Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Translation and World Literature in Goethe's West-East Divan

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Translation and World Literature in Goethe's West-East Divan

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

On July 25th, 1814, Goethe began a journey to the Rhine-Main area, where he was born and raised. It had been decades since Goethe visited his homeland after moving to Weimar to serve in the court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. There, he was burdened with administrative work as a minister of state and unable to succeed in literary writing. By 1814, he had not found the same popular success he had with his first novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. During the Napoleonic Wars, Goethe personally joined the campaign in Mainz and directly experienced the disorder and turmoil caused by the war as French soldiers invaded his home in Weimar. Considering this biographical background, it is no wonder that some Goethe experts tend to interpret this journey to his homeland as Goethe's "escape from the confinement of Weimar" (Unseld 24).

The journey gave Goethe a chance to see a world different from provincial Weimar. The city of his birth, Frankfurt, was undergoing prosperous growth because it had been reconstructed into an international commerce center after the Napoleonic Wars. It had established connections with cities all over the world through international commercial correspondence. The cosmopolitan atmosphere in Frankfurt appealed to the sixty-five-year-old Goethe, touching him again with vitality; he wrote in his journey diary that he felt "rejuvenated" and "reborn to the youthful energy" (Koch 178). With this feeling of rebirth and youth, the journey to his homeland was not only a flight from uncomfortable reality but also an inducement to transcend his previous limits, finding some new possibilities.

About two months before this journey to the Rhine-Main area, Goethe received a special gift from his publisher--two booklets containing the collected poems of the Persian medieval poet Hafiz. This collection had been translated into German by a contemporary of Goethe, the Austrian orientalist Josef von Hammer-Purgstall. During the journey, Hafiz's poems were Goethe's loyal travel companion. He was very impressed when he first read them, as he recalled in a note:

It was last year that I received all of Hafiz's poems in the translation by Hammer-Purgstall. ... The effect was too vivid, the German translation was at hand, and it was here that I had to find the spur to my own participation. Everything that had been stored away and nurtured in my mind and that bore a similarity either in sense or in substance made its mark, and all the more forcefully, so that I felt an absolute necessity to flee from the real world--which was both an overt and covert threat--into an ideal world, the participation in which was left to my pleasure, my ability, and my own will. (Unseld 22-23)

The most obvious effect of Hafiz's poetry on Goethe was remarkable productivity in his poetic writing. His journey diary indicated that several "poems to Hafiz" (Koch 177) were written while he was still on the way to his homeland in the summer of 1814. Like the bourgeoning Frankfurt, Hafiz's poems greatly fascinated Goethe, giving him a strong desire to act interestedly and passionately as well as to write productively.

In Goethe's eyes, Frankfurt as a progressive modern city and Hafiz as a foreign medieval poet did not contradict each other, for they both represented what he imagined for the world to come--a world of free circulation that broke boundaries and opened to states of fluidity and hybridity. Goethe saw in the flow of Frankfurt's trade the ideal of free exchange and communication, the conceptual basis for developing the idea of world literature. In Hafiz and his poetry, he saw the projection of the self into the other that renews poetic production with another voice. His inspiration from Hafiz and his oriental poetry, as well as the crossing of the cultural boundaries, are all literarily reprocessed by Goethe in West-East Divan (West-ostlicher Divan), a poetic cycle with prosaic notes and essays. …

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