REVIEWS

COMMENTS OF EVALUATORS AND REVIEWERS on Martin Bidney’s verse translations and original poems

A book of verse translations with original dialogic verse replies is Poems of Wine and Tavern Romance: A Dialogue with the Persian Poet Hafiz (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013) W. L Hanaway in Choice (April 2014): 1394-5 writes: “In this fascinating and appealing book, Bidney…provides English translations of 103 of Hafiz’s poems from von Hammer-Purgstall’s German and provides a poetic ‘reply’ to each.”

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My West-East Divan: The Poems, with “Notes and Essays” – Goethe’s Intercultural Dialogues (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 249 poems translated with original dialogic verse replies, has so far been highly fortunate in garnering four published reviews. I’ll offer representative comments.

(1) Max Reinhart, in Studies in Romanticism 52 (Summer 2013): 311-13 writes: “Entirely in the ludic mode of the author of the West-östlicher Divan (1819, revised and expanded, 1827), the American poet Martin Bidney has journeyed east ringing the questing bell of his own caravan, issuing call and response to his brother Goethe and Goethe’s adoptive ‘twin,’ the fourteenth-century Persian ghazalist Hafiz of Shiraz, in both translation and independent verse. This translation sets a new standard for Goethe’s Divan.” He adds: “Bidney’s commentary poems deserve the point that criticism is not only possible in verse but may be, for its closer proximity to the poetic world of the original, equally, if differently, penetrating than the more familiar literary cricism in prose.”

(2) Erlis Wickersham, in Goethe Yearbook: Publications of the Goethe Society of North America XIX (Camden House, 2012): 280-1, writes: “This is an unusual 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.” Wickersham continues: “Goethe also explicitly states that he was trying to write simple, direct, accessible poems. Thus, their translation will also have the same qualities, and it certainly does. It is excellent and eminently readable. …Finally, we can confidently assert that this book is a large and successful undertaking, challenging and intriguingly original.”

(3) Ronald Dart, in Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice (August 19, 2012), an online journal, writes: “The ‘Introduction’ and ‘Commentary Poems’ for Goethe’s West-East Divan by Martin Bidney make for an exquisite dessert after a literary feast from a well prepared table. Goethe would be more than pleased and delighted with Bidney’s palate pleasing literary insights and poetry.” He adds: “There is a welcome tone and texture to Bidney’s translations, and meditative reads of each of the poems win and woo the longing soul. …The 242 poems by Bidney are must read keepers on Goethe and many other poets. The hefty text would have been much weaker without Bidney’s final poetic reflections. …Bidney has translated the texts well, brought together some of the finest scholars on Goethe and Islam and advanced the opportunities for a higher and more sophisticated approach to the West and Islam.”

(4) Gustav Seibt, in the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung Nr. 211 (September 2011) p. 16, says that Goethe’s East-West Divan is an “unprecedentedly bold, humanly and religiously liberated work of old age of the greatest poet of the German language,. . .a work that seems suited more than any other in European literature to resolve the constraints and misunderstandings between Islam and the West. On top of this, the translation mentioned is indeed outstanding. Is it a classic? Not yet. . . . This American Divan is so good that one could put it into the hands of every musician of the [Daniel] Barenboim [West-East] Orchestra [of Israelis and Palestinians] and say, You should not only play Beethoven, but read Goethe! . . .Today we can. . .announce something great: the complete Goethe Divan is now available in English. . . .Martin Bidney has rendered not only the verses but also the prose, i.e., the ‘Notes and Essays for a Better Understanding.’ Obviously [selbstredend], here too he has done everything right.” Seibt notes that in the American version, Goethe says of the Qur’an that the “style is austere, grand, fearsome, and in places truly sublime.” Seibt contrasts Bidney’s choice of the accurate word “fearsome,” which, as he points out, means “fear-generating,” to the word chosen by polemicist Thilo Sarrazin, who misunderstood “furchtbar” as “terrible.”

Stanford Professor Katharina Mommsen, one of the anonymous referees of my Goethe Divan, later allowed her comments to appear on the book jacket. She writes: “Bidney’s translations of the. . .Divan poems. . . render, for the first time, both form and content in a way that is faithful to the original. The poetical commentaries authored by. . .Bidney are of a stunning originality and. . . are composed entirely in the spirit of Goethe’s own conception of world literature as a deeply felt interchange among peoples and cultures. I recommend this book most emphatically and with highest praise, in the hope that after nearly two hundred years it will help Goethe’s West-East Divan to make the breakthrough it deserves in the English-speaking world.”

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Regarding my East-West Poetry: A Western Poet Responds to Islamic Tradition in Sonnets, Hymns, and Songs (2010), Mommsen, again an anonymous referee, allowed the following comment to appear: “Rarely has a book been so timely as this one. . . . The double role of the author as researcher and poet benefits the reader of the 140 Islam-related lyrics. . . . And the poetry is on such a high level of quality that it. . . motivates the reader to learn more.”

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About my Poetic Dialogue with Adam Mickiewicz (2007) Boris Dralyuk of UCLA writes in Slavic and East European Journal 53.3 (2009): 502-3 that “often entire sonnets come across with a grace approaching the original’s. . . . [In “View of Mountains from the Kozlov Plain”] Bidney must be applauded for his fidelity. . . . Bidney approaches his subject with professional care, and his notes reflect a broad engagement with Romantic scholarship. He makes intriguing and often insightful use of various theoretical frameworks. . . . Bidney’s collection offers reliable translations that frequently convey not only the sense, but also the spirit of Mickiewicz’s lyric masterpiece. It is hard to deny Bidney’s dedication to the material, and harder yet to resist his infectious exuberance. Students of Polish literature, and those interested in translation in general, will find this volume both useful and entertaining.”

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About my translations of Saul Tchernikhovsky’s Lyrical Tales and Poems of Jewish Life from the Russian versions of his friend Vladislav Khodasevich (2006), Janet Tucker (University of Arkansas) writes in Slavic and East European Journal 51.3 (2007): 627-8, “Martin Bidney,. . .a master translator from Russian, has enriched our world with his touching and musical versions of Tchernikhovsky’s original [Hebrew] pieces, refracted further through the prism of Vladislav Khodasevich’s Russian versions. . . . Bidney is to be congratulated for having given us such a marvelous and valuable book, a welcome addition to any library, and a boon for any individual who loves beauty and art.” Distinguished Professor Marilyn Gaddis Rose, founder of the Translation Research and Investigation Program at Binghamton University and editor of a SUNY Press series of translations of women writers, comments on the flyleaf of the book: “I was entranced. In a prosodic tour de force Bidney brings into English poetry Tchernikhovsky’s verse narratives of the fragile Jewish culture in early twentieth-century Russian villages. It is bittersweet: lilting rhythms counterpoint a doomed community.”

MORE REVIEWS TO COME…