Interview with Peter Cole: Introducing Kabbalah Poetry to English Speakers


Photo Courtesy: Yale Press

In this article by Yale University Press, former MacArthur Fellow Peter Cole reads two poems from his volume of Kabbalah translations, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition.  Cole’s volume, released last fall, is the “first substantial collection of Kabbalah poems in English, spanning three continents and more than 1,500 years of Jewish mystical tradition.”

In a 2007 interview with Ready Steady Book, Cole spoke of the need to understand the overall philosophy and historical context behind the poems, in contrast to only translating each word of a poem literally:

“The distinctive sound you’re hearing in these translations is, I’d like to think, a product of my having absorbed the poems as whole worlds and attempted to recreate them as such. So, yes, one might say that these ‘aren’t word for word renderings.  Moshe Ibn Ezra, the major theoretician of the medieval period—in fact the only one to write about the poetry critically in a sustained manner—had the following to say about the translation from Arabic into Hebrew: ‘And if you plan to bring a matter from Arabic into Hebrew, grasp the spirit and intention of the work, but do not transpose it word for word, for not all languages are alike…. And if it doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped, rid yourself of it entirely, for sometimes silence is better than speech, and the speaker who pleases will please with his silence too, though the opposite is not true.’”

The poems featured in the Yale University Press article are “Each Day” and “Nut Garden.”  Each audio clip plays the original Hebrew first, followed by Cole’s English translation.

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