The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz
by st. john of the cross, trans. maría baranda and paul hoover
milkweed editions, 120 pages, $18
The Spiritual Canticle of San Juan de la Cruz—Saint John of the Cross—is treasure drawn from the darkness of a Toledo cell. Its popularity, from the sixteenth century to the present, testifies to the enduring appeal of its graceful, erotic mysticism. In a new translation of this and San Juan’s other poems, poets María Baranda and Paul Hoover have prioritized fidelity to the original language, with Spanish on the facing page. The physical book has a spacious black and red design, and the result is beautiful to eye, hand, and heart.
This translation fares well by comparison to previous efforts. Despite making no attempt to reproduce San Juan’s rhyme scheme, it falls pleasantly on the ear while taking fewer liberties than most. To take the third stanza of the Spiritual Canticle as an example, John Frederick Nims gives us,
I’ll wander high and low
after the one I worship—til he’s found
not stop where daisies grow
nor shrink for beasts around;
bow to no bully and obey no bound.
Rhina Espaillat, whose lyrical translation of the Spiritual Canticle appeared in First Things in 2003, renders it thus:
To seek him, I shall scour
these trackless woods to where the
not stop to pick a flower,
not run from beasts—but go
past every fort and border that I know.
Baranda and Hoover convey San Juan’s meaning more plainly:
Searching for my loves,
I will go among those mountains
nor will I pick the flowers,
nor fear the wild beasts,
and I will pass beyond the forts and frontiers.
They preserve both the alliteration of the Spanish flores / fieras / fuertes y fronteras and the idiomatic plural of the first line, Buscando mis amores.
They take the same conservative approach with San Juan’s other poems, which have received less critical appreciation. For instance, Baranda and Hoover opt to translate the theologically loaded term Verbo as “Verb” rather than the more typical “Word.” As poetry, these generally make for less compelling reading in either language than the Spiritual Canticle, but San Juan’s daring metaphors have not lost their freshness. Throughout, the translators have shown that San Juan can be well served by a humble and purposeful simplicity that mirrors the poet’s own profound spirituality.