Peter Cole, a short, slight man with fluttering hands who wears large glasses over his intense black eyes, hardly seemed like the type to upset the status quo as he delivered a talk on the translation of Middle Eastern liter¬ature to a small but appreciative crowd at Russell House on Tuesday night. But the terms he used to describe the work he translates – “quietly shocking” – could easily apply to the man as well.
Cole is a much-lauded poet and writer in his own right and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. His own poetry, most recently a collec¬tion titled “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled,” is well known, his greatest contribution is likely as a translator for works originally in Hebrew and Arabic. This was the focus of his talk.
“I’m going to talk about reading, and responding, and teaching, which is really what translation is,” he said.
When people say that they like Hebrew poetry, they don’t generally mean the work of Aharon Shabtai, a little-known Israeli poet and provo¬cateur Cole has translated. Shabtai’s works, surprisingly (he is quite famous is Israel), deal with intentionally con¬troversial subjects.
Lines of Shabtai’s that Cole read included, “I pronounce life an act of suicide,” a description of a woman’s “nipples like thorns,” and the admission that “[the poet’s] balls are sore.” Not lines most foreigners would consider great Israeli literature—but they have a visceral honesty that, in Cole’s view, outweighs any concerns for national image.
Cole also spoke about the difficul¬ty of translating Arabic works without stereotyping the culture or projecting his own political beliefs into it (Cole, who lives in Jerusalem, considers him¬self Israeli, although he was born in New Jersey). He recently translated work by a Palestinian man who runs a souvenir shop in Nazareth, an elderly gentleman named Taha Muhammad Ali.
“The critical discourse on Palestinian literature in the United States is on a very low level, scandal¬ously low,” he said in response to an audience member’s question. He added that in Israel it is difficult for certain Palestinian authors (like Ali) to get published at all.
Ali, like Shabtai, can be a con¬troversial poet, although he seems to have a more political bent. One of Cole’s major accomplishments, then, is spreading the voices of those who haven’t been heard, or of whom soci¬ety does not approve. Such work can transcend national barriers, which is of course one of the other purposes of translation; Cole told the audience that once when he was on a lecture tour with Ali, they were approached by a pair of Palestinian students who, after confirming that Cole was Israeli, demanded to know how he could steal both Ali’s land and poetry. Ali, un¬derstanding the demand when it was phrased in Arabic, was furious. “You fools!” he reportedly exclaimed, “He didn’t steal my land!”
Cole concluded by addressing the ethical aspects of translation.
“The translator’s job is simply to make sense…to bring the senses alive that first activated that poetry,” he said, adding that that truth can to create common ground, a basically human experience. It’s not an easy task, but a crucial one—after all, it’s on such un¬derstanding that negotiations, agree¬ments, and friendships can be built.