WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
For November’s installment, Vivek Narayanan passed the baton to poet and translator Peter Cole.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
Fraught—as just about anything concerned with modern Israel/Palestine is. But also, as Eric Auerbach said of the Bible’s Isaac story, “fraught with background.” I learned Hebrew as a child in a modern Orthodox Jewish day school—itself a somewhat traumatic experience for a kid from a secular family—and then in a suburban afternoon Hebrew school (housed in a former funeral parlor). By the time I was a college student I’d forgotten almost all of what I’d learned, and started again from scratch in Jerusalem a year after I graduated, largely because I thought it would teach me what I needed to know in order to write poetry in English. Besides translating from modern Hebrew, I also translate from medieval Hebrew as it was written by the Jewish poets of Muslim and Christian Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and beyond, so there’s a critical diasporic dimension to my relation to the language, even when it’s written “at home.” These days home for me is finding a place in English that feels as though it had come from Hebrew.
And then there’s Arabic, which I’ve also worked with—Palestinian, and Andalusian. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
I find the whole business of untranslatables fetishitic and largely fruitless. All experience is at some level untranslatable, including experience of another language or work of art or human interaction, and all of us do what we can to bring something of it into our language, including the fact that it seems like that can’t be done. Wonder of wonders, the results are often amazing—and, on occasion, life-changing.
Do you have any translating rituals?
I keep a notebook, and scribble in the margins or between the lines of a work, especially at the start. That’s what translation, and all writing, is for me: a marginal occupation. Or preoccupation with the marginal.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
I have pages of them. But the very fact that we so often reach for metaphors in order to talk about translation itself points to the poetry at the heart of the whole enterprise. One of the inflections of the ancient Greek word metaphora gives us just that, “translation” (medieval Latin sometimes translates metaphora as translatio), and modern Greek usage takes us to the small trucks labelled metaphora that carry goods across the landscape of contemporary Greece, which is to say, from one place and person to another. So: Transport. Deliverance. Commerce.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.
Since the start of my writing life, I’ve been working—consciously and unconsciously— along the acoustic, ethical, and conceptual spectrum translation is. This spring FSG will bring out my Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations, which braids the various strands of my work into something of a double helix. What’s original there can be seen as a kind of translation, and what’s translated becomes a kind of original. So that these different historical, cultural, and affective strands speak to one another, informing and giving each other form. Following that conversation out into the present excites me—in the way that good matjes herring with decent Spanish brandy does.
(Vivek Narayanan’s question for you) Peter, you translate from both Hebrew and Arabic, and across different time periods. Can you say something about how those two languages mingle in you, what it means to be working between them, and what the consequences are of such translations?
Apart from the occasional awkwardness, the two languages mingle easily enough in me—and moving between them and the various time periods I work with makes the world more interesting, both bigger and smaller at once. It opens up pathways within each language and each age, and that in turn leads to all sorts of connections, subterranean and sublime, social, ethical, and political.
Above all, translating from Hebrew and Arabic helps me hear the music and structures of English with greater sharpness, and often as something compellingly strange and even foreign, which, it’s worth remembering, Freud says even the first language we learn to speak always deep down seems to be.
Peter Cole’s most recent book is Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (FSG). The author of four previous books of poems and many volumes of translations from Hebrew and Arabic, he has received numerous honors for his work, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and a MacArthur Fellowship. A new collection, Draw Me After, is forthcoming from FSG in 2022. Cole divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.