German Lit: For Children

Thanks to Lizzie and Caroline to once again host German Literature Month. As usual, I can’t really decide what to read, because I have too many books to choose from, but like last year, I want to start the month by telling you about a translated book for children.Michael Ende might be best known for his epic The Neverending Story, but he has written a good number of other children’s books as well—most of them well suited for adults, too. The one with the absolute best title is Der Satanarchäolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch. Try saying that one three times fast! The beauty of that very long, and—according to my husband—very German, word is that individual words are slurred together. For example, the last three letters of the word “Lügen” (lies) make up the beginning of the next word, “genial” (genius). The last two letters of “genial” make up the beginning of the next word, “Alkohol” (alcohol). I can understand the challenge of translating this particular word, but what a letdown that the English version is simply called The Night of Wishes. I find it particularly disappointing because Regina Kehn has done an admirable job coming up with a translation for that incredible word: the Satanarchaeolidealcohellisch Notion Potion. I am glad that the new NYRB edition has at least added a subtitle to include it.

The story takes place on New Year’s Eve. The sorcerer Beelzebub Preposteror is in a panic. He has been unable to fulfill his contract with “the boss” to render extinct ten species of animal, pollute five rivers, cause the death of at least 10,000 trees, and bring down at least one plague on people each year. Preposteror is facing “personal foreclosure ex officio” if he does not catch up on his obligations before the clock strikes midnight. Thus, it is no surprise that he accepts the help of his despised aunt, Tyrannia Vampirella, who is also in trouble with Satan. Together, they might just be able to brew the Satanarchaeolidealcohellisch Notion Potion before midnight, a magical potion so terrible that it can quickly destroy enough life to save both Preposteror and Vampirella.

Who can stop the two evil magicians? Mauricio and Jacob Scribble, a cat and a raven sent by the High Council of Animals, which has become suspicious of the sorcerer and the witch. Unfortunately, Preposteror and Vampirella know that the two animals are on to them, and so it’s a race against time and each other. Facing such evil witchcraft, will Mauricio and Jacob be able to save the world? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

While the English translation overall lacks a bit of the wordplay that is so characteristic of Ende’s writing, the story’s rambunctiousness is preserved and makes for a fun read for middle-schoolers. The book is appropriate for patient younger children as well, even though some of the larger implications of the story (environmental pollution) will most likely go over their heads.




    • Anthea Bell is the best! She didn’t even study to become a translator; she kind of fell into that profession. Do you know the Asterix comics? She translated some of them, and I was so impressed by how she was able to convey the play on words that’s such a big part of the names and stories.

  1. I remember I used to love the animated TV show of this story as a kid and was so surprised when I found out the author behind it was Michael Ende. The translated Greek title of the book is equally disappointing, as it’s just “The Magic Potion”, but I guess such linguistic plays are frequently inevitably lost in translation.

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