Artist Peter Cole Looks Back on the 2006 Franke Visiting Fellowship

Peter Cole

In September 2006, poet Peter Cole came to Yale as the first Franke Visiting Artist at the Whitney Humanities Center. Established through a gift of Richard J. Franke ’53, the fellowship brings distinguished visitors to the Whitney to promote its mission of scholarly exchange across fields. Yale recently asked Cole to talk about his experience.

Q: You are a well-established poet, translator, and publisher. What was it like to spend a semester at a place like the Whitney?

A: The richness I encountered at Yale generally, and specifically at the Whitney, was extraordinary. The range of activities that take place there, the quality of the Center’s fellows and visitors, and the overall ease with which serious subjects are presented to audiences that include every facet of the Yale community were impressive in the extreme. That ease, it seems to me, is very much related to the sort of creative thinking and cross-fertilization the Center encourages… I find it hard to imagine a better place to work.

Q: What exactly does a visiting artist do?

A: A fellow works quietly behind closed doors but also presents his work to the community in a variety of forums, ranging from a public lecture to symposia to the fellows’ lunches and the Center’s working groups. He interacts regularly and casually with members of the Yale community. In my case this included scholars and writers in a very wide variety of fields, including English literature, Jewish and Arabic Studies, physics, music, classics, publishing, law, and Chinese and French literature. One attends lectures and concerts, visits museums, sits on the green, uses the marvelous libraries, and more.
My interaction with students was informal, but ongoing. After my public lecture, several students contacted me wanting to talk about the study of medieval Hebrew literature and, in some cases, its translation. Others sought me out to talk about the study of Arabic literature, medieval and modern. I also interacted with graduate students at the Whitney working group on contemporary poetry.

Q: You are well known for your poetry translations of Jewish poets in medieval Spain. Why is this work important today?

A: For those who can’t read the original, translation brings one a world. And even for those who can read it, translation can open up new avenues of approach to the work that others might not have seen, shedding light on aspects of it that have been overlooked or forgotten.

It is an essential literary activity—medieval Hebrew poetry itself is a product of a culture of translation—and without it, very few English readers would have access to this astonishing body of work and the world it embodies.

Q: As part of the Tanner Lectures week, you worked with John Donatich, Director of the Yale Press, to host a symposium, Why Translation Matters. Can you tell us about that experience?

A: We were fortunate to have the participation of some distinguished American translators: Edith Grossman (Spanish and Portuguese), Richard Sieburth (German and French), William Granara (Arabic), and Eliot Weinberger (Spanish and Chinese).

Discussion ranged from a wide-ranging survey of approaches to translation across European intellectual history to consideration of the stark picture of an English-speaking world without translation… A lively discussion ensued, touching on the translator’s essential motivation in the face of obvious difficulties, with the panelists being asked why each of them translated, what drove them in their art, and what satisfaction they took from their work. It was a great experience for the panelists and for the faculty and students in the audience.

Q: Now that your stay here is over, what will you take from your time as a Franke Visiting Artist? 

A: Extremely warm memories, several new friendships and working relationships, an essay on translation and cultural extension, and, perhaps most important, a long poem that will form a major part of my new book of poems.

The Franke Fellowship affords the artist-scholar time to step back from the thousands of things that take up his days in order to concentrate on creative work in the richest possible environment. The importance of this kind of fellowship can’t be overemphasized: it provides a context for critical examination and time for intense engagement.


The Fall 2007 Franke Visiting Fellow is Luis Fernández-Galiano, School of Architecture, University of Madrid.


(May 1, 2007)

May 1, 2007