One week of language babel

The translator’s workshop “Poesie der Nachbarn – Dichter übersetzen Dichter” (Poetry of neighbors – Poets translating poets) took place for the 30th time this year. The host-country was Syria.

von Maritta Iseler

Poets, writers, artists, musicians, translators, readers and art lovers meet in the Künstlerhaus Edenkoben.

It is one of the yearly highlights of the Künstlerhaus Edenkoben. Idyllically nestled amidst the vineyards, every year in the beginning of July, the Künstlerhaus brings six foreigners and six German-speaking poets together for one week.

The concept: The German poets translate their international neighbors’ poetry. Before meeting their partners, they receive interlinear versions of the poems; generally artless, philologically edited word-by-word translations. These text versions are provided as a skeleton by a translator who is very familiar with the host country’s literature. The poetic adaptations (or paraphrases) are created later, at the multilingual encounter in Edenkoben, where inquiries float back-and-forth from the quiet working corners of the vast, enchanted garden, and where, of course, plenty of wonderful food and an abundance of the local wine is always present.

For their 30th anniversary this year, the Künstlerhaus invited guests from Syria. “Our Syrian neighbors are, paradoxically, our closest neighbors. The journey has never been this short for our guests!”, noted Hans Thill, the head of the project. Five out of the six invited guests – Lina Atfah, Aref Hamza, Mohammad Al-Matroud, Rasha Omran, Lina Tibi und Raed Wahesh – in fact lived in Germany. The themes in their poetry were varied and many: the relationship between the sexes, the role of women, love, art, music, but also war and death.

The German translators choose the texts they would like to translate themselves and therefore there are often several German adaptations of the same text. This was an extraordinary experience for the Syrian poets: A poem by Rasha Omran was picked three times to be translated into German, the three different resulting versions were fascinating for the original author. During the public poetry readings, which were part of the program, two versions of Lina Tibi’s poem were read out to a thrilled audience: “eines Mannes Abend” as translated by Jan Wagner and “Abend eines Mannes” as translated by Joachim Sartorius. An exciting insight into the variety of possible interpretations.

Hans Thill presented the participants at the matinee: on the stage the translators (left to right) Jan Wagner, Brigitte Oleschinski, Dorothea Grünzweig, Joachim Sartorius, Christoph Peters and Julia Trumpeter

Every translation is its own unique, artistic interpretation out of which a different poem can emerge. Often the poets – the re-interpreters –  had to move away from the literality of the text they received, “in order to go in a direction that not only corresponds to the text’s meaning, but also does it justice” (Paul Celan, 1965). According to Christoph Peters, the foundation of the reinterpretation lay also in the translator’s own identifications, their cultural background or expectations. The Syrian poets appreciated the fact that well-known German poets were bringing in something new to their poetry. Aref Hamza felt that the German poets’ professionalism made their reinterpretations true to the original Arabic text, it was very important to him that the poems are understood in the way they were intended to be, and that the translations are as thrilling and interesting as their Arabic originals.

The poets’ efforts to understand the meanings of texts, metaphors and terms arose from encounters in the garden, by the fireplace and in the dining room. Some sought company and exchange and others worked in isolation from dusk till dawn and only consulted their Syrian poet-partners from time to time. Many aspects of the poetic creation were discussed and clarified, like the formality and craftsmanship side of the poetry; Rhythms and metres, line and sentence lengths; What Arabic lyrical form is used here? Is it a form of modern prose or does it rhyme? How do you make the metre correspond to the original and is that actually necessary? The questions were many and they were varied: How does this foreign language work exactly? And how should the poem be classified or arranged? What are the origins and meanings of singular metaphors and words? How is this in Arabic, and how is that in German?

Mohammad Al-Matroud found this challenging, as a poet he was not used to answering questions about the contents of his poetry: “When you explain a poem, it loses something, it is not a poet’s role to explain his own texts.” For Mohammad the relationship of his poetry to music is an important one, a relationship that has grown stronger and more important since his arrival in Germany – since he has lost his language.

The poets Aref Hamza, Julia Trompeter, Lina Atfah (front), Rasha Omran, Lina Tibli, Mohammad Al-Matroud (back)

Translating poetry into a different language is like flying blind” says Hans Thill – this applies especially to the German poets, who do not speak Arabic, who have no basic grasp or feel for the language and for whom there’s a certain loss of control,” you need to have some blind trust” states Julia Trompeter. Brigitte Oleschinski usually finds it a little easier when the original text is at least in a language she can read or one that belongs in a larger sense to the “Indo-European dialects”. It would have been very difficult for her to clarify those important details that really make a difference without the support of the Egyptian translator Mahmoud Hassanein and the interns – Ferman Alkasari and Hiba Mustafa – who helped her. These encounters were about much more than the individual poems. Through the exploration of Arabic poetry and language, the poets were gaining access to a completely new cultural realm.

Did understanding the language change their perceptions of one another’s culture? Dorothea Grünzweig thought it was an extremely rich experience, in her opinion, the conversations they had about languages were truly the moments of real connection-building, where etymologies were discovered and where the cultural universes that are tied to the languages most clearly came to light.

The detailed questions of the German poets brought new elements into the conversation for both sides. For example, in conversation with Mohammad Al-Matroud about the poem it became clear that the sparrow in Arabic can be used to refer to all types of small birds, the word is interchangeable. In German, however, where every type of small bird is linked to a different meaning, the sparrow is specifically used as the common and most unimportant type, usually with a negative connotation.

Sparrows were among the many birds whose chirping you could hear at Edenkoben. Did the Germans’ questions bring new aspects to light for the Syrian poets? Raed Wahesh noticed that the German language can be as dynamic and powerful as Arabic. However, for him, there were still differences; While Arabic poets minimize their vocabulary and choice of words, German poets still profit from the wealth of their language. Raed’s writing after the war is very different than how it was before it started. His older texts were lighter, more ironic, they were less committed and today, they no longer hold meaning for him, the concrete story is now in the foreground. When there’s no concrete story, the translator has a lot more freedom in the way he handles the poem.

During the discussion with Jan Wagner, translated by Mahmoud Hassanein und Hiba Mustafa, Lina Atfah prepared the stuffed vine leaves that she would later serve everybody for dinner.

An example of a very concrete story is the one that lies behind Lina Aftah’s poem Lin und Leila und der Wolf (Lin and Leila and the wolf). Lina told Jan Wagner the story while she prepared stuffed vine leaves, made from her earlier harvest at the building of the Künstlerhauses where they grew plentifully. They spoke about everything from which Arabic letters are hard to pronounce with a lisp, to how Bedouins predict your future through throwing stones rather than reading coffee mugs. They discovered cultural similarities as well as differences, for instance, in German, your feelings reside in your heart, while in classical Arabic they residence in your liver, so one could say to their child (but not their lover):

“You are my liver.”



We conclude with a poem.

Written by Jacques Roubaud and translated by Joachim Sartorius in 1995, for whom this was certainly not the first time at Edenkoben.



Auf den Rebstöcken

angeordnet in vollkommenen Reihen

in den Strophen der Reben

warten die Trauben darauf

in Wein übersetzt zu werden


während in den Seiten

die französischen Silben

sich darauf vorbereiten

deutsche Poesie

zu werden


And some impressions (Photos Maritta Iseler):

The welcome reception was attended by representatives of the city and Edenkoben’s very own “Weinprinzessin” (Wine-princess). Julia Trompeter (back center): “The global connection is very important, and Arabic poetry lets you gain a great deal of insight into the culture, as well as about its destruction. The effects of the war in Syria have been reflected in many poems in a very heartfelt way. (I intentionally use the word “heart”-felt to refer to soul, thoughts and feelings). Reading these texts showed me more than any newspaper article could ever do.”

In Mohammad Al-Matrouds (here reciting) poems, Resurrection is a metaphor for a day that turns everything on its head, such as when one leaves his life and comes to Germany.

Raed Wahesh (here with Brigitte Oleschinski): “I think that unlike people, poems have many lives. Every translation of a poem is a rebirth, it gives it a new soul in each language it is translated to.”

Brigitte Oleschinski: “To me, the Arabic of modern poetry, especially in the realm of current political, religious, social clashes, seems much more melodious, more oriented on oral patterns and more directed at an audience that is meant to be addressed, seduced and convinced. This make me feel like my translations aims ‘only’ to be a ‘good poem’, unless I managed somehow to grasp all the remaining implications. (…) But anyway, this applies to every poem.”

Aref Hamza (here with Lina Tibli): “The poet will like every poem they are writing, in the moment it is being written. Once it is published however, it becomes like any other poem, written by any other person.”

During the group’s fieldtrip to Villa Ludwigshöhe, the Syrian poets were especially interested in the poetic side of Ludwigs I.: The king of Bavaria wrote love letters to his wife while he had forty mistresses. Heinrich Heine of course did not consider his majesty a poet.

Right before submitting the text for the reading happening the following day, the house got very quiet. Everybody was working intensively on final adjustments, only Lina Atfah’s laugh broke the silence every now and then. Seen here: Dorothea Grünzweig.

Joachim Satorius and Hans Thill, engrossed in a conversation about poetry.

POESIE DER NACHBARN – DICHTER ÜBERSETZEN DICHTER (Poetry of neighbors – Poets translate poets) is a project by the Landes-Stiftung Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck and Künstlerhaus Edenkoben. Since its inception, the translation project has welcomed more than 120 German poets, as well as over 150 authors representing 29 different languages. Every year the poems appear in an anthology: Volumes 1-15 have been published in the edition “die horen” and since 2004, the series has been published through the publishing house, Das Wunderhorn.

Translation from German to English by Malak AlSayyad