Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poems - A Bilingual Anthology by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (trans. Margaret Sayers Peden)

Recently (and I'm sorry, I've lost the link) I cam across a blog comparing the poetry of my old acquaintance Emily Dickinson, to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun-poet. The blog, so interesting that I somehow lost it's existence altogether talked about the depth of compression in their language, the subtelty of phrasing, the gentle, but sublime wordplay. So, I thought I'd try it out.

Well, I apparently need to learn Spanish. Because in translation, some of these poems are real, real bad. Let me demonstrate:

Dear Leonor, they've given you
the palm for beauty, or so you say,
but have no fear for your virtue,
that face would save you any day.

You sing your praises without qualm,
to hear you tell it, men lose their wits:
but if they've given you the palm,
it's from the date -- for you're the pits.

Doesn't that just feel like a not-particularly-clever limerick? I do not speak Spanish, I only took a few years in high school, and remember very little, but even I can tell this isn't doing justice (the book has facing pages of Spanish and English, so you can, kind of, go back and see what she actually said). The word for date is nowhere in the text - the word for coconut is, and with some minimal research, I learned that Coco can actually mean coconut, or a Spanish version of the Bogeyman. I understand, in some sense, this does not translate. The translation, then, seems pointless.

This does not affect my respect for the lady in question, it just sort of invalidates any reading of her by a gringo like me. I'm not a natural fan of the aesthetics of the Spanish language, the way many are with, say , French, but just in pure assonance and meter, some of these poems are beautiful, like this series of statements about her own beauty:

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inutil para el hado:
es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afan caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadaver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

Which translates (loosely. I think. Jen, correct me.) to:

Is a vain artifice of care,
Is a delicate flower in the wind,
Is a poor response to unalterable fate,
Is a foolish and diligent mistake,
Is a transient eagerness, when fully understood,
Is a corpse, a dust, a shadow, a void.

The translation tries to maintain the rhyme and meter, and comes out like this:

Is but an artifice, a sop to vanity,
is but a flower by the breezes bowed,
is but a ploy to counter destiny,
is but a foolish labor, ill-employed,
is but a fancy, as all may see,
is but cadaver, ashes, shadow, void.

Now, my translation is horrid, patched together with old spanish classes, google, and blind guesses, but even in this poor murky lense, you can see something that isn't in the second translation, a thematic descent, the same kind found in Dickinson poetry, actually, and a feeling of futile battle, of willfulness against the decay that destroys beauty eventually. But the beauty, the rich sound of the language is completely lost, and the thrum-thrum-thrumming of the meter dissolves, and you're left with what sounds like an emo kid's particularly clever whining 'free poem'. In the translator's words, the poem loses completely the power of the linguistic precision (at least I think so, again, I don't speak spanish). It's like a synopsis, that rhymes, and poetry cannot be synopsized very well. But, it manages to maintain some of the sing-song quality - only without the weight of the language, it ends up sounding like a somewhat coy attempt at engaging people in looking at how pretty she is by showing how smart she is. It sounds flat and dull.

Maybe poetry just doesn't translate, maybe that's all there is to it. Antonio Carlos Jobim, the great master of the bossa nova, and a beautiful lyricist, translated his song 'Aguas de Marco' to English (from Portugese) by basically writing an entirely new poem, to the point that the original song is thematically linked to March as the flooding period of Autumn in Brazil, when everything is marching toward the death of winter, whereas the English translation has the overtones of life, rebirth ("And the riverbank talks of the waters of march, it's the promise of life, it's the joy in your heart"). He took pride, in fact, in not including a single Latinate word in the English version, to make entirely English, in his mind, not at all of a piece with the Portugese tongue he was born with. And it really is a beautiful poem. Maybe that's how poetry should translate. I don't know. But I don't think it should translate like this.

Just as an endnote, while I don't recommend this translation of this author, she is a fascinating person, and has the sensiblities that make me believe she is a beautiful poet - and many is the Spanish speaker, who sings her praises (she was, in fact, printed on Mexican bank-notes for a while - wouldn't that be cool, if they replaced Jackson with say... Whitman on the $20 bill? Man, I'd freak out every time I pulled out a $20, like my $20 bill was staring into my soul - do you really want to buy McDonalds? Do you really want to betray your immortality to a cheesburger, oh my son?). Like I hinted earlier, maybe Ms Jen, who is the Spanish literary expert, here (hrm, hrm) can let me know if I'm just crazy.


Amanda said...

I like your translation, correct or not.

I wonder if a lot of the translations we read, not just poetry, have that same lost feeling. It's not so bad when authors do their own translations, but I've read quite a few books in the last year that are translations (Madame Bovary, Don Quixote, and now, Dr. Zhivago) and they never seem quite as good as when I read works originally in english. Perhaps it's a cultural thing, and since I don't know those cultures, I can't understand them well. I'm sure that's part of it. But when I read Moliere in french in high school, I was cracking up laughing, but when I translated the lines, word for word, to others, they were at a complete loss to see the humor. I guess that's encouragement to learn more languages. :D

Julie said...

You wrote a good review though. It's funny you bring this up because the other day I was thinking I really should learn Spanish. I think its great when people are bilingual or more. Yet I haven't made the effort to accomplish this. I think a lot of things get lost in translation, mostly the feeling behind the words, as you pointed out.

Jason Gignac said...

Yeah, I was asking my friend Arturo here, who speaks excellent English and Spanish to help me figure what some of these words meant, and he kept accidentally falling into Spanish, just when trying to explain the more abstract Spanish words. Like, the idea is so Spanish, you just can't say it in English. And when he finally stumbled out a basic description, he said to call his wife, who likes poetry, and her definition was COMPLETELY different.

Amanda said...

It makes me wonder about the translations I have in that Refuge book Rami gave me. The stuff Rami translated was really beautiful, though I didn't like the other guys' translations as well (though to be fair, he wasn't as fluent in English as Rami is, and he learned British English, and listening to arabic translated in british slang is a bit weird to me). I wish I knew arabic so I could read the originals, a couple of them especially.

hamilcar barca said...

translating poetry has got to be tough. there's a subtlety in every line, which isn't true when one translates, say, a novel. i think you are right in your first comment, Amanda. it only works when the authors do their own translating.

Amber said...

this is off the translation topic, but regarding poems and bilinguality (is that a word?), you might want to try Sandra Cisneros. Her "Loose Woman" is just fantastic. She does an excellent job of blending the two languages (English and Spanish) - nothing is lost, much is gained.

Jason Gignac said...

Interesting that you'd say so. Amanda, I know, reviewed a book by her, here, and absolutely hated it. Maybe she's a better poet. Or maybe it's Eye of the Beholder.

Amber said...

yeah, get Amanda to give her poetry a shot, I'd be interested to hear her opinion.

Amanda said...

haha, you'd be hard-pressed to get me to try poetry of any sort. I simply don't understand poetry. Read me a little Emily Dickinson ditty, and I'm completely lost. That's why I was so worried about reading Pale Fire, since the center of it was a 999-line poem. Thankfully, it's written like rhyming prose, and I could just read through it in sentences without paying attention to meter and rhyme.

Jason Gignac said...

Well, to be fair... I'm not sure 'Emily Dickinson' is the best yardstick to measure whether you can read poems. There are world-famous poets and critics out there who think Emily Dickinson is obnoxious claptrap, even the great Dickinson scholars generally admit that she can be a bit... cryptic.

Amanda said...

Jason, if I have to work real hard to understand the "your the pits" poem up there, there's simply no hope for me when it comes to poetry.

Jen said...

Jason, your translation is as good as mine. Most poetry has so much subtle word play in its original language that in many translations I think much is probably lost.

Jen said...

Oh, and on an unrelated and possibly culturally insensitive note, I've thought before that poetry may be easier to write in Spanish because so many verbs and adjectives have the same (rhyming) endings--like the -o and -a endings in your example. Just listen to the songs on any Spanish station. Not that I'm complaining--I love that stuff.

Amanda said...

French is the same way, Jen. And in songs, not only can they rhyme based on their common endings, but they oftentimes change the way endings are pronounced. They pronounce letters and syllables that are normally silent.