ATABAY, CYRUS (Cyrus Ātābāy, b. Saʿdābād, Tehran, 15 Šahrivar 1308Š./6 September 1929; d. Munich, 6 Bahman 1374Š./26 January 1996; FIGURE 1), poet and translator.


Cyrus was born to Princess Hamdam-al-Ṣalṭana, who was Reza Shah Pahlavi’s firstborn (from his first wife), and Hādi Atabay. He was sent by his father to Berlin to attend school before he was eight years old. Atabay lived in Germany during World War II and in Iran and Switzerland subsequently. In Switzerland the Swiss poet and writer Max Rychner (1897-1965), and in Germany the essayist, novelist, and expressionist poet Gottfried Benn (1886-1956), were impressed by his poetic talent and wrote favorably about him. Atabay’s poems were first published in 1948 in the Swiss journal Die Tat (The deed). He returned to Germany in 1951 and studied literature at Munich University from 1952 to 1960 (Killy, p. 243; Scharf, p. 211). His first three poetry collections, Einige Schatten (Some shadows, 1956), An- und Abflüge (Arrivals and departures, 1958), and Meditation am Webstuhl (Meditation on the loom, 1960), were published in Germany during this period. They were followed by the publication of Gegenüber der Sonne (Facing the sun) in 1964. This collection also included short pieces of prose, a trend that continued in several of Atabay’s later collections.

In 1978 he settled in London (Ackermann, p. 49) and became acquainted with Elias Canetti (1905-1994), the 1981 Nobel Laureate in Literature, and Erich Fried (1921-1988) the eminent Austrian poet. He returned to Munich in 1983 and remained there for the rest of his life (Scharf, p. 212, 216).

Atabay also tried his hand at translating Persian poetry and literature into German. His first work of translation, entitled Hafis: Liebesgedichte (Hafez: Love poems, 1965), consisted of a selection of the ghazals of Hafez. (See Bibliography for a list of his translations.)

Atabay was the recipient of several prestigious literary prizes in Germany, among them the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-Preis and the Hugo-Jacobi-Preis (Ghahraman, p. 169; Rahnemā, p. 1281).


Cyrus Atabay composed his poems in German, rather than in Persian, his mother tongue, and placed this linguistic solitude at the very core of his poetry. Island, an isolated realm wherein only the imagination rules, appeared as a recurrent motif in his poems from the very beginning (Schirnding, p. 51). The motif is laid bare in Prosperos Tagebuch (Prospero’s diary), clearly influenced by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and in which the title figure, reminiscent of Prospero in Shakespeare’s play, lives on a deserted island. Prospero’s island, or rather, Atabay’s linguistic sanctuary, as held by a critic, is a place where “objects attain lightness, become transparent, refer to one another, and at the same time, transcend themselves” (Meid, p. 714). Prosperos Tagebuch (FIGURE 2) is  recognized as Atabay’s most significant collection.  A bilingual edition of the book was published as Journal de Prospéro: Edition bilingue français-allemand in 1999.

Atabay’s poetry, imbued with staples of solitude, valorization of the ascetic life, and shunning of the material world, often dressed in innovative language and imagery, also resonates with Iran's rich tradition of mystical poetry:

In der Herberge wurde mir gesagt,
ich soll mich nach der Decke strecken,
aber man übersah,
dass ich länger war als andere Reisende;
meine Füsse froren und immer
zog ein Körperteil den kürzeren:
darum beschloss ich,
hinauszugehen und unter freiem Himmel zu nächtigen,
zugedeckt von der vier Zipfeln des Firmaments.
(“Der Schlaks“, Gegenüber der Sonne, p. 34)

At the inn they told me
to stretch only as far as my blanket,
but they overlooked the fact
that I am taller than other travelers,
my feet were freezing and always
one or another of my body parts was exposed.
That is why I decided,
to go outside and spend the night outdoors,
covered by the four corners of the sky.

In Atabay´s poetry the lines between reality and dream, at times in conflict and at times complementary, are nevertheless blurred (Killy, p. 243). His poetry collections, from the onset, are marked by his self-distancing from the prevalent metaphorical language practiced by many of his German contemporaries. He also abstained from employing political themes then in vogue in German poetry (Meid, p. 714).

Removed from the dominant twentieth century German schools of poetry (Horst, p. 58), Atabay’s poems have nevertheless solicited critical endorsement for their clear and beautiful language (Gaul, p. 44). In his translations into German of Persian poetry, Atabay strays from literalism and, maintaining the tenor and atmosphere of the original Persian, tries to create an enjoyable reading experience for his German audience. In contrast to the majority of German translations of Classical Persian poetry, Atabay’s renditions eschew rhythm and rhyme (Scharf, p. 215).

 The Persian translation of a selection of his poems was published in Iran as Vādi-e šāparakhā (The land of butterflies) in 1965.



Works of Cyrus Atabay.

Collections of Atabay’s poetry:

Einige Schatten (Some shadows), Wiesbaden, 1956.

An- und Abflüge (Arrivals and departures), Munich, 1958.

Meditation am Webstuhl (Meditation on the loom), Munich, 1960.

Gegenüber der Sonne (Facing the sun), Hamburg and Dusseldorf, 1964.

Doppelte Wahrheit (Double truth), Hamburg and Dusseldorf, 1969.

An diesem Tag lasen wir keine Zeile mehr (We did not read one more line that day), Frankfurt, 1974.

Das Auftauchen an einem anderen Ort (Showing up somewhere else), Frankfurt, 1977.

Die Leidenschaft der Neugierde (Passion for curiosity), Dusseldorf, 1981.

Salut den Tieren: Ein Bestiarium (Regards to the animals: a bestiary), Dusseldorf, 1983.

Stadtplan von Samarkand (Map of Samarkand), Dusseldorf, 1983.

Prospersos Tagebuch (Prospero’s diary), Dusseldorf, 1985.

Die Linien des Lebens (The lines of life), Dusseldorf, 1986.

Pushkiniana (Pushkiniana), Dusseldorf, 1990.

Leise Revolten  (Quiet revolts), Dusseldorf, 1992.

Die Wege des Leichtsinns: Zerstreutes äolisches Material (The ways of frivolity: scattered aeolian material), Dusseldorf, 1994.


Hafis: Liebesgedichte (Hafez, Love poems), Hamburg, 1965.

Gesänge von Morgen: Neue iranische Lyrik (Songs of tomorrow: New Iranian poetry), Hamburg and Dusseldorf, 1968

Die Worte der Ameisen: Persische Mystik in Versen und Prosa (The words of ants: Persian mysticism in poetry and prose), Hamburg and Dusseldorf, 1971.

Wie Wasser strömen wir: Die Rubaijat des Omar Chajjam (We flow like water: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), Dusseldorf, 1984.

Mäuse gegen Katzen und andere Texte von Obeyd-e-Zakani (Mice against cats and other texts by ʿObayd Zākāni), Dusseldorf, 1986.

Offenbares Geheimnis: Fünfzig Gedichte aus dem Diwan (Open secret: fifty poems from the Divan [of Hafez]), Dusseldorf, 1987.

Die Sonne von Tabriz: Gedichte, Aufzeichnungen und Reden (The sun of Tabriz: poems, notes, and speeches), Dusseldorf, 1988.

Die Notwendigkeit des Unnützen (The need for the useless) [Poems of Abu'l ʿAlā al-Maʿarri], Dusseldorf, 1993.

Die Worte der Ameisen: Persische Weisheiten (The words of the ants: Persian wisdom), Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1993.

Ich sprach zur Nacht: Hundert Vierzeiler des Dschalal ed-din Rumi (I spoke to the night: One hundred quatrains from Jalāl-al-Din Rumi), Dusseldorf, 1996 (FIGURE 3).


Irmgard Ackermann, ed., Fremde AugenBlicke: Mehrkulturelle Literatur in Deutschland, Bonn, 1996.

Winfred Gaul, Cyrus,” in Poet und Vagant: Der Dichter Cyrus Atabay 1929-1996, ed. Werner Ross, Munich, 1997, p. 44.

Anneliese Ghahraman, Deutsche Gedichte aus vier Jahrhunderten: Epochen, Dichter, Gedichte; vom Barock bis zur Gegenwart, Tehran, 1996.

Eberhard Horst, “Begegnung mit Cyrus Atabay,” in Poet und Vagant: Der Dichter Cyrus Atabay 1929-1996, ed. Werner Ross, Munich, 1997, pp. 55-59.

Walther Killy, ed., Killy Literaturlexikon: Autoren und Werke deutscher Sprache  II, Gutersloh and Munich, 1988-1993.

Volker Meid, Metzler Literatur Chronik: Werke deutschsprachiger Autoren, 3rd ed., Stuttgart and Weimar, 2006.

Touraj Rahnemā, “Čo mo yek suta del parvānaʾi na: soḵani kutāh darbāra-ye majmuʿa-ye šeʿr-e jadid-e Cyrus Ātābāy,” Soḵan 23/11, Mehr 1353 Š./October 1974, pp. 1281-82.

Kurt Scharf, “Nachwort,” in Hafis, Rumi, Omar Chajjam: Die schönsten Gedichte aus dem klassischen Persien, tr. Cyrus Atabay, ed. Kurt Scharf, Munich, 1998, pp. 179-217.

Albert von Schirnding, “Der Klassiker, der aus der Fremde kam: Cyrus Atabay,” in Ackermann, ed., 1996, pp. 51-53.

(Saeid Rezvani)

Originally Published: September 2, 2014

Last Updated: September 2, 2014

Cite this entry:

Saeid Rezvani, "ATABAY, CYRUS," Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2014, available at (accessed on 02 September 2014).