On one of the first pages of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dolly Oblonsky is packing to leave her womanizing husband and is described as taking something out of an open chest of drawers.
That’s how one translation has it, but, while researching a story about translations for the Chicago Tribune, I had occasion to compare this scene in six English language versions of the masterpiece. What I found was that other translators identified this piece of furniture differently — variously, as an open bureau, as an open wardrobe, and as an open chiffonier.
In the original Russian, it was the same word, but it was transformed into English in these four different ways.
Translation is always a dicey proposition. Talk to translators, and they’ll tell you that it’s an art, not a science. It’s not a mathematical equation but an interpretation.
And, if one Russian word for a piece of furniture can result in such varied responses by translators, how much greater variance is implicit in the translation of poetry? For instance, how would one translate The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot into another language? Orthese lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding…
What must Shakespeare’s plays read like in French? In Swahili? In Korean?
In essence, a poem in its original language, with its hints and gaps and odd juxtapositions, demands translation by the reader. It demands interpretation. And it will yield a different experience, a different “meaning,” to each reader, depending on how much one puts into and takes out of the words and phrasing of the poem.
A translated poem requires the same work by the reader. In this case, though, the poem has already been transformed by a go-between (the translator) so the reader is required to interpret an interpretation of the original work.
Case in point: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Joan Agnes of the Cross), a Roman Catholic nun in the late 17th century in Mexico City who is hailed as a major figure at the beginning of Mexican literature.
Internationally known during her lifetime, she was so important as a theologian that, in 2005, the Catholic publishing house Paulist Press included a selection of her writings, translated by Pamela Kirk Rappaport, in its series called The Classics of Western Spirituality. Included in the book are several poems in praise of the Virgin Mary and the saints as well as devotionals.
Here, for instance, is the opening stanza of “Poem II for the Fest of the Presentation of Our Lady”:
Ay, ay, ay, beautiful girl
in your lovely attire!
Ay, ay, ay what lovely
steps you take.
The earthiest of language
But, in addition to her theology, philosophy and devotional writing, Sor Juana also wrote about love.
In 1997, poets Joan Larkin and Jaimie Manrique published a translation of 14 of her verse works Sor Juana’s Love Poems/Poemas de Amor.
Born illegitimate, Sor Juana was a woman of great intelligence and courage who broke boundaries throughout her life. As Larkin and Manrique have rendered these poems into English, she is also shattering the expectations of religious chastity and reveling in the fever and lust of lesbian love.
Or is she?
The Larkin-Manrique translation offers poems filled with longing and bawdiness and the earthiest of language (such as “the way you fuck me is no trick”).
Consider “Don’t Go, My Darling. I Don’t Want This to End Yet,” which includes this second stanza:
My breasts answer yours
magnet to magnet.
Why make love to me, then leave?
Why mock me?
That’s how Larkin and Manrique have it. Yet, how well do those English words fit Sor Juana’s original Spanish?
As it happens, this is one of three poems in the Larkin-Manrique book that also appear Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, also published in 1997. (Peden, it should be noted, was also the translator of the important 1988 biography of Sor Juana by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, Or, The Traps of Faith.)
Peden titles this poem “Which Recounts How Fantasy Contents Itself with Honorable Love,” and this is how she renders this stanza:
If answering your charms’ imperative,
compliant, I like steel to magnet fly,
by what logic do you flatter and entice,
only to flee, a taunting fugitive.
“Like steel to magnet”
Well, they are definitely different.
Both books provide Sor Juan’s original words, so a reader who knows Spanish might do his or her own translation. I’m not such a reader. All I can do is compare and contrast the two versions.
First of all, it’s important to note that Peden is attempting to mirror the poetic style and rhyme scheme that Sor Juana employed while Larkin and Manrique, for the most part, are putting her poems into modern free verse. So that causes some differences.
Even so, there are some clear parallels — “I like steel to magnet fly” (Peden) and “answer…magnet to magnet” (Larkin-Manrique).
But, in those same two lines, there is what seems to be a sharp divergence with Larkin-Manrique writing, “My breasts answer yours…,” while Peden makes it “answering your charms’ imperative.” Maybe this is a case in which “charms” is used as it was in racy 1950s novels to mean “breasts.” Or maybe not.
The title that Peden uses on this poem suggests Sor Juana is fantasizing — which, of course, begs the question of why a nun is writing about such a fantasy. Still, it’s nowhere near as steamy as in the Larkin-Manrique version.
“When you flirt”
Peden presents another poem without a title but with a note, perhaps from Sor Juana, saying, “One of Five Burlesque Sonnets in Which the Poetess Was Circumscribed by Rhymes Which Had Been Determined; Composed in a Moment of Relaxation.” So, she was apparently given 14 words with which she had to use to end each line.
Here’s Peden’s translation of the second stanza:
I die of jealousy if others you entangle,
I tremble at your grace, your step sublime,
because I know, Ines, that you could mangle
the humors of my systematic chyme.
“Chyme” is a word that has to do with human digestion, so this version seems to be saying that the jealousy of the poet could give her heartburn.
Larkin and Manrique offer this second stanza of a poem they title “Inez, I Have to Gloat; You’re Gorgeous”:
and when you flirt in front of me, I die.
You flaunt those hips to drive me wild.
One thrust, you’re squandering the honey
that makes me high — save it for me, Inez.
Here, instead of some stomach secretion, the talk is of honey. Nonetheless, both versions have to do with jealousy as well as with the way the loved one walks — “your step sublime” (Peden) and “You flaunt those hips” (Larkin-Manrique).
There are similarities in the final stanza in both poems. Peden has it:
so I say, Ines, to one thing I aspire,
that your love and my good wine will draw you hither,
and to tumble you to bed I can conspire.
From Larkin and Manrique, it goes this way:
Still, Inez, none of this really matters,
Just take me to bed where I like it,
with my wineskin and your succulent worm.
Here, it appears that both translations — both interpretations — envision the two women, the flirter and the poetess, together “in bed.” Whether Inez is tumbled into bed as Peden has it or takes her admirer to bed, the end location is the same, and the implication is that they’re not there just to sleep.
I have to say that I feel at a loss, unable as I am to come up with my own translation of these and the other works in Sor Juana’s Love Poems. These books were published nearly two decades ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been a lot of academic debates over these questions. If so, I haven’t found them.
In any case, some readers might wonder how a theologian and a nun could write in such a carnal vein as presented by Larkin-Manrique but also, it must be admitted, by Peden to a lesser extent.
For me, it’s a good reminder that each of us, even a theologian, is a sexual being.
Another nun and theologian, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, lived a life of chastity and died a virgin, but she had a body just like you and I. And like Sor Juana. And, for that matter, like Jesus and his mother Mary, the “beautiful girl” of Rappaport’s translation of Sor Juana’s devotional poem.
So much of Sor Juana’s life was transgressive — rising from bastardry to high cultural honors, succeeding as a woman in a man’s world. The idea of crossing accepted sexual boundaries seems hardly shocking and perhaps even appropriate.
Besides, these poems don’t only deal with the sweat and fever of physical love.
Consider these insights into the true nature of love as Larkin and Manrique have rendered them:
With luck, love lends us beauty —
Not the right to keep it.
—from “Have You Lost Your Mind, Alcino?”
Death herself will regret
Her rigor, refusing to exempt you.
Love laments her bitter luck.
—from “Elegy: On the Death of the Most Excellent Senora the Marquise of Mancera”
Patrick T. Reardon