Shengren – Chapter 3.6 – Die Sage (Folk Legend and Rumor)

The German word Sage in reality cannot be translated. Unlike English legend it emphasizes the oral tradition, that what is said. [1]

– Lutz Röhrich, Sage

The German accumulatio ‘Sagen, Lieder und Märchen’ (Legends, songs, and fairy-tales) referred to literature that belongs to the realms of folktale, mythology and fiction. Such stories could be moral tales or legends or mystified historical accounts about the endurance, age, and immortality of kingdoms and the deeds of heroes, for example the Walhalla Sage, the Nibelungenlied, or Grimm’s Märchen. A ‘Sage’ was not a person in the German literature, but a genre (Gattung). In Heinz Rölleke’s Das Grosse Deutsche Sagenbuch (1996) the following translations/synonyms for German ‘Sage’ were enlisted: ‘folk legend (English), legend populaire, cuento popular (Spanish), legenda, mif, predanije (Russian);’ likewise the Oxford Duden (1990) read: ‘Sage (f), Sagen; legend (altnordische); es geht die Sage, dass [legend has it that] (=Gerücht); rumor has it that…’ Since its definition was close to English ‘a legend’, the German word ‘Sage’ was nowhere synonymous with a sage or wise man.

But just because ‘Sage’ was a genre legend, not a person, that did not change the etymological fact that both the German ‘Sage’ and the English ‘sage’ originated from or bore reference to Latin sapientia [wisdom]. The original meaning of terminologies often alter significantly over the ages, and in Germany, the word ‘Sage’ fulfilled now the meaning of legend, while ‘der Weise’ [from wisdom] was used to convey—at least colloquially—what the English speakers meant by ‘the sage.’

There were a few exceptions to this: Wisdom was sometimes exclusively linked to the Oriental and the magical. Like the magical Oriental sages in children’s books such as Friedhelm Moser’s Jim Knopf und die sieben Weisen: eine philosophische Einführung in den lummerländischen Lokomotivismus (1996).  Other Oriental and magical sages were the Biblical Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men or Kings of the East: Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar) whom the philologist Albrecht Dieterich called Die Weisen aus dem Morgenlande (1901); or ‘Weise Frauen’ (wise women = witches) and ‘Die weise Frau’ (The wise woman = midwife, an archetype described in Ludwig Ettmüller’s Die weisen Frauen der Germanen (1859). As a general rule, if ‘Weise’ did not apply to Orientals or other (at that time) magical personae, it was usually a pejorative. The Inquisition of the Catholic Church punished the ‘wise women’—witches, from the devil possessed—with torture or worse. Ever since, ‘wise women’ were associated with witchcraft, for example in Die Vernichtung der weisen Frauen (1985) by Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger. The Germans negative attitude toward wisdom and people who carried that strange mental disorder wisdom was all-consuming and tiresome, and the only excuse for any Weisen of getting away with his wisdom was that he was also an Oriental and a fiction. That explained why the story of the Nathan der Weise (1779) by the German Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was never controversial for its Oriental (Jewish) Nathan. Only if those Oriental sages crossed too much territory, for example when they infiltrated Christianity as the Weisen aus dem Morgenland,[2] the Germans usually cancelled out the un-German ‘Weisen.’ All Christians in Germany say Heilige Drei Könige instead.[3] The Anti-Semitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903, original in Russian: Протоколы сионских мудрецов) in the German translation prominently featured ‘die Weisen:’ Die Weisen von Zion (Friedrich, 1920; Rosenberg, 1933). The German text was later used by the Nazis to find legitimacy for the annihilation of the Jewish race. Here the common foreign language titles[4] of the book—the German one later added ‘Protokolle’ to it:

Russian: Протоколы сионских мудрецов

English: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

German: Protokolle der Weisen von Zion

French: Protocols des Sages de Sion

Spanish: Los protocolos de los sabios de Sión

Chinese: 犹太人贤士议定书

Japanese: シオン賢者の議定書

The Russian original—a conspiracy about a Jewish world domintion—said мудрец or sage. So, the international translators, if they aimed for atmosphere, needed to convey that meaning in their host languages. The Chinese and Japanese however, both coming from true sage cultures, did not translate sage 圣/聖sheng, but instead used 贤/賢xian: supernatural persons. Forcing the East-Asians to translate ‘Die Weisen von Zion’ as the ‘Shengren of Zion’ would have been a similar act of terror than forcing the Germans to translate it ‘Die Philosophen of Zion.’ That was because ‘Die Philosophen von Zion’ would have been a positive title for a negative book, while ‘Die Weisen von Zion’ sounded just like that: a negative title for a negative book. The English translators, thought ‘sages’ to be an inappropriately positive term and instead used the patriarchal ‘elders.’ The Germans could finally employ the pejorative die Weisen first because the Jews were Orientals and second because the plotting Jews in that book were bad people.

[1] Röhrich, 1966: ‘Das deutsche Wort ‘Sage’ lässt sich im Grunde nicht übersetzen. Im Unterschied zu englisch ‚legend‘ betont es die mündliche Űberlieferung, das was ‚gesagt‘ wird.”

[2] New Testament, Lutheran Bible, 1522, Mt 2, 1-12

[3] Becker-Huberti, 2005

[4] (last access: 25th Feb, 2011)

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York