Janheinz Jahn was born into a well-to-do family in Frankfurt on 23rd July, 1918. Frequent travels to other countries awakened his interest in foreign languages and literatures at an early age. Even before Jahn took up university studies in drama as well as German, Italian and Arabic language and literature, which were terminated prematurely because of World War II, he was proficient in five European languages. After the war, Jahn initially freelanced as a journalist and also tried his hand at creative writing.
On 1st Dezember 1951, Jahn eventually had a memorable encounter which would shape the rest of his life. On invitation of the Deutsch-Französische Gesellschaft in Frankfurt, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the future President of Senegal and awardee of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1968), presented a lecture on "La nouvelle poésie nègre de langue française", which Jahn attended.
While Senghor did not present any of his own poetry on this occasion, Jahn, for the first time in his life, listened to recitations of works by poets such as Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, Birago Diop, and Paul Niger, as well as of poems in Wolof. He was highly thrilled and determined on finding more poems like these, to study them and, if possible, to translate them into German.
Jahn himself once described the years to come as "intellectual expedition by airmail". He dispatched more than 600 letters in order to identify the addresses of further poets and discuss with them both his choice of texts and his translations.
After several years, Jahns efforts resulted in a first anthology of poetry, Schwarzer Orpheus: Moderne Dichtung afrikanischer Völker beider Hemisphären, edited and translated by himself and published in 1954 (Munich, Carl Hanser Verlag). The publication of Schwarzer Orpheus allowed a wider German readership to appreciate contemporary poetry from Africa and the African Diaspora for the very first time, at a time when the existence of a written African literature was still hardly known in Germany.
In the beginning, Schwarzer Orpheus was part of a publisher's adventure: Herbert G. Göpfert, at the time the head of the creative writing department at Carl Hanser Verlag (he later became a professor at the University of Munich), endeavoured to publish, among other things, contemporary world literature. It was his aim to publish innovative literary works which, in Germany, had not yet received the attention they deserved. Jahn's Schwarzer Orpheus, which comprised 161 poems by 82 authors, was reprinted several times, became a bestseller and achieved quite a lot of fame. In 1964, a new, enlarged edition was published.
The title of Jahn's anthology of poetry quotes Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction to L.S. Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948), "Orphée Noir", in which Sartre compares black poets' search for a 'black' identity and for poetic ways of expressing this identity with Orpheus' descent into Hades.
After the publication of Schwarzer Orpheus, Jahn continued to apply himself to the mediation and popularisation of African literature in Germany. Over the years, he developed friendships with many poets and writers, to which the handwritten dedications, with which several authors signed copies of their works for Jahn, attest.
Apart from further anthologies Jahn also published a number of internationally read and very influential, if not uncontroversial, critical works (e.g., Muntu: Umrisse der neoafrikanischen Kultur, 1958 and Geschichte der neoafrikanischen Literatur: Eine Einführung, 1966) and compiled first bibliographies and encyclodias on literature from Africa and the African Diaspora.
With his distinct enthusiasm for contemporary African literatures and with his collector's zeal, to which the Jahn Library for African literatures owes the foundation of its unique holdings, Jahnheinz Jahn did pioneering work.
Geider, Thomas, 2006: "Janheinz Jahn als Vermittler afrikanischer Literatur in den deutschen Sprachraum und die Weltliteratur". In: Anna-Maria Brandstetter and Carola Lentz (Eds.): 60 Jahre Institut für Ethnologie und Afrikastudien. Ein Geburtstagsbuch. (Mainzer Beiträge zur Afrikaforschung, 14) Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe, 141-161.
Jahn, Janheinz, 1954: Schwarzer Orpheus. Moderne Dichtung afrikanischer Völker beider Hemisphären. Munich: Carl Hanser.
Jahn, Janheinz, 1954: "Verblüffende Wirkung eines Lyrikbandes: 600 Briefe an die Neger aller Kontinente". Die Welt, 25th November.
Jahn, Janheinz, 1958: Muntu: Umrisse der neoafrikanischen Kultur. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.
Jahn, Janheinz, 1965: Die neoafrikanische Literatur: Gesamtbibliographie von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.
Jahn, Janheinz, 1966: Geschichte der neoafrikanischen Literatur: Eine Einführung. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs.
Jahn, Janheinz, 1968: "Meine erste Begegnung mit Senghor". Darmstädter Echo, 20th September.
Jahn, Janheinz and Claus Peter Dressler, 1971: Bibliography of Creative African Writing. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint.
Jahn, Janheinz, Ulla Schild and Almut Nordmann, 1972: Who's Who in African Literature. Biographies, Works, Commentaries. Tübingen: Horst Erdmann.
Lindfors, Bernth, 1976: "The works of Janheinz Jahn". In: Bernth Lindfors and Ulla Schild (Eds.): Neo-African Literature and Culture. Essays in Memory of Janheinz Jahn. (Mainzer Afrika-Studien, 1). Wiesbaden: B. Heymann, 10-23.
Ricard, Alain, 2008: "Creative writing in African languages: writers, scholars, translators". In: Anja Oed and Uta Reuster-Jahn (Eds.): Beyond the Language Issue: The Production, Mediation and Reception of Creative Writing in African Languages. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe, 145-151.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1948: "Orphée noir". In: Senghor, Léopold Sédar Senghor (Ed.): Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, X-XLIV.
Schild, Ulla, 1974: "A bibliography of the works of Janheinz Jahn". Research in African Literatures 5, 2, 196-205.
Schild, Ulla, 1976: "A bibliography of the works of Janheinz Jahn". In: Bernth Lindfors and Ulla Schild (Eds.): Neo-African Literature and Culture. Essays in Memory of Janheinz Jahn. (Mainzer Afrika-Studien, 1). Wiesbaden: B. Heymann, 24-31.
Schwarz, Anja (with Flora Veit-Wild), 2008: "Passionate and controversial: Janheinz Jahn as a mediator of cultures among Europe, Africa, and America". In: Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger and Tiago de Oliveira Pinto (Eds.): AfricAmericas. Itineraries, Dialogues, and Sounds. Frankfurt/Main: Vervuert, 27-35.
Seiler-Dietrich, Almut, 2003: "Janheinz Jahn und die neoafrikanische Literatur". In: Flora Veit-Wild (Ed.): Nicht nur Mythen und Märchen. Afrika-Literaturwissenschaft als Herausforderung. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 94-113.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar Senghor (Ed.), 1948: Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France.
© Anja Oed
We would like to thank the Janheinz Jahn Archive Berlin for the pleasant cooperation and for allowing us to use the above pictures of Janheinz Jahn on this page.