Pirated Poetry

Friedrich von Bodenstedt, the German poet and translator, who left behind him 12 volumes of works, was awarded a noble rank for his services to literature; when he died in Wiesbaden in 1892, a monument was erected in his honour in the town and he soon began to figure in encyclopaedias and reference books.

When Bodenstedt was 22, he was invited to Russia by the fabulously rich Count Mikhail Golitsyn as tutor to his sons. Two years later, he went to Tiflis - now the Georgian capital, Tbilisi - where he met Mirza-Shaffy Vazekh. an impoverished Azerbaijanian teacher.

Mirza-Shaffy was called "the Wise Man from Ganja". He was an outstanding scholar and poet. Mirza-Shaffy tutored Friedrich von Bodenstedt in Oriental languages and Eastern poetry. When in the mood he would recite to his student poems of his own, and Bodenstedt copied them down with typical German neatness of hand.

Bodenstedt eventually collected a great many of Mirza-Shaffy's poems and songs and never ceased to marvel at his poetical talent. "How can one compose such beautiful lines so swiftly and with such ease?" he once asked the poet. Mirza-Shaffy picked a bunch of flowers, gave them to Bodenstedt and said: "See! I picked these flowers in an instant, but they did not grow in an instant. It is the same with my songs ..."

In 1845 Bodenstedt unexpectedly tendered his resignation and went home to Germany, taking with him the precious notes of his teacher's poems. He began to write books about his travels in Russia, and above all in the Caucasus.

One of them, published in Frankfurt in 1850 under the intriguing title, A Thousand and One Days in the East, described life and habits in these faraway lands vividly and objectively. But readers were mostly attracted by the beautiful poems Bodenstedt included in this volume.

The book's popularity came as a surprise to Bodenstedt, who realized that his translations of Mirza-Shaffy's poems were the main reason for its success. The next year, 1851, a Berlin publishing house brought out Songs by Mirza-Shaffy. Critics enthusiastically acclaimed the book. Fame had come to the formerly unknown German linguist.

He was showered with questions about the author of the poems. Up to this point he had not tried to conceal their origin and in a brief prologue in verse to Songs by Mirza-Shaffy had described himself as a modest translator, who had jotted down these beautiful songs so that he could later interpret them for Germans.

Songs by Mirza-Shaffy continued to grow in popularity; more and more editions were needed to meet public demand. Bodenstedt began to reap laurels that belonged to his tutor, Mirza-Shaffy, teaching for a pittance in distant Tiflis, never dreaming that his poems were eagerly sought after in Germany. Soon news of his death reached Bodenstedt.

Now the German maintained an enigmatic silence when inquisitive readers asked him about Mirza-Shaffy. Rumours were fostered that Mirza-Shaffy was not a real person at all, and that the name was really the literary pseudonym of Bodenstedt himself. Not only did the German translator fail to scotch the rumours; by his mysterious silence he encouraged still wilder surmises that flattered him. His German translations from Turkic were "transformed" into original works - by Bodenstedt. And these "original works" began to appear in Britain and Spain, France and Hungary.

The pre-revolutionary poet and democrat, Mikhail Mikhailov, was the first to translate Songs by Mirza-Shaffy from German into Russian. Their moving lyricism and melodious rhythm inspired the Russian composer Anton Rubinstein to write his famous vocal cycle, The Persian Songs. As the ultimate in the irony of this plagiarism, Songs by Mirza-Shaffy were translated back into the original Turkic.

Meanwhile, a certain Adolph Berger, an "expert on the Orient", was contributing articles to the German press that tended to cover the plagiarist. Berger did not deny that a Mirza-Shaffy had lived in Tiflis, but he declared that he had never been and never claimed to be a poet. Berger ruled, as an "expert on the Orient", that the author of the Songs was not Mirza-Shaffy, but Friedrich Bodenstedt.

Bodenstedt, with a show of modesty, merely confessed to "mystification". His calculated evasion reinforced the theory that he, the German from Hanover, was the real author. This view prevailed for many years - until Soviet scholars proved that Friedrich Bodenstedt had committed plagiarism, that he had stolen fame belonging to the Azerbaijanian poet.

Recently, Soviet literary critics - Salman Mumtaz, A. Seidzade, N. Rafili and others - unearthed manuscripts of previously unknown poems of Mirza-Shaffy that proved beyond all doubt that the Azerbaijanian and not the German translator was the author of Mirza-Shaffy's songs.

Mirza-Shaffy has at last been accorded his due place of honour among the great poets of Azerbaijan.

by Roman Belousov,
from the magazine "Selskaya Molodezh" (Rural Youth)

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