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  • Exchange with Audience
  • Michelle Ann Stephens (bio), Leila Ahmed (bio), and Ilan Stavans (bio)

Leila Ahmed: Well, you've left me almost speechless, I did not know I had done all those things. It's very rich and wonderful, what you have just said, and I am kind of amazed that I really do this. [Laughter]

Ilan Stavans: And I'm bamboozled. [More laughter]

Michelle Stephens: It is striking to me that the two of you chose to read segments in which the relationship between religion and violence is present. Can I get you to talk about your own books and about your impressions of each other's memoirs?

LA: Well, I guess that after reading Ilan's book, but only after reading it, I was struck by the fact that the things that converse and "speak" in the passage I read are—in interesting contrast to your book—trees, birds, things that don't in fact "speak." This and other things made me wonder, reading your book, whether perhaps you're at ease with language in a way that I'm not. I think maybe I feel that I am always a foreigner, in whatever language, and I'm wondering whether . . . okay, I have two thoughts. One is, this must have something to do with women, with being a woman, in the sense that there's no language in which women are fully at home, so that when birds or trees "speak" this maybe feels like a "natural," not man-made, male-constructed language. That was my first thought, then I had a second—I actually end my book with a quotation from Rumi in which he in a way says what I am now struggling to say—that, in the end maybe language fails. And I am wondering—well he wasn't a woman obviously—whether more accurately there's something inherent to language and our relation to language, the feeling that in the end language fails, in the end there are no words. And you on the other hand [to Ilan], as I read, you seem to have a confidence, an exuberant confidence in language.

IS: A Border Passage is a beautiful book that awakened in me sheer envy. Leila talks about my confidence with English. But I found her much more in control. Her language is lyrical, evocative, hypnotizing. I like the patience with which she described her childhood. As reader, I was transported to remote places in the Middle East and Africa. In On Borrowed Words, ideas are always intruding, disallowing any chance to show—to use Henry James's famous typology—the world as it really is. I especially enjoyed the sections in which Leila experienced a mystical encounter with someone dead. One of these encounters takes place in Amherst, I believe. Those moments brought light to my eyes. Rationalization succumbed to the pressure of lyricism, and that I wholeheartedly cherished.

LA: I'm delighted, Ilan.

IS: And I was enchanted by the mother's quote in A Border Passage, used as a leitmotif: "To save a baby is to save the world entire." Ironically, this is a sentence that appears in the Talmud. From Arabic to Hebrew, the essence of the maxim is the same. This fact that such thought is here in Egypt and in Jerusalem suggests all sorts of cross-cultural possibilities. I don't [End Page 91] believe language is insufficient or limited. On the contrary, to me it is an endless river. But I want to talk about translation—its nuances, its difficulties. I see myself as a product of what is lost, and perhaps gained, in its process. I enjoy far more embarking on a translation than finishing it. Soon after I began On Borrowed Words, I realized that the challenge was to write a book in English and then, as in an Escher engraving, to switch to Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish without the reader ever noticing that the birds have become fish. Of course, ours is not a perfect world and our wishes often go unsatisfied. [Laughter] No publisher would want to release so unmarketable a volume, right? The recourse was to write a book that read...


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