.   


Gallows-songs (Christian Morgenstern, translated by Jerome Lettvin) and Lettvin’s article Morgenstern and Mythopoetry. The Fat Abbott, Fall-Winter 1962

The Wikipedia page Galgenlieder – Wikipedia includes Lettvin’s translation of 8 of the poems.

German texts:

Blogpost on Language Hat about ontogeny Ontology. :

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