Peter Cole on Translation and Silence

Poet and translator Peter Cole—an American who’s lived in Jerusalem for decades but is spending the 2010-2011 academic year at Yale—visited Columbia University last night for a reading and talk. Cole is the author of three books of poems and numerous translations from the Hebrew and Arabic, most recently War & Love, Love & War: New and Selected Poems by Aharon Shabtai. He is known above all for the fluid lyricism of his translations, in many of which he rhymes, as he often does in his own work. Speaking with Columbia MFA student Julia Guez, who interviewed him at the podium, he spoke of being inspired in his use of rhyme by Middle English poets, and of being interested (in both his own poems and his translations) in rhymes that “sneak up” on the reader. In his poem “And So the Skin…,” for example, the beautiful and startling rhyme “faucet”/”the black swan glides across it” is set up with a line ending with the word “inadequate” in the stanza before. Cole often tries, he told Guez, to separate rhyme words as far apart from one another as he can in the poem, but “not so much so that they won’t please.” Speaking of his work as a translator, he remarked that one of the most crucial parts of translating is developing the ability to really listen to what’s being said, which involves being silent. For him this is a meditative state: stopping all the mental chatter long enough to really hear the poem and feel the way it moves across his body as he reads it. I think I know just what he means. When you translate, there’s a point in the reading of the original in which you hold the lines in your head in a form that is strangely unembodied by language. There is something there in your head, but it is not made up of words exactly, or rather: any specific words—it’s just a vague flutter of meaning held together by sound and rhythm, and the trick is to hold this weightless, vibrating thing in your mind long and quietly enough that the right words can cluster about it, and then you write them down. Which doesn’t mean that the translation is then finished—this might be just the beginning of a long revision process. But listening to the original in just the right active/passive way that allows the translation to find a voice inside you—that part does indeed feel a bit mystical.

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