Literal Translation by Iain Galbraith

Literal translation and commentary by Iain Galbraith of the poem “ephesusghasele” by Jan Wagner

ephesus ghazal


„Und er lief, da war der Tore

Wart’ und Turn und alles anders.“

Goethe, Westöstlicher Divan

As his epigraph Jan Wagner has chosen two lines from Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan. The lines come from ‘Siebenschläfer’ (Seven Sleepers), a poem included in the ‘Chuld Nameh / Buch des Paradieses” (Chuld Nameh / Book of Paradise) section of ‘West-Eastern Divan’, and the second last poem in the anthology. ‘Siebenschläfer’ was composed in December 1814 and revised in May 1815:

Epigraph, literally: And he went, and the look-out (Warte) and tower (Turn) of the gates (der Tore) and all were different (anders)

The transformation referred to in these lines is experienced by Jamblika, one of the eponymous, legendary ‘seven sleepers’ (also spelled Jamblica, or, according to J. C. Rich (see below), Yamleekha). In Goethe’s poem six young men, “favourites” at the Emperor’s court in Ephesus, learn the ruler is not the god he takes himself to be (a mere fly can drive him to distraction); he’s a fake, so they flee from Ephesus, incurring the Emperor’s wrath. The six refugees are granted sanctuary in a shepherd’s cave, where they and the shepherd fall asleep. In the meantime, the Emperor, enraged, has them immured in the cave. However, an angel cares for them, reporting to God that he has turned them this way and that in their sleep (a remedy against bed sores) and permitted the fresh breezes and pleasant shafts of sunlight to penetrate the confines of the cave. In time, the bricks crumble. On awakening from their slumbers, one of them, Jamblica, sets out to find food for the hungry ‘sleepers’. Returning to Ephesus he finds everything there is changed. The seven sleepers (or eight including the shepherd’s dog) have been asleep for generations, but without aging. Thus Jamblica’s own descendents gather around him, speaking of his unborn sons and grandsons as their ancestors, venerating him (the youngest of all) as their “Urvater” (primal father). Jamblica returns to the cave, but when the King and people of Ephesus come to find the ‘seven sleepers’, there is no sign of them. The angel Gabriel, at God’s behest, has assumed them into Paradise. The cave appears to have been walled in again.

Ephesus, in the title (‘Ephesusghasele’) of Wagner’s poem, is the scene of Goethe’s ‘Seven Sleepers’ and also of the Seven Sleepers legend of late antiquity and the early Christian period.

In his diary entry for 30.12.1814, Goethe notes: “Fundgruben des Orients: ‘Siebenschläfer'”. This is a reference to the publication of the ‘Siebenschläfer’ legend as The Story of the Seven Sleepers in the journal Fundgruben des Orients (1813: Vol. III, pp. 347-381), edited by the Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall in Vienna. The text, by “J.C. Rich Esquire, His British Majesty’s Resident at Bagdad” (Claudius Rich, 1787-1820, was a well-known traveler, linguist, antiquarian, author and business agent, and one of the first European explorers of Mesopotamia), purports to be a translation of an account in Wahab ben Monabbeh’s The Câab el Akhbar. The sources of the legend are, however, notoriously complex, and John Koch, in his 1888 monograph Die Siebenschläferlegende (The Legend of the Seven Sleepers, reprinted 2016), disputes J. C. Rich’s claim, pointing out that Ka’b El ‘ahbâr was not a book but the name of a Jewish theologian and early convert to Islam. The Fundgruben text is generally thought to have been Goethe’s inspiration for “Siebenschläfer”, and it is interesting in the present circumstances to note that Goethe may have first read his “Muhammedan” source-text in English.

The ‘seven sleepers’ legend is alluded to in the Quran (Sura 18, 15-24 ff.) and is known to Muslims as ‘Al-Khaf’ (the sura of the cave), or ‘Aṣḥab al-Kahf’ (the people or companions of the cave); it is often recited in Friday Prayers. In the Quran version, the ‘sleepers’ spend three hundred years asleep in the cave. Sura 18: 21 recognizes that the number of ‘sleepers’ is under dispute (see below). The Christian-Jewish-Muslim inter-culturality of his sources will have greatly appealed to Goethe. Looking forward to the publication of the 1819 edition of West-östlicher Divan in the Morgenblatt (24.2.1816), he calls his own sources “oriental” and “Muhammedan”. As he mentions to Eckermann (2 May 1824), he considers religious subjects worth using if they portray universal human values.

In the Christian tradition the legend was first written down by the 5th-century Syriac poet-theologian Jacob of Serugh, and passed down in Latin by the Gallo-Roman bishop and historian Gregory of Tours, and in Greek in Symeon Metaphrastes’s Lives of the Saints. It is recorded that Goethe possessed a Byzantine picture of the Seven Sleepers in their cave. There is an account of the legend in Chap. XXXIII of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbons writes: “The story of the Seven Sleepers has been adopted and adorned by the nations, from Bengal to Africa, who profess the Mahometan religion; and some vestiges of a similar tradition have been discovered in the remote extremities of Scandinavia. This easy and universal belief, so expressive of the sense of mankind, may be ascribed to the genuine merit of the fable itself.”

Wagner’s poem (unlike Goethe’s) retells the ‘Seven Sleepers’ legend in the pre-Islamic poetic form of the ghazal, whose traditional structure (a,a – b,a – c,a – d,a etc.) he closely follows, but also varies in two ways: firstly by doubling the repeated rhyme, and secondly by introducing a final triplet. The doubling of the traditionally repeated rhyme follows a distinct pattern: all the rhymes are -art -ar, or –ahrt -ar, or in one case: -art -ahr. Examples are: ‘erwartbar’, ‘hart war’, ‘geklart war’, ‘vernarrt war’, ‘quartjahr’, ‘erstarrt war’, ‘bart war’ etc. etc. This possibly unique, almost whimsical feature, along with the stringent metrical regularity of the rhyme lines, is essential to the poem’s shape and effect. Meanwhile the triplet, in an inserted line not demanded by the traditional form, repeats the poem’s last variable ending (ihm/ihm), before returning to the ghazal form and ending with an expected rhyme (‘bewahrt war’) on the first couplet (erwartbar / hart war).

But for the final line – an iambic pentameter of 11 syllables – all lines ending with the repeated double rhyme (-art -ar) consist of 9 syllables and are composed in iambic tetrameter, with an unstressed final syllable added (usually “war”). The non-rhyming lines have 8 or 9 syllables and employ a varied tetrameter: not uniformly iambic and with some masculine endings.

As always, Wagner writes entirely in lower case (including proper names). The punctuation, however, is conventional.


ein früher tod war ja erwartbar

an early death was expectable/ to be expected

the “ja” here is not the German for “yes” but a particle conveying a mood of assurance or conviction. Phrases in English that do the same job are “of course”, or “as we know”, or “as one can imagine”, or “obviously”

bei einem kaiser, der so hart war

with/ in the proximity of an emperor who was so hard/ severe/ strict

in glaubensfragen (maler stellen

in questions/ matters of belief (painters/artists show/portray

fragen = questions. glaube = belief. darstellen=portray

ihn kalten blicks und stark behaart dar).

his cold gaze/look/eyes and especially/heavily hirsute/shaggy/hairy).

stark behaart dar – a triple rhyme/assonance. I count eight of these in the repeated rhyme lines.

kalten blicks = of/with a cold gaze

so waren sieben junge männer

thus/so seven young men

In Goethe’s version there are six young men, see commentary above; the shepherd was the seventh and the dog the eighth. Is there a dispute? If so, is it important? Or indicative? In Sura 18: 21, we read: ‘Some will say, “There were three, the fourth of them was their dog”; and others will say, “There were five, the sixth of them was their dog” – guessing at the unseen; and others say, “There were seven, and the eighth of them was their dog”. Say, “My Lord best knows their number. None knows them except a few.” So do not argue about them unless you have clear proof, and do not inquire about them from anyone.’  

im hals- und handumdrehen startklar

ready to take their leave in the twinkling of an eye/trice/next to no time/jiffy

literally: ready to leave/start in the twist/wringing of a neck and turnover of a hand. in contrast to “im handumdrehen”, “im halsumdrehen” (in the twist of a neck) is not a common German idiom of the sort I have listed in the literal translation of the line: i.e. it does not generally mean “in the twinkling of an eye”. Perhaps it plays on the danger to which the young men are exposed and the suddenness with which that danger could arrive, but I take the turning of the neck to imply a sudden change of direction and loyalty. The word “Wendehals”, literally neck-turner, is the wryneck in English, but it can also be used – albeit pejoratively, perhaps not appropriate here – to describe someone who changes their loyalty very quickly to adapt to new political circumstances (a turncoat). ‘im handumdrehen’ (in the turning over of a hand) is often used to mean the same as ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, or ‘straight away’ in English. “startklar” (clear to start/ready to go) has a slightly loose or anachronistically slangy feel to it (ready to roll), adding a thin (humorous) layer of irony or distancing to the narrative perspective. The word is modern; you might use it if you were about to set off on a car journey or about to use a machine; more generally a pilot would use it to mean “ready for take-off”. This irony or distancing can sometimes be an effect of the repetitive rhyming pattern, too, which demands cleverness, or wit, or departures – in its stretching reach for rhyme – from “straight telling”.

und auf der flucht, versteckten sich,

and on the run/in flight, hid themselves

sich verstecken = to hide away, hide, hide out, conceal oneself

bevor die nacht zum tag geklart war,

before the night had cleared to day/turned to day

in einer höhle – samt dem hund,

in a cave – together with the dog,

der in die sieben ganz vernarrt war.

who/which was besotted with the seven.

ver-narr-t (“narr” means fool): adored, loved, doted on, besotted with


dort schliefen sie. der kaiser ließ,

there they slept. The Emperor had –

“ließ”: in the sense of to “have something done”, here perhaps “ordered”

als fels um fels herangekarrt war,

when rock after rock had been carted there –

“karren” (ppl. gekarrt), is to cart. n. a cart or barrow. the literal sense of herangekarrt is: brought by cart

das loch vermauern, doch sie schliefen,

the hole walled up, and yet they slept,

i.e. continued from above: the Emperor had … the hole walled up (vermauern: ‘Mauer’ is a wall). doch: however, but, and yet

woche um woche, quint- um quartjahr,

week after week, pentennial after quadrenniel,

the words ‘quintjahr’ and ‘quartjahr’ are neologisms (in fact they could probably be called nonce words, invented by Wagner for this poem and rhyme), certainly less familiar even than quinquennial in English. I’m assuming they mean an interval of five (quint-) or four (quart-) years. In music eine Quinte (fifth) is an interval of five tones, for example.

jahrhunderte, jahrhunderte,

for centuries, centuries,

as in: for centuries and centuries. The omission of the connecting conjunction “um” has the emotional effect of expressing the speaker’s disbelief that it could really have been so long: centuries – centuries!

so tief, daß schlaf mit tod gepaart war

so deeply, that sleep was twinned with death

gepaart: (coupled, paired, twinned: as in Hypnos and Thanatos, but also linked, joined, combined, went together with)

oder so schien, und eine hand,

or appeared so, and a hand,

die ungeheuerlich, doch zart war,

that was dreadful yet delicate,

ungeheuerlich: monstrous/dreadful. zart: tender/delicate/gentle

in the legend, this is the angel’s hand

drehte sie um im schlaf bei dem,

turned them over in sleep during what

drehte … um: umdrehen: turned over/on their sides, i.e. to prevent bed sores. bei dem: in/during what

was höhlen- oder himmelfahrt war.

were his journeys to the cave or heaven.

this is a little obscure and probably means something like: whenever the angel (actually, the hand), on his way between earth and heaven, passed the cave he cared for them in this way (turning the sleepers from one side onto the other). The angel of the legend and Goethe’s poem does go to heaven to report to God, and intervenes to keep the seven sleepers alive and well during their sleep. The expression ‘höhlenfahrt’ seems to echo ‘höllenfahrt’ (descent into hell) whereas ‘himmelfahrt’ is ascent to heaven, but I can’t help but feel these are playful allusions generated by the search for a suitable rhyme (himmelfahrt).

hungrig erwachten sie. kein fels mehr,

hungry they awoke. no stone/rock any more,

the rocks/stones had crumbled away/melted wi’ the sun, so to speak.

doch glaubten sie, was offenbart war,

but they thought what had been revealed

Offenbarung: revelation, also in a religious sense: Die Offenbarung des Johannes /The Revelation of St. John. they thought, the only thing that had been revealed was the day

sei nur der tag, schickten zur stadt

was merely the day, (and they) sent to town

‘day’ perhaps in sense of ‘daylight’

den jüngsten, der geschickt und smart war,

the youngest, who was skilful and clever/smart,

the English ‘smart’, though it is used in German (as is: clever), is again slightly slangy (to my ears).

statt strafgericht den bäcker fand,

instead of the criminal court found the baker,

perhaps in the sense that he found a bakery where the criminal court used to be

der überrascht und wie erstarrt war,

who was surprised and seemed frozen,

‘who’ refers to the baker. wie: as if, like: seemed. erstarrt: frozen in shock, petrified, paralysed

die freunde alarmierte – denn

alerting his friends – for

der münze, lange aufgespart, war

on the coin, long saved/kept/cherished, was

ein toter kaiser eingraviert.

a dead emperor was engraved.

i.e the emperor from whom they had fled

wer zweifelte? um ihn geschart war

who doubted? around him was gathered

probably in the sense of: who could doubt his identity now?

die ganze stadt, bestaunte ihn,

the whole town, marvelling at him/gazing at him in astonishment

der fern der zeit und doch apart war,

who was far from the time and yet was special,

fern: distant. fern der zeit: of a distant age. doch: sure, certainly, yet. apart: striking, unusual

dessen geschlecht mit onkeln, enkeln

whose people, along with his uncles, grandchildren

gechlecht: people, family, tribe

und ururenkeln längst verscharrt war,

and great-grandchildren, were long buried

verscharrt: again slightly ironic: giving the sense of hastily buried. But buried is buried.

nichts als ein staub, derweil er selbst

nothing but a pile of dust, while he himself

he could have written: ‘nichts als staub’, but writes ‘nichts als ein staub’, changing the sense marginally from nothing but dust to nothing but a dust (i.e. pile of dust): bringing the syllable-count to 8 in the process

noch immer jung und ohne bart war,

was still young and without a beard,


sein eigner, letzter erbe, der

his own, final heir, who

letzter: as well as final, could be last or most recent: his own and most recent


äonen alt, doch nicht bejahrt war.

aeons old, was nonetheless not agèd.

bejahrt: elderly.

so ließ man töpfe köcheln, zog,

so they put pots a-simmer, set off,

köcheln: simmer. The structure is: thus one (‘man’, i.e. impersonal pronoun: they: the people) let (ließ) pots (töpfe) simmer (köcheln) and set off (zog) from Ephesus to the …

bevor die hirse ganz gegart war,

before the millet was fully cooked,

von ephesus zur höhle, fand

from Ephesus to the cave, found

ein volk von sieben, dem erspart war

a people of seven, who had been spared

volk: perhaps a nation, their people having multiplied while the Ephesus seven were asleep. Or tribe. Or “peopled by seven”. dem erspart war/ zu sterben: literally, to whom it was spared to die

zu sterben, fand mit ihm und ihm

dying, found with him and him

the numbers are slightly confusing here: there are only six times “ihm”/him instead of the seven at the beginning of the poem. But a) see the sound advice from the Quran above, and b) while I did think at first that the six pronouns related to the ‘companions of the cave’ (and they might), the “him”s, syntactically, could also be witnesses, in that these people, an indefinite number (don’t ask anyone how many unless they have proof), actually witnessed the scene at the cave (“found with him and him …”) and saw God’s will done.

und ihm und ihm und ihm und ihm,

and him and him and him and him,

was vorerst für die ewigkeit bewahrt war.

what for now had been saved for eternity.

“was” = “what”: in the legend the “what” that “had been saved” was the seven, that is the six young men and the shepherd, who have been saved/preserved for eternity. The dog doesn’t get to go to heaven. But to me, here, it isn’t entirely clear. Could whatever had been saved for all time be something else? The legend itself perhaps? The “vorerst” means “for now” or “for the time being”, as if the arrangement were temporary. Until someone turns up with “clear proof” perhaps?

Click here to learn more about Iain Galbraith