East Meets West

This morning, I blogged about the poetry of Taha Muhammad Ali and his translator, Peter Cole. In July, I wrote a profile for the Forward about Peter, his wife Adina Hoffman, and Ibis Editions, the small press that they run. There’s something wrong with the link on the Forward‘s website, so I’m posting the article here. (Actually, I’m posting the original version I submitted to the Forward — the director’s cut, if you will.)

Found in Translation

By Daniel Septimus
From the Forward (7/14/06)

Nestled between Arab East Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox mecca of Meah Shearim, and the cafes and pubs of Zion Square is the neighborhood of Musrara. Musrara is a borderland of sorts, a crossroads of ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. It’s no surprise, then, that Musrara is home to Ibis Editions, a small book press specializing in literature of the Levant, works that blur the boundaries between time, place, and language.

Ibis is the brainchild of poet and translator Peter Cole and his wife, the writer Adina Hoffman. Since 1998, the American-born couple has published works of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and German in English translation. Their backlist includes writers largely unknown in the English-speaking world (Dennis Silk, Ibn Arabi, Ahmed Rassim), as well as obscure works by well-know writers (the essays of Haim Nahman Bialik; the poetry of Gershom Scholem).

Ibis emerged out of a Jerusalem literary scene, which, aside from Cole, included Silk, Harold Schimmel, and Gabriel Levin. Their writings and translations featured prominently in Ibis’ first run of books, but since then, Cole and Hoffman have extended their reach.

“In the lousy political context, we felt a push to make Ibis more explicitly a press for translation,” said Hoffman, “but we also wanted to bring together other work from this part of the world, not just Hebrew or Jewish, but Arabic literature, a book like the Ladino one on our most recent list.”

The Ladino book is Marcel Cohen’s In Search of a Lost Ladino (2006), a fascinating work difficult to categorize in terms of traditional genres. The book is an ode to Judeo-Spanish, the language of the author’s youth. It is epistolary in structure, addressed to Cohen’s friend, the Spanish artist Antonio Saura. In Search is both a eulogy and an emergency operation for Ladino. As Cohen memorializes Ladino, he memorializes a part of himself. As he tries to resuscitate the language, he in turn, tries to stave off his own demise.

In Search was originally published in Ladino and translated into French. The Ibis edition includes an English translation of the French as well as the full Ladino text. The book is, in many ways, a paradigmatic work for Ibis.

“You have this French writer,” said Cole, “this Jewish man in France, remembering the language of his family from Salonika which is itself a community that came from Spain which itself became what it was as a culture by absorbing things from the Eastern crest of the Mediterranean and Europe. You have these mirrors, or satellite dishes, beaming back and forth. That replicates the structure of the whole press in a way.”

Ibis is a not-for-profit organization, and Cole and Hoffman take no salary from their work with the press. But while they reap no financial reward from Ibis, the two writers have benefited professionally — and personally — from its work. Their collaboration with the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is perhaps the starkest example. Taha, as they call him, is a captivating character. Forced to flee his village in 1948, he eventually settled in Nazareth where he worked as a shopkeeper for decades, writing stories and poetry at night.

“Taha is not a poet of a political party or a particular platform,” said Hoffman. “Some of the other Palestinian poets were very famous in the Arab world as resistance poets, and Taha is not in that category. He writes much quieter poetry and as a result his work has been more under the radar.”

In 2002, Ibis changed that, publishing Taha’s Never Mind, translated by Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin. The collection became Ibis’ bestseller and inspired a multi-city American tour with the Israeli poet Aaron Shabtai. In September, a larger press, Copper Canyon, will publish Taha’s work.

Cole and Hoffman speak about Taha with affection and admiration. Hoffman is currently working on a biography of Taha. Cole, who has won international awards for his translations of Shmuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol, describes his work with Taha in almost spiritual terms.

“Translators often talk about debating about this word or that word, but that’s not what translation is about. Translation is about a kind of identification and sympathy in a certain critical moment, a transference of energy. That’s the most elusive and exhausting element of it. Getting out of yourself, letting the other person in, and dealing with how they rearrange you. To me that’s the heart of translation. That’s what makes really good translation. And that’s happened with Taha.”

Cole and Hoffman hope something like this will happen to its readers, as well.

“There’s the great Wittgenstein quote ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world’ and that’s definitely an operative principle in everything we do,” said Cole. “We’re constantly trying to expand the limits of our world.”

Thanks to Ibis, the limits of our world are wider than ever.

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