Interview with Claudia Ott

"Love is the Language of the Orient"

Following publication of her much praised German translation of The Thousand and One Nights, Claudia Ott has now turned her attention to the love poetry of the Orient. Mohamed Massad talked to the Arabist about the beauty and diversity of oriental poetry

Following publication of her much praised German translation of The Thousand and One Nights, Claudia Ott has now turned her attention to the poetry of the Orient in Gold on Lapis Lazuli, an anthology of one hundred poems from three millennia of oriental love poetry. Mohamed Massad talked to the Arabist about the beauty and diversity of oriental poetry

Your new translation of The Thousand and One Nights was highly praised. Your latest publication is an anthology of poetry, Gold on Lapis Lazuli. Where did the idea for this book come from?

Claudia Ott (photo: Kristina Jentzsch / www.tausendundeine-nacht.com)
Claudia Ott: "When it comes to love poetry, the Orient was and still is in a class of its own, and has been for many centuries"

​​Claudia Ott: I would like to give two answers to your question. First of all, for me, it was the many poems in The Thousand and One Nights that constituted the heart of the text. Despite all the excitement of the stories, it is the magic of the poetry that really attracts and holds the listeners and readers, particularly in the original Arabic text environment.

I have long wanted to publish something that would do justice to the beauty of the poetry, considered so important in the East, particularly something on the genre of love poetry, which is, after all, one of the central themes of poetry in all cultures – oriental poetry especially! One could almost say that the language of love is the language of the Orient.

The second point is that I was commissioned to write Gold on Lapis Lazuli – The 100 Most Beautiful Oriental Love Poems by the publisher C.H. Beck as part of "The 100 Most Beautiful…" series. The series includes titles such as Mankind's 100 Most Beautiful Prayers and The 100 Most Popular German Poems.

The title Gold on Lapis Lazuli, by the way, comes from an Andalusian-Arab poem which describes the twinkling of stars in a dark blue sky. The metaphor also appears in ancient Egyptian love poetry, and again, of course, in the The Thousand and One Nights.

What criteria did you use to select the 100 most beautiful oriental poems?

Ott: Let's be honest. There is no way that anyone can choose a selection that is going to truly represent the "100 most beautiful" from the immense variety and richness of oriental love poetry. When it comes to love poetry, the Orient was and still is in a class of its own, and has been for many centuries.

​​The diversity and quality of possible texts is simply overwhelming! So, initially, I was very unsure about whether or not I should even take up the publisher's offer. In the end I decided to take the plunge, however, and to go for a thematically arranged approach. From "Origins" via "Handsome Men, Beautiful Women", "Union" and "Separation and Parting" to "The Death of Love and Resurrection", the reader is led on a journey through the most important themes of oriental love poetry.

Each of the 14 themed sections contains a selection of poems from all periods. Of course, it is still a subjective selection. Some of the poems became important to me personally during the course of my studies, or in the years I spent in the East, others are connected with personnel encounters and experiences, and some are there just because I like them. Then, of course, there are poems that just had to be included, because they are too well known to be left out of such an anthology.

I chose poems from seven different languages, so not all of them were translated by me. Only a few of them are by me, in fact. My main contribution is a short history of the translations and adaptations from oriental languages that have been done by writers such as Luther, Goethe, Rückert or Schimmel, coming down to more recent work by the likes of Karasholi and Senocak.

What is it about oriental literature that appeals to German and other European readers so much?

Ott: For German readers, the "Orient" still represents a kind of projection screen for their longings and exotic fantasies, though it is also one that reflects threatening stereotypes and images.

With regard to literature, poetry in particular, and even more particularly love poetry, it was Goethe's East West Divan that turned the eyes of German poets and readers to the East as the source of love poetry; justifiably so, as I hope the selection of poems in Gold on Lapis Lazuli will show. In addition, there has been a tremendous increase of interest in all things oriental in recent years. It's something I have also noticed in my work as a university lecturer. Lectures in Arab, Oriental and Islamic Studies have never been as full as they are at present.

In spite of the level of interest, the number of translations of Arabic literature into German is still relatively small. Why is this and how can this situation be rectified?

​​Ott: Unfortunately, it is political books that currently dominate the market and people's perceptions of the modern Orient. There are many more books published about the Orient than there are translations of Arabic (or Persian, Turkish, Afghan etc.) literature. Something similar can be observed with regard to the kind of interest that is given to literature.

While we will read a book in English, French or Russian because we want to read a good book, we tend to read books from Arab countries because we want to find out something about the Arab world.

Why this is so, I cannot say, but it certainly cannot be entirely divorced from the politically charged situation in the Middle East. What I would like to see is Arab literature attracting many more literary readers – it certainly deserves greater recognition!

What sort of a role would you say literary translation has in helping to bring cultures together?

Ott: A crucial one, I would say. The importance of translators and their work for the dialogue between literatures was something that was made clear to us at a writers' forum in Dubai last year. A great deal has been and continues to be said on this matter.

Translation requires the existence of a real, co-operative relationship and mutual interest between those involved, however. Unfortunately we still too often encounter a complacent and rather arrogant attitude on the part of the prevailing European literary establishment. The training of literary translators in oriental languages is certainly something that needs to be intensified and expanded. There are still far too few of them around.

Interview: Mohamed Massad

© Qantara 2009

Dr Claudia Ott studied Orientalism in Jerusalem, Tübingen and Berlin and Arab music in Cairo. She lived in Arab countries for several years and worked as a translator and musician. She has held the post of assistant professor at the Institute for Non-European Languages and Cultures of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg since 2000.

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