Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz - es un vano artificio del cuidado

Sonnet 145 of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, "To Her Portrait":

Este que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores
es cauteloso engaño del sentido

éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado:

es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

A reader doesn't need much Spanish to see a lot in this poem. It's all one sentence. Seven of fourteen lines start with "es", while three more start with "éste" and "excusar". And then "es" appears again and again in the last line.

Look at the rhyme words. Four lines end in "-ores", but the rest are "-ido", "-ado", and "-ada", similar sounds, slant rhymes.*

Does a good translation need to keep all of this? See yesterday's post for Edith Grossman's version. Here is Margaret Sayers Peden:

This that you gaze on, colorful deceit,
that so immodestly displays art's favors,
with its fallacious arguments of colors
is to the senses cunning counterfeit,

this on which kindness practiced to delete
from cruel years accumulated horrors,
constraining time to mitigate its rigors
and thus oblivion and age defeat,

is but 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, and, as all may see,
is but cadaver, ashes, shadow, void.

A lot of this is pretty close to the text. Peden keeps the "is/ this" structure, although not in the last line. Grossman tries a parallel structure ("a corpse, some dust, a shadow, mere nothingness"). Peden keeps the rhyming cognates (horrors/ rigors/ colors). There's no "sop" to vanity in the original, nor are the horrors "accumulated". Still. Edith Grossman's horrors are "stark", which isn't Sor Juana either. What else can a poor translator do?

Peden does one thing more. Her essay "Building a Translation, the Reconstruction Business: Poem 145 of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz"** compares nine(!) translations of Sor Juana's sonnet, including one by Samuel Beckett. She provides the handy diagram on the right to help us see what each translator is really doing. Most of them, regardless of decisions about rhyme and language, stay right on top of this schematic. The ones that don't are terrible.

This is all I really want. Every translation of a poem in multiple versions with an accompanying essay, and diagrams. Is this so much too ask?

Bonus fun: compare the last line of Sor Juana's sonnet to that of the Luis de Góngora sonnets I posted two days ago. The Sor Juana poem is from sixty or seventy years later, I think.

* Does Spanish prosody have slant rhymes, or am I importing a foreign English concept?

** From John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, eds., The Craft of Translation, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.


  1. Been following your posts here on these poems. Translating poetry seems to me the most difficult task for any translator, I have only done a tiny tiny bit myself and it was from Japanese to English so there you have an entirely different can of worms (ideograms into words without any visual meaning - yikes!)
    I think that any translation can only be a path toward the original, it can't replicate it at all. And I am with you on wanting any poetic translation to include possiblities and a discussion of those possibilities. It makes everything very technical but in a sense, turns the translation into a story about language and I heartily approve of that approach.

  2. What we really want is for lightning to strike. Sometimes it does. Otherwise, keep trying. Let a thousand translations bloom.

    That book I cite above has a brilliant, rueful essay by Edward Seidensticker called "On Trying to Translate Japanese". If you haven't seen it, you would appreciate it.

  3. Definitely not too much to ask. ;) I have the Trueblood translation, which has the Spanish opposite. My Spanish isn't that good, and unfortunately the translation is so free that it doesn't help much with understanding the original words. I might be better off ignoring it altogether and going straight for the dictionary.

  4. I have a vague ambition to knock my Spanish into shape, soon. We'll see, we'll see.

  5. To your question, we do have slant rhymes in spanish, we call them rima asonante. On the other hand, a perfect rhyme would be a rima consonante.

  6. But if you look carefully, the whole sonet has perfect prosody:

    "-ido" in verses 1/4/5/8; "-ores" in verses 2/3/6/7 in the first part, and
    "-ado" in 9/11/13, "-ada" in 10/12/14

    A/B/B/A//A/B/B/A//C/D/C//D/C/D is a typical sonet structure, at least as far as the ones I've read.

    Great post, by the way. Regards from Mexico -and the State of Mexico, where Sor Juana is from.

  7. Thanks for the notes on prosody. If I can get my Spanish back in shape, there will be more of this sort of thing. I have my eye on Becquer and Dario in particular.

  8. I live for vague ambitions... ;)