Ilan Stavans is unrelentingly attracted to the work of Pablo Neruda.
“I think that I love Neruda enough to want to bring him to an audience that can’t read him in the original,” Stavans told JTNews. “But I also love him so much that I want people to see him in the original and how he sounds in both languages.”
Stavans, an influential author and editor, the Lewis-Sebring professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and a former journalist will be in Seattle as Temple Beth Am’s scholar-in-residence in early January. The Mexican-born Ashkenazi Jew will also speak in other venues, including Town Hall on Jan. 8, where he’ll discuss his latest work as editor and one of the translators of the bilingual edition of “All the Odes: Pablo Neruda” (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2013), the complete collection of all 225 odes written by the Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet.
While Stavans has edited many noteworthy compilations such as “Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture” (2012), “The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature” (2005), and “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories V. 1 and V. 2” (2004), he is as well-known for his own provocative political titles that include “José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race” (2011) “Mr. Spic Goes to Washington” (2008), and “The Scroll and the Cross: 1,000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature” (2002).
In 2005, Stavans edited the book “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda.”
Stavans said that he can only dream of having met Neruda, who died in 1973, but the linguist, essayist, and cultural analyst said he hopes to draw the reader’s attention to the poet’s use of the Spanish language and the “silences behind the words.”
“His Spanish is deceptively simple,” said Stavans,” and then you sit down and realize that each of those words have different meanings. I have spent years and years trying to understand how he uses certain words. It’s kind of what biblical scholars do.”
The professor’s whirlwind visit continues on Jan. 9 with a screening and discussion of the film “My Mexican Shiva,” based on one of his short stories, and includes a University of Washington Lunchtime Learning lecture on Jan. 10, “The Jews of Latin America,” that will be open to the public. Stavans will cover 500 years of Jewish history, from the conversos and maranos to the Jews of modern-day Latin America.
Stavans also devotes much of his literary energy to introspective projects, often reflecting on his life growing up Jewish in Mexico City in books like “Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for his Roots” (2012) and “The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture” (2001).
In his 2008 book “Resurrecting Hebrew,” Stavans examined the beginnings of modern Hebrew in Israel through the life of its developer, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He discovered that Hebrew played a curious role in many complicated relationships in Israel, such as the conflict between the Orthodox and Zionist communities, the virtual expulsion of Yiddish literature from Israeli literature, and the polarization of Diaspora Jewry from Israeli Judaism.
“That is what prompted the writing of the book and it was also kind of a personal journey for me,” Stavans said. “I had grown up with Yiddish, and together with Spanish, it was the main language of communication of my childhood. Then, at some point, the elders of the Mexican Jewish community started to bring teachers from Israel and they would teach us Hebrew.”
“When the Jewish state was created in 1948, the majority of Jews in the world were Ashkenazi and spoke Yiddish,” said Stavans. “It would have been easier, faster, and less complicated to simply adopt Yiddish as the language of the Jewish State. And yet we chose to give up Yiddish and embrace Hebrew as new national language.”
Stavans laments the sidelining of other hybrid languages like Ladino and the five languages his grandmother spoke. Using her main language of Yiddish as her foundation, she mingled it with her knowledge of Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and English, he recalled.
“So Hebrew, which had been a kind of fossilized language used by Talmudic scholars and rabbis, all of a sudden became a majority language and Yiddish was incinerated in the gas chambers, literally a language of nostalgia, put aside, in favor of a biblical language because Israel really wanted to tie themselves to their biblical roots and not to their Diaspora roots.”
Yet the scholar and writer demonstrated that he could also be pragmatic about a world where dozens of unspoken languages disappear each year.
“It’s a Darwinian world out there,” reasoned Stavans. “Languages that have a need and a reason to exist, survive.”