When Goethe worked on his poetic dialogue between East and West, known as his West-Eastern Divan, between 1814 and 1818, he could not foresee that exactly a century later Orient and Occident would experience their cataclysmic fiasco. But what he was able to see he gave unique expression to. It amounted to what is arguably the greatest cycle of love poetry known to us – and not only in the German tongue. Goethe drew on Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s translation of Hafiz’s Persian Divan into the German language, turning it into a dialogue between lovers and cultures, emotion and wisdom.
Two hundred years on, Goethe’s secular achievement has been revisited in numerous conferences and publications. But none stands out as much as the beautifully presented volume A New Divan, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson. Goethe’s Divan is unsurpassable but eminently approachable for readers, poets, translators and translation theorists alike. The most recent example illustrating this phenomenon is Eric Ormsby’s prose translation of the complete cycle of poems, together with Goethe’s ‘Notes’ and accompanied by a suitably instructive introduction, also published by Gingko, the brand leader when it comes to publishing ambitious material on oriental and occidental cultural transfer.
Goethe’s Divan also offers, among many other things, ample ‘connectivity’, to borrow a recent keyword from communication theory jargon. It invites not only contemplation and delight in the sheer sensuality of Goethe’s German but also productive engagement. It is the latter that this volume testifies to, and it does so by bringing together English renderings of the poems, which work with motifs and sentiments extracted from Goethe’s legendary achievement, which was less appreciated in his time.
The original contributions to this stunning volume come from major contemporary poets in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish and Turkish, ranging from Adonis (his large-scale poem ‘Letter to Goethe’ is the masterpiece of this collection) to Amjad Nasser, Durs Grünbein, Don Paterson and Hafez Mousavi. Their translators are of equal eminence with Lavinia Greenlaw, Jorie Graham and Paul Farley, to mention but a few.
This landmark homage to Goethe’s Divan also contains substantial reflections on the practice and meaning of translation. Essays by Sibylle Wentker and Stefan Weidner pay justice to Hammer-Purgstall’s pioneering achievement: opening up for his contemporaries, Goethe included, new cultural perspectives on the world of Persia’s literary history in general and on Hafiz in particular. Rajmohan Gandhi discusses the relevance of Goethe’s Divan today, and Narguess Farzad considers the function of the translator as a key agent in all cultural transfers – very much in line with Goethe’s own reflections on this subject in his famous ‘Notes’ to his Divan. Of particular interest in this connection are Kadhim J. Hassan’s thoughts on ‘translating European Poetry into Arabic Culture’.
In our time (I’m once again stereotyping), clichés about the ‘other’ dominate the media, mostly supplied by utterly irresponsible politicians blinded by their own ignorant and petty dogmatisms. At the same time, and all too often, talk about ‘otherness’, ‘othering’ and the ‘other’ merely pays lip service to a particular branch of the Zeitgeist. But the inflationary use of these concepts has made them sound hollow. We need new substance to fill them with sustainable meaning: insights into the duplicity of our existence and the reciprocity within our respective cultural heritages. Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan contains just that, as Daniel Barenboim and Mariam C. Said, the widow of his great friend Edward Said, explain in their moving forewords. A New Divan itself gives a contemporary voice to this concern. This ‘lyrical dialogue between East and West’ provides not only edifying but utterly essential reading.
The final word of this critical appreciation must be Goethe’s poem ‘Gingko Biloba’, which opens the volume – in a version by the late Anthea Bell, a great mediator between German and English letters. The gingko was Goethe’s botanic symbol for the two sides of the cultural coin – a leitmotif for the act of cultural transfer and an eminently poetic recognition of the creative duality we hold within ourselves:
The Ginko, that Eastern tree,
In my garden plot now grows.
In its leaf there seems to be
A secret that the wise man knows.
Is that leaf one and lonely?
In itself in two divided?
Is it two that have decided
To be seen as one leaf only?
To such questions I reply:
Do not my love songs say to you
– Should you ever wonder why
I sing, that I am one yet two?
Reviewed by Rüdiger Görner
A NEW DIVAN: A LYRICAL DIALOGUE BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
edited by Bill Swainson and Barbara Schwepcke, with forewords by Daniel Barenboim and Mariam C. Said
Published by Gingko (2019)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Rüdiger Görner teaches German and comparative literature at Queen Mary, University of London. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Director of the Institute of Germanic Studies, where he founded the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature and Culture.