Day of Ideas
Tech & Innovation
Arts & Letters
Idealism & Practicality
Nature & Environment
Markets & Morals
Politics & Presidents
Atlantic Home Page
Der Arme Dolmetscher
by Kurt Vonnegut
I was astonished one day in 1944, in the midst of front-line hell-raising, to learn that I had been made interpreter, Dolmetscher if you please, for a whole battalion, and was to be billeted in a Belgian burgomaster's house within artillery range of the Siegfried Line.
It had never entered my head that I had what it took to dolmetsch. I qualified for the position while waiting to move from France into the front lines. While a student, I had learned the first stanza of Die Lorelei by rote from a college roommate, and I happened to give those lines a dogged rendition while working within earshot of the battalion commander. The colonel (a hotel detective from Mobile) asked his executive officer (a dry-goods salesman from Knoxville) in what language the lyrics were. The executive withheld judgment until I had bungled through Der Gipfel des Berges foo-unk-kelt im Abendsonnenschein.
"Ah believes tha's Kraut, Cuhnel," he said.
The colonel felt that his role carried with it the obligation to make quick, headstrong decisions. He made some dandies before the Wehrmacht was whipped, but the one he made that day was my favorite. "If tha's Kraut, whassat man doin' on the honey-dippin' detail?" he wanted to know. Two hours later, the company clerk told me to lay down the buckets, for I was now battalion interpreter.
Orders to move up came soon after. Those in authority were too harried to hear my declarations of incompetence. "You talk Draut good enough foah us," said the executive officer. "Theah ain't goin' to be much talkin' to Krauts where we're goin'" He patted my rifle affectionately. "Heah's what's going' to do most of youah interpretin' fo' ya," he said. The executive, who learned everything he knew from the colonel, had the idea that the American Army had just licked the Belgians, and that I was to be stationed with the burgomaster to make sure he didn't try to pull a fast one. "Besides," the executive concluded, "theah ain't nobody else can talk Kraut at all."
I rode to the burgomaster's farm on the same truck with three disgruntled Pennsylvania Dutchmen who had applied for interpreters' jobs months earlier. When I made it clear that I was no competition for them, and that I hoped to be liquidated within twenty-four hours, they warmed up enough to furnish the interesting information that I was a Dolmetscher. They also decoded Die Lorelei at my request. This gave me command of about forty words (par for a two-year-old) but no combination of them would get me so much as a glass of cold water.
Every turn of the truck's wheels brought a new questions: "What's the word for Army?…How do I ask for the bathroom?…What's the word for sick?…well?…dish?…brother?…shoe?" My phlegmatic instructors tired, and one handed me a pamphlet purporting to make German easy for the man in the foxhole.
"Some of the first pages are missing," the donor explained as I jumped from the truck before the burgomaster's stone farmhouse. "Used 'em for cigarette papers," he said.
It was still dark when I knocked at the burgomaster's door. I stood on the doorstep like a bit player in the wings, with the one line I was to deliver banging around an otherwise empty head. The door swung open. "Dolmetscher," I said.
The burgomaster himself, old, thin, and nightshirted, ushered me into the first-floor bedroom which was to be mine. He pantomimed as well as spoke his welcome, and a sprinkling of danke schon was adequate dolmetsching for the time being. I was prepared to throttle further discussion with Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin. This would have sent him padding off to bed, convinced that he had a fluent, albeit shot-full-of-Weltschmerz, Dolmetscher. The stratagem wasn't necessary. He left me alone to consolidate my resources.
Chief among these resources was the mutilated pamphlet. I examined each of its precious pages in turn, delighted by the simplicity of transposing English into German. With this booklet, all I had to do was run my finger down the left-hand column until I found the English phrase I wanted, and then rattle off the nonsense syllables printed opposite in the right-hand column. "How many grenade launchers have you?" for instance, was Vee feel grenada vairfair habben zee? Impeccable German for "Where are your tank columns?" proved to be nothing more troublesome than Vo zint eara pantzer shpilzen? I mouthed the phrases: "Where are your howitzers? How many machine guns have you? Surrender! Don't shoot! Where have you hidden your motorcycle? Hands up! What unit are you from?
The pamphlet came to an abrupt end, topping my spirits from manic to depressive. The Pennsylvania Dutchmen had smoked up all the rear area pleasantries, comprising the pamphlet's first half, leaving me with nothing to work with but the repartee of hand-to-hand fighting.
As I lay sleepless in bed, the one drama in which I would play took shape in my mind….
DOLMETSCHER (to BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER): I don't know what will become of me, I am so sad. (Embraces her.)
BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER (with yielding shyness): The air is cool, and it's getting dark, and the Rhine is flowing quietly.
(DOLMETSCHER seizes BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER, carries her bodily into his room.)
DOLMETSCHER (softly): Surrender.
BURGOMASTER (brandishing Luger): Ach! Hands up!
DOLMETSCHER and BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER: Don't shoot!
(A large map, showing disposition of American First Army, falls from BURGOMASTER'S breast pocket.)
DOLMETSCHER (aside, in English): What is this supposedly pro-Ally Burgomaster doing with a map showing the disposition of the American First Army? (He snatches .45 automatic pistol from beneath pillow and aims at BURGOMASTER.)
BURGOMASTER and BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER: Don't shoot! (Burgomaster drops Luger, cowers, sneers.)
DOLMETSCHER: What unit are you from? (BURGOMASTER remains sullen, silent. BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER goes to his side, weeps softly. DOLMETSCHER pauses significantly, suddenly points at BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER.) Where have you hidden your motorcycle? (Turns again to Burgomaster.) Where are you howitzers, eh? Where are your tank columns? How many grenade launchers have you?
BURGOMASTER (cracking under terrific grilling): I -
(Enter Guard Detail composed of Pennsylvania Dutchmen, making a routine check just in time to hear BURGOMASTER and BURGOMASTER'S DAUGHTER confess to being Nazi agents parachuted behind American lines.)
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller couldn't have done any better with the same words, and they were the only words I had. There was no chance of my muddling through, and no pleasure in being interpreter for a full battalion in December and not being able to say so much as "Merry Christmas."
I made my bed, tightened the drawstrings on my duffel bag, and stole through the black-out curtains and into the night.
Wary sentinels directed me to Battalion Headquarters, where I found most of four officers either poring over maps or loading their weapons. There was a holiday spirit in the air, and the executive officer was honing an eighteen-inch bowie knife and humming Are You from Dixie?
"Well, bless mah soul," he said, noticing me standing in the door, "here's old 'sprecken zee Dutch,' Speak up, boy. Ain't you supposed to be ovah and the mayah's house?"
"It's no good," I said. "They all speak Low German, and I speak High."
The executive was impressed. "Too good foah 'em, eh?" He ran his index finger down the edge of his murderous knife. "Ah think we'll be runnin' into some who can talk the high-class Kraut putty soon," he said, and added, "Weah surrounded."
"We'll whomp 'em the way we whomped 'em in Nawth Ca'lina and Tennessee," said the colonel, who had never lost a maneuver. "You stay heah, so. Ah'm gonna want you foah mah pussnel intupretah."
Twenty minutes later I was in the thick of dolmetsching again. Four Tiger tanks drove up to the front door of Headquarters, and two dozen German infantrymen dismounted to round us up with submachine guns.
"Say sumpin'," ordered the colonel, spunky to the last.
I ran my eye down the left-hand columns of my pamphlet until I found the phrase which most fairly represented our sentiments. "Don't shoot," I said.
A German tank officer swaggered in to have a look at his catch. In his hand was a pamphlet, somewhat smaller than mine. "Where are your howitzers?" he said.
Vol. 196, No. 1, pp. 86–88