This is excerpted from the forewords of the English translation by John E. Woods of The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg in German) by Thomas Mann:

It takes place, or, to avoid any present tense whatever, it took place back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War, [...]

What is that “present tense whatever” Mr. Woods was trying to avoid? I’m sure it’s some kind of linguistics term. Does anyone have any idea?


The narrator is at great pains to stress that the story happened a long time in the past. Elsewhere in the Foreword, he says:

Diese Geschichte ist sehr lange her, sie ist sozusagen schon ganz mit historischem Edelrost überzogen und unbedingt in der Zeitform der tiefsten Vergangenheit vorzutragen.

This story happened a very long time ago. It is so-to-speak already covered in historical rust and must be related in the tense form of the deepest past. (my translation)

The German passage, of which you quote the translation, is:

Sie spielt, oder, um jedes Präsens geflissentlich zu vermeiden, sie spielte und hat gespielt vormals, ehedem, in den alten Tagen, der Welt vor dem großen Kriege.

My translation of this is:

It (the story) takes place, or in order to deliberately avoid every present tense, it took place and has taken place back then, long ago, in the old days, the world before the Great War.

So the intention of the narrator/author is very clear here. The translator has turned the literal "in order to deliberately avoid every present tense" into "to avoid any present tense whatever". This accurately conveys the tenor of the German by using the intensifier whatever.

Intensifiers include common words such as very, really, awfully which precede the words they modify. They also include words or phrases which follow the words they modify or qualify such as whatsoever, at all, like anything.

The narrator plans to use no present tense whatsoever or at all.

Here is an article discussing the intensifier whatsoever.

  • In other words, to answer the OP's question directly, neither present tense nor whatever have any unusual meanings here, they mean what they always mean. It's just that, as is clear form the context, the author has special literary reasons for avoiding it and for making it explicit that he is avoiding it. – jsw29 Feb 10 at 16:15

It seems he is trying to avoid the historic present tense:

In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present or historic present, also called dramatic present or narrative present, is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.

— Wikipedia

  • Thanks! Why would he want to avoid it, though? – Colawithice Feb 10 at 14:00
  • The historic present is often a good style choice in narratives, dramas etc, as it imparts liveliness. Mann (perhaps ruefully) sacrifices this style choice because he sees it as even more important to emphasize the 'distant past' setting. Saying that he's avoiding the present-day connotations of the historic present further emphasises this. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 at 12:49

It takes place, or, to avoid any present tense whatever, it took place back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War, [...] =

whatever = at all or completely

It's quite simple, really.

This use of whatever has zero to do with "linguistics".

Google dictionary:

adverb 1. at all; of any kind (used for emphasis). "they received no help whatever"

Definitions from Oxford Dictionaries [online]

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