Literal Translation by Karen Leeder

The Devil in the Orient



Greatly in fashion today is the slogan:      [Kampfwort = slogan (literally battle word; battle cry)]

The Press lies, the TV lies and politics

Is thought of as a game to deceive the voters   – [gilt als = impersonal construction is considered as]

War rages, as always, and the trick:         [es herrscht = impersonal literally to dominate master]

The mystification of everyone. Friend and enemy

Are united in a swamp of perfidy.            [Niedertracht wretchedness, baseness (high register)]

Pure chutzpah: a word like Auschwitz-lie.


Fake news they say: seed for the suspicion                          [seed / germ]

That something there, the truth, is no longer right.

Autocrats, oligarchs, presidents – power   [Macht /hat powerful line break with inversion power/has]

Is had by the one who swims on top in the stream of lies.

Falsification of facts… Money distorts the measurements.

Info the madness is called, statistics are made up                             [türken – fabricate – notably slangy]

And the watchwords/chants/ of hatred move through the streets.   [‘Parole’= on a banner/chanted]


Hashtag lie. Rumour rules, infamous.                      [or infamously – grammatically both are possible]

Badly mistreated words that everyone knows:

Freedom, belief, safety – and no shame.                              [Sicherheit = safety security in both senses]

Lie, lie, repeated becomes firm foundation.

(Demagogue’s theorem). [KL1] That’s how it happens, how

A word sets half the world on fire: Islam.

Language, deceit, was there from the beginning.              [Täuschung can be deceit/delusion/illusion]

Everyone lies and poets in any case.                                       [Sowieso – again rather deliberately casual]



This responds to the Goethe poem ‘Anklage’ (Accusation) which is essentially about the contradiction between the freedom of the poet and the religious dogma of the day, written from the perspective of a guardian of morals, but siding (linguistically in the second strophe) with the poet. It is from this poem that the Devil comes and the lying poet and the desert setting in Grünbein’s response. The poet is aligned with the villains for whom the Devil lies in wait. Below is a translation of it by Martin Bidney, which gives you the gist. They key lines are the last two of the first strophe asking: ‘Der Poete, warum scheut er nicht, / Sich mit solchen Leuten einzulassen!’ (The Poet why does he not avoid/ getting involved with such people?) : such people previously defined in the lines before as liars and villains, and of course the end is ironic given that Goethe is in dialogue with Hafiz.



Whom are the devils watching, gathered all

On desert sand, between a rock and wall?

Wait for a moment -look! – and they’ll have grabbed –

To take to hell- the men they’ve lured and nabbed:

Slyest of liars and a crook – what gall!


Why is the poet there? Why’s he allowed

To spend his time with that obnoxious crowd?

And – can he guess how such a person acts?

He’s all involved with madness, not with facts.

Knowing no limit, stuck with stubborn will

Spends all his time out in the wilds until

The rhyme-laments he wrote in sand piles spill

Into the wind and waft away;

Even what he himself will say

He doesn’t understand, and doesn’t care.


His songs are honored, though – and is that fair? –

When the Qur’an they plainly contradict!

You expert legal minds, you tell us, then –

Such wisely pious, educated men –

Haven’t we some convictions that restrict?


Hafiz? – a scandal-writer, rousing rancor!

Mirza hurled souls to nowhere – doubters’ canker! –

What shall we do when no one has an anchor?



Grunbein’s response


Form verse: two 7 line strophes – and the third one has an extra line. Highly rhetorical style – lots of inversions give it formality. Rhymes ABABCCA/ ABAB CA?C/ ABABAAC.  Though a couple are slightly off – getürkt in st 2. doesn’t really rhyme with Macht (perhaps deliberately). And in st. 2 also Strassen/Masse and in the last strophe Islam/an. The preponderance of masculine rhymes esp. in st. 2 and 3 (i.e. a single stressed syllable) gives is a definitive feel. Half of First strophe and the last strophe are basically trochaic hexameters, fairly regular, and certainly sound rather statuesque, slightly archaic; second half of the first strophe = pentameter and second strophe falls into between seven and five stresses. Generally vocabulary is high register classical even (e.g. ‘Sumpf der Niedertracht’, ‘es herrscht Krieg’ etc. and all those abstracts, Rumour, Freedom etc., but this is offset by the occasional provocative slang – getürket, Chuzpe pur, Hashtag – and a kind of rakish casualness (e.g. sowieso, the last word).  This is a familiar effect in DG the formal slightly classicising, highly rhetorical mode of diction (and upper-case at the beginning of lines contributes as well) and the more modern ironised content.

The term Auschwitz-Lüge (Auschwitz Lie) comes from Thies Christopherson’s 1973 book Die Auschwitzlüge und die Folgen (The Auschwitz Lie and the Consequences], disputing the existence of the gas chambers.  His works were seized a few times and have gone out of print but the phrase has entered the language as a fairly standard shorthand for Holocaust denial.

DG’s collection of essays Galilei vermisst Dantes Hölle und bleibt an den Maßen hängen. Aufsätze 1989-1995 (1996) (Gallieo measures Dante’s hell and gets stuck on the measurements) came into my mind in st. 2 about distorting the measurements.




It’s raining, it spatters                                                    = plattern unusual word

onto the Camel-drivers’ town.

Who makes it rain? The Devil.

Who makes the cowpat

Of black camel dung splatter down

Onto the heads of the believers                                               faithful

Allah, Deus, Jehovah?


Days, weeks and years

I have persevered                                           (held out endured)

Waiting for the one line

Which will [end] the monotonous rain

of monotheism

secretly, [for the sake] of the mice   -in aller Stille an idiom meaning in complete silence OR secretly

Butterflies and sparrows –

All gentle/delicate beings,           animals and children still governed by dative of for the sake of

Animals and children

[for the sake of bring to a close]




Much simpler vocabulary. Childlike, fairy tale even, at the beginning and esp second strophe beginning (which is also the most regular rhythmically).. Basically 3 or 4 stresses per line. Some density of sound: plattern, Fladen, Kamel, Glaubig klastschen, Allah

Because of the verb going to the end of the clause beginning ‘which will’… [end] and the phrase ‘zuliebe’ (for the sake of) coming after the list of things it governs, the final line of the German neatly has simply these two words ’zuliebe beenden’ which gives the feel of a build-up of clauses finally coming to an unexpected conclusion. Of course they need to go earlier in the sentence to make sense in English so as it were the end line of a literal translation disappears: so

Which for the sake of the mice

The butterflies and sparrows

For all gentles creatures

Animals and children

Will bring the monotonous rain

Of monotheism

To an end.









In Samarkand, in Samarkand

He sat in a burnous before a clay yellow wall                       clay loam brick earth


In the dusty streets in the Orient              Morgenland = literally morning land standard for Orient

He remained the only one unrecognised.


Through bazars full of intoxicating bric a brac                       Tand = slightly dated word

It was that he vanished at midday                                            or in the morning


Between donkey-carts at the side of the road

The rosary in his left hand,


But the spot looked as if it had been gutted                        – ie burnt out scorched

Which no one there found strange.




The poem is made up of five couplets that all rhyme on the same sound ‘and’.

That same sound is also dominant in the poem itself in for example, Karren, Kranz, niemand, saß, als, Basare, abgebrannt

Basically Four fairly regular stresses per line (except 7 and 9 which are five) – feels incantatory – the trochaic start of the second line in each couplet gives a kind of forward momentum.

Feels slightly mysterious (to me!).

That ‘als Einziger unerkannt’ possibly suggests something religious or maybe the poet?


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