Translations of Classical Islamic Literature

From the Emotional Orient to the Distortion of Islam

Why does classical Oriental poetry still sound so ornate to western ears? Blame the translations. These are still following the model of the eighteenth century, when the myth arose that Islamic poets were sentimental geniuses in the realm of emotion and romance. An essay by Stefan Weidner

Does anyone still remember the supposedly ancient Gaelic epic allegedly written by the legendary Ossian? The real author was the Scottish writer James Macpherson: he simply passed himself off as the translator. Yet it was precisely this deception that led to the Poems of Ossian achieving phenomenal success in the eighteenth century. It's an interesting case, because here the translation is revealed to be that which, potentially, it always is: the extremely questionable claim to have privileged access to something Other, something foreign, something new. Taking the somewhat naïve understanding of translation as dressing a foreign literary body in new linguistic robes, in the case of Ossian all we have is the robe.

Let us remain in the glorious eighteenth century. The French Orientalist Antoine Galland, who worked for many years at the French embassy in Istanbul, returns to Paris. In his luggage he has with him the manuscript with the tales of The Thousand and One Nights. Galland translates them in the literary style of his time – a form of translation that was later decried as belle infidèle, a beautiful, unfaithful woman.

The Thousand and One Nights was a kind of Ossian. The tales owed the phenomenal success they enjoyed all over Europe to the time-bound style of the translation. If Galland had presented a translation of The Thousand and One Nights that was as sober, as fidèle, as the one published by Claudia Ott in 2004, we can be sure that The Thousand and One Nights would never have been noticed at all – just as today the translation practices of Galland and the majority of his successors, about whom Jorge Luis Borges writes so vividly in his essay on 'The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights', are no longer to our taste. However, the question of which translation is better misses the point of what, above all, a translation has to offer.

The magic of poetry

Johann Gottfried Herder in a painting by Anton Graff (source: Gleimhaus Halberstadt/Wikipedia)
"The Occident is responsible for Reason, while the Orient is responsible for Emotion." - The German Enlightenment philosopher and literary critic Herder

Linguistically, The Thousand and One Nights is a relatively simple text. Needless to say, literary fashions and linguistic expectations play a far greater role where translations of poetry are concerned. We may therefore assume, by analogy with the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, that in Western languages Oriental poetry, too, was made readable in a manner that had less in common with the original than it did with the context of the target language.

And it is no coincidence that the upturn in the literary reception of the Orient begins in the same period and with the same protagonists who were so strikingly deceived by the Ossian fabrication. Both mark the beginning of a rebellion against the disenchantment of the world, against the devaluation of emotion in favour of reason.

'Empathy' is the magic word coined by Johann Gottfried Herder in this context. Herder believed he could sense the same originality of genuine feeling in the poetry of the Bible as in that of Ossian. For poetry was, according to a famous phrase by Johann Georg Hamann, the 'mother tongue' of humankind. In this respect the people of the Orient were considered to be sources of unparalleled authenticity.

In a commentary on his collection of traditional folk songs Herder expressed it thus: 'There is more poetry and a greater poetic treasure trove in what are called the prejudices of the common people, in the madness, the mythology, the tradition, the language, the customs, the peculiarities of any savage, than in all the poetics and orations ever written; and if anyone were to collect these forms of madness, fiction, these fantasies and prejudices even somewhat efficiently, I am certain he would be rendering to human understanding a service that ten logics, aesthetics, ethics and politics most likely will not render it.'

The emotional Orient

The anti-Enlightenment attitude of this statement is unmistakable. There are two sides to it. The prettier side is that Herder here defends all foreign poetry against rationalistic or otherwise narrow-minded criticism. He is thus establishing a space in which the foreign poetry is entitled to reside, regardless of how strange or abstruse it may appear to some of its readers. Even a prejudiced poetry could and should now be collected without prejudice. This is nothing short of the beginning of the end of ethnocentrism.

But there is a price for this openness, a darker reverse. Any form of poetry that does not originate in the European cultural realm runs the risk of being labelled along with all the 'forms of madness' as soon as it enters the space Herder opened up. Foreign poetry is thus welcome on the one hand, but at the same time excluded from participating in the future of the Occident. The Occident is responsible for Reason, while the Orient is responsible for Emotion.

Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the oldest text of The Thousand and One Nights, dating back to the 14th century from Syria, in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (image: Wikipedia)
According to Stephan Weidner, Oriental poetry was made readable by western translations in a manner that had less in common with the original than it did with the context of the target language. Pictured: Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the oldest text of "The Thousand and One Nights"

From this we see that Herder found material for his attacks against the rationalistic 'logics, aesthetics, ethics and politics' in almost arbitrary places. Emotion could be just as much the responsibility of the Bible as of the 'savages', or of the yet-to-be-unmasked Ossian, i.e. the Celts. The 'Emotional Orient' had become a metaphor, the metaphorical quality of which, however, often remained hidden. It is still popularly confused today with the actual meaning of the word 'Orient': that of a concrete geographical and cultural location.

The 'Song of Solomon' was now regarded as the paradigm of Oriental poetry and the mother tongue of the male sex. In Herder's translation it was elevated to become the absolute epitome of Oriental poetry. This is probably the origin of the floweriness still imputed to Oriental poetry to this day. 'Perhaps this sigh,' writes Herder in his commentary, 'was sent accompanied by a languishing flower, a fragrant morning rose,' for 'we know from the Montague letters and elsewhere that the Orientals send each other such messages and letters of love in gifts of flowers'.

To gain some idea of the kind of mischief of which Herder's 'empathy' was capable, let us recall that the 'Song of Solomon' was written sometime between the eighth and sixth century before Christ, but that the good Lady Mary Wortley Montague, to whose 'letters' Herder refers, died only in the 1752 – not to mention the fact that the passage in question refers to a Turkish love letter from the so-called 'Tulip Period' in Istanbul in the early eighteenth century when everyone went mad for flowers.

Flowers do indeed feature in the 'Song of Solomon', and this would probably be sufficient to anchor the prejudice about the 'floweriness' of Oriental poetry – later generally understood to mean language rich in imagery, wallowing in metaphor – deep in our general consciousness. For Herder, of course, this is not enough. His commentary on the 'Song of Solomon' paves the way to an entire Interflora service: for, as we know, not only poetry but Nature too was called on to serve the anti-Enlightenment literature.

Translating in the spirit of the times

So if Oriental-Islamic poetry is not flowery, what is it? At the time when people in central Europe started to become interested in it, this poetry already had a thousand-year-old history in three great cultural languages: Arabic, New Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. You don't need to have read a single line of it to know that it would be senseless to try to sum up in a couple of words literary phenomena written over such an extensive period of time and in a geographical area stretching from Spain to New Delhi.

The painting shows how Anselm Feuerbach imagined the Persian poet Hafez as "The Fairy-tale teller" in 1866 (source: Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern des Bezirksverband Pfalz/Wikipedia)
Without an understanding of Persian it is only possible to approximate an understanding of Hafiz by comparing several translations in several languages and from several different periods, Weidner writes. The painting shows how Anselm Feuerbach imagined the Persian poet Hafez as "The Fairy-tale teller" in 1866

In order to explain this in more detail, let us simply take the example of Hafez. For the most part, our knowledge of him is limited to Goethe's West-Eastern Divan, even though, a few quotations aside, there is actually nothing of Hafez in there. Even someone who has at some point read an actual Hafez translation (of which there are many, but none that is really well-known) is hardly likely on that basis to claim to know Hafez. If he does, he is a fool. Without an understanding of Persian it is only possible to approximate an understanding of Hafez by comparing several translations in several languages and from several different periods. If you then compare Hafez with the literary movements that paved the way for his reception, the result is astonishing.

Is Hafez sentimental? A Romantic? There is no apparent overlap between the aforementioned literary movements and either Hafez or the few other examples of Oriental poetry translated in Germany in that crucial century between 1760 and Friedrich Rückert's death in 1866. There are more similarities between the poetry of the medieval Islamic period and the poetry from which our writers of the time were seeking to distance themselves, namely the Baroque and Mannerism. Oriental poetry, particularly that of Hafez, is neither sensitive nor sentimental. Its concept of the subject or lyrical identity has nothing in common with what has distinguished our poetry since the eighteenth century.

Germanicised foreignness

In comparison with poetry from the Sturm und Drang and Romantic periods, classical Oriental artistic poetry, of which Hafez is the culmination, constrains the poet within a corset of conventions. Poetic genius is not expressed through exuberance and individualism but by the poet moving so skilfully within the given parameters that it is as if this corset did not exist. Until well into the twentieth century the poetry of the Islamic languages conformed to a poetics of strict rules which Herder had rejected in his invective against 'poetics and oratorios' quoted above – at almost precisely the same time as this poetry was discovered. Furthermore, we find little in classical Oriental poetry indicative of innovation, a break with tradition, or literary revolution, however much the translations suggest this, or were interpreted in this way.

H.C. Artmann (photo: Wolfgang H. Wögerer/Creative Commons/Wikipedia)
From 14th century Persia to 20th century Austria: Hafez's wordplay can best be compared in German with that of H.C. Artmann, Stefan Weidner asserts

The compatibility of Oriental poetry in general and that of Hafez in particular with German literature between Sturm und Drang and late Romanticism is down to two factors, neither of which have anything to do with the original. One is the cultural deracination of this poetry. Because its original contexts are barely known, it is inevitably particularly open to interpretation. We can do with it and read into it what we will: it is unable to defend itself.

The second decisive factor in the reception of Hafez and Oriental poetry as a whole is the translation itself. The fact that it was received into the context of the aforementioned literary movements, and thus fell precisely into the dichotomy Herder created between reason and emotion, continues to this day to have very serious consequences for the reception of Oriental literature, and indeed the whole Islamic cultural realm.

It was unavoidable that the few translators of Oriental literature should attempt to make the material they were translating acceptable to the readership of their age, their linguistic community; to adapt it and, as it were, dress it up for them. It would be ahistorical to blame the translators for this adaptation. On the contrary, we must be grateful to them for having translated Oriental poetry in the spirit of their times. If they had attempted to translate it as, for example, Hölderlin did the Greeks, their work, like Hölderlin's, would not have provoked the slightest response. The space Herder opened up for Germanicised foreignness – a part, at least, of the incommensurable, would never have been populated.

Poorly interconnected?

It is true that our simple and often distorted image of Oriental poetry dates back to this period. However, responsibility for the fact that this image did not change and become differentiated, like that of Shakespeare, for example, lies with the subsequent generations of literary figures, translators and Orientalists who failed to achieve that which distinguished the first translators: reaching the pinnacle of their age, and mastering the lyrical language of their period. If it is possible to translate Hafez in the manner of the Sturm und Drang or Romantic movements, it is equally possible to translate him in the Expressionist manner, or in that of New Objectivity.

Stefan Weidner (photo: private copyright)
Stefan Weidner is the Editor-in-Chief of "Art & Thought"

Hafez is a poet who would also have been ideally suited to the Viennese avant-garde; his wordplay can best be compared in German with that of H.C. Artmann or Reinhard Priessnitz. There was no such reception for the simple reason that none of our post-war poets had mastered an Islamic language. Furthermore, none of our Orientalists has even attempted to adapt the poetry to our age and our mother tongue, let alone been inspired by it themselves.

Yet, as is very apparent with Annemarie Schimmel and Johann Christoph Bürgel, these translators and Orientalists had good reason to be guided by their Classicism- and Romanticism-influenced predecessors. The style of translation developed at that time is the one in which they encountered Oriental poetry in German – and this was, in fact, the form in which they encountered all poetry. Surely the formal stricture of Oriental poetry was a justification for seeking to base it on our own classics and masters of form? Didn't the age of this poetry necessitate its translation into an older classical language?

Of course, the supposedly classical language into which older Oriental poetry is still translated today is for the most past merely a lifeless clone of the language of our Classicism and Romanticism. Proof of the kind of aberrations that can result was offered to us a few years ago in an anthology of Oriental love poetry whose 'flowery' tone is already apparent in the title: Gold on Lapis Lazuli.

No one should be blamed for believing, on reading anthologies such as these, that there is no reason to be interested in Oriental literature. The anglophone and francophone worlds have long since demonstrated that it is possible to write modern translations of classical Islamic poetry. If, however, there are no longer any contemporary and representative translations of this poetry in the German-speaking world, it can only be the fault of translators, Orientalists, and faint-hearted publishers. It also shows us how poorly interconnected philology, vibrant literature and intellectual curiosity are in our country today – unlike in the age of Classicism.

Stefan Weidner

© Goethe Institute 2013

Translated by Charlotte Collins

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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