The German Riveter: THE GENESIS OF A NEW DIVAN by Barbara Schwepcke

Occasionally publishers do memorable things. In 1814 Johann Friedrich Cotta, a distinguished member of my profession, sent his famous client Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the first German translation of the works of the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz – the ‘ur-divan’. Goethe was immediately enthralled, called Hafiz his twin and decided to write a divan – a Persian-style poetry collection – of his own. This was the start of a lyrical dialogue between East and West, across centuries and cultures; in other words, the start of the West-Eastern Divan.

Not long after that, on a trip to Frankfurt, the place of his birth, Goethe met Marianne von Willemer, the young wife of a banker. She became Suleika to his Hatem, and what started as a duet between Goethe and Hafiz morphed into a duet between two lovers. The book of Suleika is possibly the most beautiful part of the West-Eastern Divan. At the heart of it is a poem called ‘Gingko Biloba’. It is Goethe’s ode to friendship between East and West, between man and woman, human and the divine. He sent it to Marianne with two gingko leaves pressed and pasted underneath, and dated it 15 September 1815.

Two hundred years later, on that same day, Gingko, a charity devoted to fostering better understanding between the Middle East and the Western world, decided to continue this lyrical dialogue. It commissioned twelve poets from the East and twelve from the West to respond to the twelve themes of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan. The poets from the East write in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, while the twelve from the West write in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian and Spanish. It would have been possible to approach only poets already interested in East and West, but we wanted to encourage poets established in their own cultures to engage with a poetry and a culture that were not their own, to open themselves up to new influences and new experiences. Our aim was to find poets keen to engage with Goethe’s original, but also those with an awareness of the divided times in which we live today.

To complete this lyrical dialogue we also had to find twenty-two outstanding English-language poets to take on the task of creating English versions of the poems not originally written in English. Again, we did not only want to approach those who knew the languages concerned, but to encourage a wide range of poets to engage with the project. While some of them have translated their poems directly into English, the majority have undertaken this adventure with the help of expert translators, who provided annotated ‘literal’ – or perhaps more accurately ‘bridge’ – translations. The English-language poets were given considerable freedom, but it is a mark of the quality of the original texts, as it is of the English versions themselves, that the poets have tended to stay closer to, rather than move further away from, the originals.

The result is A New Divan, a divan for our times, a multilingual anthology of poetry and a celebration of what we have in common in a time when some people seek to divide us.

Barbara Schwepcke

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.


Barbara Schwepcke began her professional life as a journalist in Germany before moving to the UK. In 2003 she founded Haus Publishing. She is also the founder of Gingko, a charity that promotes a deeper understanding of the Middle East, North Africa and the wider Islamic world.

Category: November 2019 - The German RiveterThe Riveter

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