West-East Divan: The Poems with "Notes and Essays": Goethe's Intercultural Dialogues

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Johann Wolfgang Goethe, West-East Divan: The Poems with "Notes and Essays": Goethe's Intercultural Dialogues. Martin Bidney, trans. "Notes and Essays" translation assisted by Peter Anton von Arnim. Binghamton, NY: Global Academic Publishing, 2010. 474 pp.

This is an unusual scholarly book, a delightful combination of solid research and poetic inspiration, as befits a project whose major purpose is to offer a contemporary translation of Goethe's West-Östlicher Divan. Before the book was published, Peter Anton von Arnim unexpectedly died. He had assisted the author in translating the prose essays entitled "Notes and Essays," which Goethe had written to accompany his poems. Martin Bidney 's tribute to Arnim is a lovely sonnet that appears in the prefatory pages of the book. He also proffered a sonnet to his mentor, Katharina Mommsen, and acknowledged his indebtedness to her in other parts of the text as well. What is unusual about this translation is that all of the author's notes to accompany Goethe's Divan poems are also in poetry, creating an interesting dialectic between author and interpreter, expressed in different and mutually complementary kinds of poetry. Goethe's are firmly rooted in his times and imitative of their Eastern counterparts while Bidney's are contemporary, of course, but also delicately respectful of their antecedent.

One of the most surprising facts about the project is that Goethe's own "Notes and Essays" have never appeared in English before. Some readers may not know how advisable it could be to read both together or assign both to advanced students. Students without an excellent reading knowledge of German will be particularly grateful for this translation. Certainly, contemporary students can be expected to have a more vivid interest in Goethe's west-eastern understandings and intentions than readers from earlier times. Scholars, too, will welcome these competent translations of poetry and notes together.

Goethe himself well understood that he might have to wait for an appreciative authence for this undertaking; yet his admirable foresight and lively interest in the subject remain one of many hallmarks of his genius. Bidney explains that Goethe wrote these extensive notes and essays in order to facilitate access to his main poetic work. Goethe's commentary begins with short chapters about ancient peoples like the Hebrews and Persians. He discusses history, offers remarks about Muhammad (190-92), Persian poets, and technical aspects of their poetic tradition. Goethe includes some of his own poems as well as original Persian texts. He writes a brief segment entitled "Exchanging Flowers and Symbols," rather more extensive notes about a future Div an, and some brief comments about other scholars or travelers interested in this area. …