Interview with Fuad Rifka
At Home in German Thought

The Syro-Lebanese poet and thinker Fuad Rifka is currently working on a new bilingual anthology of German poetry in Berlin. Youssef Hijazi spoke to him about his love of German culture and about the difficulties of translation

Fuad Rifka (photo: Youssef Hijazi)
Fuad Rifka: "My motivation is based on my conviction that German poetry corresponds to both my nature and maybe also Arab taste"

​​Mr Rifka, you have coined the phrase "to feel at home in German thought". What do you mean by that?

Fuad Rifka: I have got to know a variety of cultures during my lifetime. However, I feel much more at home in the German culture of thought than I do in other cultures. It is very difficult for me to explain what I mean, but let me put it like this:

I am by nature philosophically and poetically-minded. As a poet, I have published several volumes of poetry; as a philosopher, I wrote my doctorate on the aesthetics of Heidegger at the University of Tübingen. Both branches of culture, the poetic and the philosophical, are united in my spirit. My poetry is inspired by philosophy and my thought by poetry. Happily, both of these branches, poetry and thought, have their place in German culture.

But philosophy and poetry exist in other cultures too. What is it that makes German so special for you?

Rifka: In German, poetry and thought overlap. Nietzsche, for example, was both a poet and a philosopher. Schelling, Heidegger, Dilthey, and many other philosophers used the poetic word to reinforce their positions. Furthermore, there is also a philosophical element in the poetry of Novalis, Goethe, Hölderlin, Trakl, and many others. What I mean by this is that the German culture fills my yearning, my spirit, and my soul much more so than other cultures.

You have another passion, namely translation. You have translated renowned poets like Goethe, Rilke, and Hölderlin into Arabic. What was your motivation?

Rifka: My motivation is based on my conviction that German poetry corresponds to both my nature and maybe also Arab taste, I tried to translate classic German poetry into Arabic. I am very happy and proud to be one of the few who started translating German poetry into Arabic.

Why did you decide to translate German poetry before you even had a command of the language?

Rifka: I first experienced German philosophy and poetry during my studies at the American University of Beirut in the 1950s. Even though my knowledge of German philosophy was minimal, I dreamed of studying it more intensively in Germany, the place where it originated. I had another key experience at the Goethe Institute in Beirut.

While I was there once, I took a book off the shelf. It was a bilingual book: German and English. I read the English text. The book gripped me so much that I have no idea how long I stood there reading. It was a book of the Duino Elegies. This book strengthened my decision to learn German in order to be able to translate the elegies out of the original language in which they were written.

How did you realise your dream?

Rifka: It was very difficult for me to turn this dream into reality, mainly for financial reasons. I was saved by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), which granted me a scholarship in 1961. This allowed me to study German for four months at the Goethe Institute. I then spent a year in Göttingen. After that I went to Tübingen, where I completed my degree in philosophy.

My experience of German poetry and philosophy in Tübingen was like an earthquake in my life. I discovered myself there. I gradually found my way while I was in Tübingen. As a young poet, I began to find my way through a deep preoccupation with German poetry, not only with German philosophy. Because Heidegger himself focussed very heavily on German poetry, I also had to do so in my doctorate. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to really submerge myself in German poetry; the more I did so, the more urgently I felt the need to translate German poetry into Arabic.

You began translating German poetry into Arabic in the mid 1960s. Around this time, you founded the literary magazine "Shi'r" with Adonis and Yusuf Al-Khal, who focussed on modern poetry. Back then, Arab readers were very interested in international poetry. Are people very interested in German literature today?

Rifka: Good question! People in the Arab world speak and understand English and/or French. As a language, German has somehow never really come to the fore. It is only recently that Arabs have become interested in German language and culture. Arab readers would now like to get to know the character of German literature. This is why my translations have been so successful; they are long since out of print.

Interview conducted by Youssef Hijazi

© 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Professor Fuad Rifka was born in Syria in 1930. As a child, he moved with his family to Lebanon, where he grew up. He studied philosophy in Beirut and was awarded a doctorate in Tübingen for his work on the aesthetics of Heidegger. Rifka was awarded the Friedrich Gundolf Prize by the German Academy for Language and Poetry in Autumn 2001.

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