Found in Translation


By Daniel Septimus

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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Nestled between Arab East Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox mecca of Meah Shearim, and the cafés and pubs of Zion Square is the neighborhood of Musrara. Fittingly, this crossroads 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, writer Adina Hoffman. Since 1998, the American-born couple has published works of Hebrew, Arabic, French and German, all in English translation. Cole and Hoffman’s backlist includes writers largely unknown in the English-speaking world (Dennis Silk, Ibn Arabi, Ahmed Rassim), as well as obscure works by well-known writers (the essays of Haim Nahman Bialik, the poetry of Gershom Scholem).

Ibis emerged out of a Jerusalem literary scene that, aside from Cole, included Silk, Harold Schimmel and Gabriel Levin. Their writings and translations featured prominently in Ibis’s 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,” Hoffman added, “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.”

That book is Marcel Cohen’s “In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura” (2006), essentially an ode to Judeo-Spanish, the language of the author’s youth. Epistolary in structure (it is addressed to Cohen’s friend, 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,” Cole said, “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 Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is perhaps the starkest example. Forced to flee his village in 1948, Ali eventually settled in Nazareth, where he worked as a shopkeeper for decades, writing stories and poetry at night.

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

In 2000, Ibis changed that, publishing Ali’s “Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story,” which was translated by Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Levin. The collection became Ibis’s bestseller and inspired a multi-city American tour with Israeli poet Aaron Shabtai. In addition, this September, a larger press, Copper Canyon, will publish Ali’s work, and Hoffman herself is working on a biography of the poet.

Cole, who has translated Shmuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol, described his work with Ali in almost spiritual terms. “Translators often talk about debating about this word or that word, but that’s not what translation is about,” he said. “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.”

This belief in the power — and possibilities — of translation fuels Ibis’ work.”

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

Daniel Septimus is editor in chief of and host of the 92nd Street Y’s Jewish Literary Exchange.

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