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An Interview with Eric Ormsby

26th February 2020

An Interview with Eric Ormsby

In June 2019, in a pub in Bradford, Clare Roberts sat down with Professor Eric Ormsby, translator and editor of Gingko’s new edition of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, to discuss Goethe, the enormous task of translating the Divan, and Eric’s own work as a poet. Eric is a distinguished scholar in the field of Islamic thought. He studied Greek and Latin at Columbia University, NY, and then Classical Arabic and German at the University of Tübingen, West Germany. He received a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and taught at McGill University, Montreal for twenty years, where from 1996 he was Professor and Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies. In 2005 he moved to London where he took up a post as Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies. In addition to his extensive writing on Classical Arabic literature and Islamic thought, and his translations from Arabic and Persian, he has published seven poetry collections, and is an essayist and reviewer and the author of two critical works on poetry and translation.

Clare Roberts: In your introduction to the West-Eastern Divan you write that it is “in many ways a revolutionary book”, and that “it had the effect of capsizing conventional 19th century conceptions of poetry”. Can you talk a little bit more about the impact that you think the West-Eastern Divan had on German poetry and European poetry more generally?

Eric Ormsby: The first thing to say is that it was something utterly different and new, that may be why its first readers were somewhat baffled by it, and it wasn’t an immediate success. People were somewhat lukewarm about it. When you look back from the distance of two centuries, though, you can see, I think, that it was really something quite different. I’m not sure even Goethe himself realised how different and radical it was. He just tried to create this difficult task of writing as a German but at the same time trying to take in this whole other realm of experience. Of course it was about the East or the so called “Orient”, but I think it was also for him kind of a discovery of this whole new realm of feeling that he hadn’t been aware of before, and by using the Oriental motifs and by identifying so closely with Hafiz it enabled him to free something in himself. That’s my take anyway. He was in his sixties. It seems to be that he discovered a kind of youthfulness. Other German poets were certainly very influenced by him, but generally people didn’t really appreciate it. It took a long time for it to be appreciated. Even now a lot of Germans don’t know it – although they know some poems of course. The composers certainly picked up on it. And I didn’t realise that some of the main poems set to music were actually Marianne’s!

CR: Yes, it’s really interesting how lots of the poems that are now considered the best poems in the Divan were written by Goethe’s lover Marianne von Willemer, but she didn’t really admit it until many years after his death.

EO: I’m not sure it’s widely understood that Suleika was really Marianne, with whom Goethe was intimately involved. Obviously Herman Grimm (who was a relative of the Grimm brothers) must have found out, and then she acknowledged it. Initially these scholars couldn’t believe it but she was somehow able to prove it. She explicitly claimed five of the poems. It’s kind of a funny subject for us nowadays, but in those days it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the time that Goethe didn’t acknowledge her contribution.

CR: Do we know how much of Goethe’s relationship with Hafiz and his admiration for Persian and Arabic poetry was through the original languages, because of course he did make a lot of effort to learn the languages, and how much was through Hammer Purgstall’s translation a few years earlier?

EO: It was totally through Hammer Purgstall’s translation. He did know some Persian because we see it in Goethe’s notebooks in Hendrik Birus’s commentary, but he had been working on Arabic a long time before he encountered Hafiz (for some twenty years or so), and he did know some Hebrew, but he really steeped himself in the works of many Orientalists. I don’t know if he ever actually heard the poetry in the original language – I’d like to know.  I think that’s one reason why although he tries to imitate Hafiz, he never really writes a straightforward a ghazal in Persian form. He uses elements of course, like the recurrent rhyme, and sometimes event the signature at the end –

CR: – The takhallus –

EO: The takhallus, yes. I guess he had no intention of doing that. I think he really followed Hammer Purgstall.

CR: But he did seem to be aware of the nasib trobe, the amatory prelude that was common in Arabic poetry.

EO: Yes, well he was much more steeped in Arabic poetry than Persian until he came to Hafiz, people like Mutanabbi and the mu’allaqat

CR: So the idea of weeping at the ruins was very familiar to him.

EO: Yes, I think that rather appealed to him! Well, his knowledge of Persian poetry was better than his knowledge of Arabic, even though he had worked at Arabic longer even through Latin translation. I mean he was really basically an Orientalist himself: he read everything, linguistic works, grammar, traveller’s accounts – he was really steeped in it for a long time.

CR: Goethe seems to have embraced lots of the themes that Hafiz worked with. Which themes do you think resonated with him most strongly?

EO: Well first of all wine! No, maybe actually first of all love. But you know that’s also a funny subject in this book, because in Hafiz you never even have the sense that the person he’s admiring is a real person, whereas with Goethe it’s clear that it’s a real person. I still can’t get over the fact that he was in his sixties. There’s this funny paradox about a book by an old man that reads like the book of a young man.

CR:  What do you think it is about the book that injects this youthfulness into it? Is it the language itself?

EO: Yes, it’s a good question, I’ve been puzzling about that myself. I think it came to him as something immensely refreshing to discover Hafiz and the whole realm of Hafiz’s tropes and themes, combined with this relationship with Marianne. But there’s a feeling in the energy of the language and the musicality, and the love poems.

CR: A real passion for life at least. He’s certainly not world-weary.

EO: No, but it’s interesting that he progresses from this initial relationship where it’s like a duet, into this renunciation where he leaves her, and then it becomes more transcendental – that last poem in the book of Suleika is rather like a hymn. But I always felt that there was something a little self-conscious about it, as if the relationship had a certain course to follow, a poetic structure, they had to part. And she seems to have known that too. You sense that they’re sort of playing a script in a way.

CR:  I’m interested in how you personally first stumbled upon Goethe’s work and how you felt about it and how you feel about it now you’ve worked on it so arduously?(!)

EO: Well I knew it through individual poems and through songs. I had mixed feelings about it to be honest with you, because the poetry varies considerably, I mean there’s some really unbelievably great things, and there’s also some that are clearly occasional poems. They’re always masterful but they’re not necessarily moving. But you have to take them as a whole. When I saw them as a totality I realised that that was part of its charm – this kind of variation of tone and feeling. I mean he was having fun – he was having a ball!

CR:  He was playing!

EO: That’s right, and I think that’s what gives it its – maybe I shouldn’t say youthfulness – but exuberance, he talks about it, its übermut, or boisterousness.

CR: There’s a line in the first chapter of the Divan, the Book of the Singer, that says “Poetry is boisterousness” – I really like that, it stuck in my mind.

EO: Yes, I wasn’t sure about using that word but I’m glad you liked it. He was having a lot of fun. He was able to use all this stuff he’d been studying for years, and do it in a way that wasn’t just pedantic or academic but with a rush of emotion. I haven’t read all of the literature but I don’t think anyone has really done justice to the originality of it.

CR: At the end of his “Notes and Essays for a Better Understanding of the West-Eastern Divan” Goethe expresses a hope that in the future a new divan of sorts will be attempted. I think he probably meant another attempt by himself but obviously he didn’t get around to that. What do you think he would have made of Gingko’s A New Divan 200 years on?

EO: Oh I think he would have been very pleased. I don’t think he actually envisaged anything like that, with a variety of poets from different backgrounds, but I’m sure he would have liked it. To be honest I was a little dubious when I first heard about the project but I think it worked out well. It was a brilliant idea to have English language poets do the translations rather than their own original poems. They did well I think!

CR: But this method of translating poetry via a bridge or literal translator is not always popular. Lots of people take issue with the idea that literal translators aren’t somehow creative enough to translate the original texts on their own, and don’t feel that the poet rendering the poem in the second language should be credited as a “translator” without having knowledge of the original language. 

EO: I’m not sure I agree. I mean some very good translations have been done in that way. I’ve done them myself, with my wife, from the Czech. I think one problem would be if you couldn’t actually hear the poem in the original language. I would be reluctant to do it without being able to hear it.

CR: In her essay in A New Divan Sibylle Wentker writes how it was only when Hammer Purgstall heard the Persian out loud that he was inspired to translate it…

EO: Well yes, it’s essential. Did Goethe ever hear Arabic or Persian out loud? I’d like to know. I don’t know how many speakers of Arabic or Persian Goethe ever encountered.

CR: And he certainly never went to that part of the world.

EO: Oh no. Well he didn’t need to. It was “his Orient”…

CR: I always find it interesting how in the German-speaking world everyone has heard of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan and when they hear that we as a charity are called Gingko they immediately make the connection, whereas in the English-speaking world they don’t generally know it at all.

EO: It’s a nice poem, the “Gingko Biloba”. Very difficult to translate.

CR: It strikes me that you were in a very unique position to work on this translation with not only your mastery of Arabic and Persian and German, but also being a poet in your own right.

EO: Well I thought that’s what I could bring to it.

CR: Given that you’re a poet yourself, I’m interested in how Goethe’s ideas of dialogue between East and West and your studies of the Arab and Persianate worlds have influenced your own poetry.

EO: It influenced me a lot but in quite indirect ways at first. I was intrigued from the very beginning by the rich sounds of Arabic poetry, Arabic seems to have such a wide phonic palette, which may have lead me to some excesses in my own poetry using unusual sound patterns, but I kept it very separate from my academic work for a long time, until I wrote a book called Araby where I tried to bring it together and use the material I knew in a poetic form. I think it worked.

CR: What was the response to that collection?

EO: It came out just before 9/11 and I think it probably wasn’t a time when people were particularly sympathetic to Arabic culture. So it didn’t seem to me to have much of an echo, maybe because it was too strange, I don’t know, but I was pleased for myself, because for so long I’d kept these two things so separate. It’s a mixed thing to announce that you write poetry in an academic setting. Since then I haven’t tried to combine those worlds again, but I was happy to have tried, because it seems to be a little superficial to try to keep them separate.

Click here to learn more about Eric Ormsby’s new translation of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan.