I Must Enter Again the Round Zion of the Water Bead


Our Correspondents

An illustration from Struwwelpeter.


It is not my habitual practice to go toe-to-toe with Mark Twain. I revere him, have made lengthy extracts from his works, have read aloud many times from Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn. I find Twain much funnier than [insert the name of your favorite humorist here]. But.

In 1891, stranded in Berlin, Twain set about translating the most famous children’s book ever written in German: Struwwelpeter. It is not a lengthy work. The whole thing is just ten medium-size poems, mostly in rhyming iambic tetrameter couplets. The German is hardly esoteric; it was originally composed (1844) for the benefit of the author’s three-year-old son. Twain, too, had the benefit of a young audience for his translation: his three daughters, Jean, Clara, and Susie (ages eleven, seventeen, and nineteen, respectively) were with him at the time, suffering in Berlin.

There are several narratives here, all worth the telling, regarding Twain’s deal with the German language, the Germans’ deal with Struwwelpeter, Twain’s surprising his family by unveiling and performing his translation of the poems on Christmas morning, und so weiter. But we have a great deal of more essential ground to cover. 

First, to give English-speakers an idea of what Struwwelpeter is like, here is one of the poems, translated pretty much word-for-word (you can also check out Heinrich Hoffmann’s original, along with the standard, anonymous, nineteenth-century translation, here). It should be mentioned that the cats’ names, Minz and Maunz, should be pronounced “Mints” and “Mounts.” Many people do not understand this about the letter z in German. But let’s get on with this. Remember, this is literal—

The Rather Sad Story with the Box of Matches

Little Paula was alone at home;
The parents were both out.
As she now jumped around the room
With a light heart and singing and carrying on,
She saw suddenly before her stands
A matchbox, nice to look at.
“Ah,” she says, “ah, how lovely and fine!
This must be an excellent toy.
I’ll strike a match against the box,
Just as Mother has often done.”

And Minz and Maunz, the cats,
Raise up their paws.
They menace with the paws:
“The father has forbidden it!
Me-ow! me-oh! me-ow! me-oh!
Leave it alone! Otherwise you’ll light yourself on fire!”

Little Paula doesn’t listen to the cats;
The match burns high and bright,
It flickers jolly, crackles loud,
Just like you can see in the picture.
Little Paula however pleased herself a lot,
And jumped back and forth in the room.

Yet Minz and Maunz, the cats,
Raise up their paws.
They menace with the paws;
“The mother has forbidden it!
Me-ow! me-oh! me-ow! me-oh!
Throw it away! Otherwise you’ll light yourself on fire!”

Uh-oh! the flame catches the dress,
The apron burns, it lights all over.
It burns the hand, it burns the hair,
It burns the whole child, even.

And Minz and Maunz, they scream
Quite pitifully, the two of them:
“Come on! Come on! Who will quickly help?
The whole child is on fire!
Me-ow! me-oh! me-ow! me-oh!
Help! the child has set herself on fire!”

All is burnt, whole and quite,
The poor child, with her skin and hair;
Only a handful of ash remains,
And both shoes, pretty and fine.

And Minz and Maunz, the little ’uns,
They sit there and cry:
“Me-ow! me-oh! me-ow! me-oh!
Where are the poor parents? where?”
And their tears flow
Like a little brook in the meadows.

Got it? You see what we’re dealing with here. It’s not just Germany, 1844. No. In all countries and all epochs, the nearest way to make the teeny weenies laugh their evil little heads off is to Work the Perverse—and work it hard. Ah, and the illustrations must not be omitted:

Good. Now here is Mark Twain’s version of this immortal children’s classic:

The Sad Tale of the Match-Box

Paulinchen was alone at home,
The parents they down-town did roam.
As she now through the room did spring,
All light of heart and soul a-wing,
She saw there suddenly burst on sight
The things wherewith one strikes a light.
“Oho,” says she, “my hopes awake;
Ah, what a plaything these will make!
I’ll rake them on the wall, h’hoo!
As oft I’ve seen my Mother do.”

And Mintz and Mountz, the catties,
Lift up their little patties,
They threaten with their pawses:
“It is against the lawses!
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
You’ll burn yourself to ashes, O!”

Paulinchen heard the catties not,
The match did burn both bright and hot,
It crackled gaily, sputtered free,
As you it in the picture see.
Paulinchen waltzed and whirled and spun,
Near mad with joy for what she’d done.

Still Mintz and Mountz, the catties,
Lift up their little patties,
They threaten with their pawses:
“It is against the lawses!
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
Drop it or you are ashes, O!”

But ah, the flame it caught her clothes,
Her apron, too; and higher rose;
Her hand is burnt, her hair’s afire,
Consumèd is that child entire.

And Mintz and Mountz wild crying,
The while the child was frying,
“Come quick!! they said, “O Sire,
Your darling child’s afire!
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
She’s cinders, soot, and ashes, O!”

Consumed is all, so sweet and fair,
The total child, both flesh and hair,
A pile of ashes, two small shoes,
Is all that’s left, and they’re no use.

And Mintz and Mountz sit sighing,
With breaking hearts and crying,
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
How could we let the parents know!”
While round that ash-pile glowing
In brooks their tears keep flowing.

I would say the above is approximately pitiful. Stilted, wilted, quilted, and kilted. But I want to take a moment at this crucial juncture to underscore: Twain was very capable of handling humor in verse. Whoever doubts this should have another look at the exquisite “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d” in Huckleberry Finn (pages 139 to 140, if you have the facsimile)—which poem, by the way, is massacred in the Spanish and Russian translations I happen to have here in the apartment:

I mean, granted, the poem is untranslatable, depending as it does on the embarrassing and untragic sound of the surname Bots. (The original poem insistently rhymes on “Bots” in three adjacent stanzas.) The only thing for a translator to do would be to come up with some kind of equivalent … but see, there it is: translators seldom look at what they’re doing. They just don’t. Which brings me back to Twain’s “The Sad Tale of the Match-Box.”

Now, I am personally fond of the saying I suppose you think you could do better? But, here—and this only happens once or twice a decade, so I hope I may be excused from savoring it—here, I actually do think I’ve done better.

All I’m asking of the reader is that she clear her mind of all the foregoing remarks (especially the unsavory matter of besting Mark Twain or anybody else), and simply read the following translation, my own, in the spirit of “Does this piece deliver the same lalala as the original?”


The Rather Sad Story with the Box of Matches and Joan and the Cats

Our little Joan was all alone
For neither parent was at home.
Free at last, she danced a jig:
Her heart was light, her joy was big.
But something catches her attention:
A box of matches in the kitchen!
“Ah-ha!” she says, “ho-ho! oh boy:
I think I’ve found a splendid toy!
To play with these will please, because
It’s just what Mother always does.”

But Minz and Maunz, the cats,
Both spring up from their mats.
They menace with their fists:
“Your father will be pissed!
Meow! Me-oh! Meow! Me-oh!
Lay off! or you’ll be sorry, Joan!”

Our little Joan ignores the cats,
Ignites a satisfying match.
It sputters, flickers, pops and jets:
It’s fun as good as ever gets.
(Who views the picture here will find
Our Joan has partly lost her mind.)

But Minz and Maunz, the cats,
Both spring up from their mats.
“It’s time you were admitting it:
Your mother has forbidden it!
Meow! Me-oh! Meow! Me-oh!
Stop now! or you’ll be sorry, Joan!”

Uh-oh! the flame has caught her dress!
What happens next you’ll never guess.
The apron burns; her hair ignites:
It’s quite the worst of earthly plights.

And Minz and Maunz, they scream:
“It’s like an awful dream!
Help, help! Oh, summon someone quick!
We’re both of us becoming sick!
Meow! Me-oh! Meow! Me-oh!
We said that this would happen, Joan!”

But now the girl is as they feared:
Quite burnt to bits and disappeared.
And all that’s left behind as clues
Are ashes and her little shoes.

And Minz and Maunz are pining.
They’re sitting there and whining:
“Meow! Me-oh! Meow! Me-oh!
Where are her parents? We don’t know!”
And then their tears begin to flow
Like brooks that through the meadows go.

PS: Readers stimulated by the foregoing may easily order the excellent Dover edition: Struwwelpeter in English Translation, which functions as a kind of Heinrich Hoffmann kit. You get a serviceable English version, plus all the original pictures in full color, plus the German text as an appendix in the back. Five or six bucks online, shipping included.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.