Lost Without Translation: Peter Cole on The Poetry of Kabbalah
The latest Margellos World Republic of Letters interview features acclaimed poet and translator Peter Cole on The Poetry of Kabbalah, the first English-language collection of poems from the Kabbalistic tradition. In the excerpt below, Cole discusses the history, culture, language, and identities that have shaped over a millennium of tradition in Jewish mystical verse, and of course, his own role in translating and annotating the edition. Be sure to sign up on the new WRL site to receive full e-mail updates and interviews with authors and translators in advance. You can also listen to Cole read the poems “Nut Garden,” by Yosef Gikatilla, and “Each Day.”
Yale University Press: Could you describe the origins of this project? What led you to The Poetry of Kabbalah and when?
Peter Cole: My co-editor, the Israeli scholar and translator Aminadav Dykman, dreamed this project up some fifteen years ago and approached me with the idea. I’d long been drawn to this poetry, or to what I knew of it at the time, and I relished the opportunity to delve into it…
YUP: Your book not only exposes the beauty and the power of Kabbalistic poetry but also teaches us about history and culture. What do you hope your readers will take away from this collection? How would you like them to approach the poems—as an artistic endeavor, historical document, or as something different altogether?
PC: I’d like this anthology to bring readers into the world and force field of this verse in every way—acoustically, spiritually, culturally, historically. The poetry itself has a great deal to say to us as readers today—about the nature of the language we use for things great and small, and what it means to maintain a vital connection through speech to spirit; about the ways in which Eros might inform a faithful existence and about the centrality of coupling in our lives; about how first things are bound to what comes last, and where the present stands in relation to both. In a nutshell, the poems function, in many cases, as allegories of inwardness: they embody an intense sense of an inner life and, in their cadences and patterns, capture some of the most elusive, yet poignant and central aspects of existence…
YUP: What about the abstraction that one finds in so much of this verse?
PC: Translating the abstraction of the poetry was another challenge. On the whole, I take my cues from the original poems in question. The abstraction I think you’re talking about—the sort of thing we find in the Poems of the Palaces, say, doesn’t feel abstract. Its incorporation, its embodiment in the pulse and cadence of the lines of verse, along with the manipulation of the verse’s texture, renders it highly physical, aural, even tactile. I aim for something similar in the English…
YUP: The Poetry of Kabbalah opens with liturgical hymns and ends with poems by Hayyim Nahman Bialik. In what ways—thematic, aesthetic, linguistic—has the Kabbalistic tradition influenced modern writing? What is the significance of these poems to world literature?
PC: Kabbalistic literature has had a profound effect on modern writing—often through the mediation of scholarship. One thinks of Borges, for instance, who directly incorporated Kabbalistic elements into his writing, as did the poet Paul Celan, among many others. The inclusion of the two poems by Bialik is meant to mark that transition from the conventionally religious and sometimes ritual context to the far broader matrix of world literature read in humanistic terms. And it also reminds us that it’s important to circle back, like Bialik and his successors, and read the older work through the lens of our own understanding.
Peter Cole is the author of three books of poetry and the translator of more than a dozen volumes from Hebrew and Arabic, including The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492. His many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, and the PEN Translation Award for Poetry. In 2007 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.