“Only by sucking, not by knowing
can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and world’s flowing”
–Peter Cole, from Things on Which I've Stumbled
Peter Cole began his evening with literary translation students at Columbia University last week by reading his poem “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind,” published in his latest book Things on Which I’ve Stumbled, a poem that begins with a line he translated, “Only by sucking, not by knowing” and then moves into lines he wrote himself. Bringing multiple identities together on the page, Cole is a writer in and a translator of both Hebrew and Arabic, allowing him to uncover harmonies between these languages that are often ignored in political and cultural disputes. Cole shared his thoughts with moderator and MFA student Julia Guez about the musicality of writing and translation.
Cole’s talk focused on the importance of silence. Both Guez and Cole referenced Mark Rothko’s comment at the 1969 Yale commencement ceremony that we artists are “searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow.” For Cole this means approaching both writing, and translation, with silence. Silence becomes the empty canvas on which masterpieces are created. In translation, silence is that empty space when a translator reads and hears the author’s music. Only readers who can hear the author’s music in the original can begin to translate that music.
This may seem overwhelming or impossible, but Cole explained that artistic literary translations are entirely possible—this is where the re-creation of music begins. He encouraged students to start by asking themselves, “What’s the most important effect of this text?” Once, as Cole said, “that one thing” is clear to the translator, other solutions seem to fall into place.
Choices about style and form become part of the music in translation and writing. In talking about rhyme, Cole explained that he tries to do two things: 1) “Keep it natural not forced,” and 2) “Find the correct distance between rhymes.” This distance does not have to occur regularly nor only at the end of a line or stanza. Internal rhyme can be just as important as more obvious end-rhymes. Varying the distance between rhymes also allows the reader to stay interested and be surprised, often stumbling upon a rhyme without noticing it at first. According to Cole, writing and translation are at their best when it is simply a pleasure for the reader to have the sounds in her mouth.
In writing Cole believes that form is intimately connected to content, that “the real information is where the form comes from.” No information exists without form. Structural choices always have an impact on the reader, even thinking about the history of the word “iamb” which comes from the Ancient Greek “iambus” referring to a satirical or darkly humorous verse that was meant to “get under your skin.” Cole admitted that he found himself drawn to certain poets who elicit that response in him as a reader. For the writer this means that sometimes a particular idea calls for a particular form and vice versa.
Form and style come to the forefront in creating music in original writing as well as in translations. Silence is an important part of the process, but that same silence must eventually give way to the sounds of an active mind and engagement with the world. Cole’s parting advice to young writers and translators is to “Follow the line of your curiosity in the most diligent and serious way.”