"Translations are like lovers: There are those that are beautiful but untrue¯and those that are true but unbeautiful."
An old saw, perhaps, but I first heard it from the poet Dick Davis, himself a talented translator from medieval Persian . Nonetheless, we live in a glorious age for poetic translation, beginning with the work of Richard Wilbur . Dana Gioia¯whose own Hercules Furens is one of the best englishings we have of classical tragedy¯once suggested that Wilbur’s translations are so good, he ought to collect them for his fellow poets in a single volume, to be titled Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair .
In his remarkable Sappho to Valery , the late John Frederick Nims translates from Latin and Greek, Italian and Spanish, French and German¯and Galician, Catalan, and Provençal, for heaven’s sake. In his preface to the book, Nims asserts: "One cannot translate a poem, but one can try to reconstitute it by taking the thought, the imagery, the rhythm, the sound, the qualities of diction¯these and whatever else made up the original¯and then attempt to rework as many as possible into a poem in English." He continues, "with poetry, to translate the thought alone is not enough¯indeed, is next to nothing. If the translator is trying to show us how the poetry goes, what he writes has to be first of all a poem."
Some of the most remarkable translations which I’ve encountered in recent years are Rhina Espaillat’s translations of St. John of the Cross. They’ve been appearing in the pages of F IRST T HINGS since 2003, and so far we have seen nine. To read the poems, click on these links and scroll to the bottom of the text:
As it happens, Espaillat is celebrated for translations in the other direction, notably her renderings of Robert Frost into Spanish. I have about enough Spanish to order a cerveza fria , but I laughed with delight when I saw her effortlessly duplicate the demanding rhyme scheme of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Frost, who famously defined poetry as "that which is lost in translation," would have been similarly delighted.
These translations of St. John, however, show her skill at moving from Spanish to English. Nims’ masterful Poems of St. John of the Cross first appeared in 1959, and he spent half his very long life revising the texts. But Espaillat’s translations strike me as less effortful and more contemporary, and I suspect they are nearer the original. St. John was her father’s favorite poet, she has had him in memory from early childhood, and her Spanish rivals her mastery of English. Poetic translation, requiring as it does adherence not just to beauty but to truth, is far more difficult an art than the composition of original verse. Espaillat’s translations of these very substantial poems are coming so fluently that one wonders whether the Holy Spirit is not directing her pen in some sort of private Pentecost.
Unlike most poets, St. John brings sinners to Christ. My confessor gave up his life as a drug-dealing saloon keeper when he heard Loreena McKennitt sing her musically ravishing but textually challenged version of "En Una Noche Oscura." I recited him Rhina’s translation, which concludes:
I stayed, all else forgetting,
inclined toward the beloved, face to face;
all motion halted, letting
care vanish with no trace,
forgotten in the lilies of that place.
The young priest smiled broadly: "So that’s what he said!" One difficulty for any translator of St. John is that his expressed passion for his Redeemer surpasses the merely sensual and reaches, like Song of Songs, into the explicitly sexual:
O night that led me true,
O night more fair than morning’s earliest shining,
O night that wrought from two¯
lover, beloved entwining¯
beloved and lover one in their combining!
On my new-flowered breast,
to him alone and wholly sanctified,
he leaned and lay at rest;
his pleasure was my guide,
and cedars to the wind their scent supplied.
No other great poet of the personal relation to Christ¯not Gerard Manley Hopkins, not George Herbert¯takes us so far into the bower of Christ and his poet bride. Other than St. John, who but a passionate woman could do so? Consider "The Youthful Shepherd," which opens, in Rhina’s translation:
A youthful shepherd, wandering and feeling
far from his heart’s content, goes sad and lonely,
his thoughts on one he loves, and for her only
his breast pierced by love’s wound, deep and unhealing.
He weeps¯not for the blows that love keeps dealing¯
no, he has no regrets for the affliction
that tears him so: he weeps for his eviction
from her remembrance. How his heart is reeling . . .
St. John continues in this vein for two more stanzas, exhausting every bathetic trope of shepherd poetry dating back to the Greeks, and then he takes us aback by revealing the identity of his shepherd:
See him there where, at last, himself revealing
on a tree’s branches, by fair arms extended,
he clings aloft, although his life has ended,
his breast pierced by love’s wound, deep and unhealing.
Here the translator, a mother of three sons, considers a boy’s treatment at the treacherous hands of her own sex. I marvel that St. John could have written such a poem, and I submit that it could have only been translated so effectively by a watchful mother-in-law.
Peace be to the poet saints Terese and Francis. I yield to nobody in my regard for Thomas Aquinas’ hymn Tantum Ergo . But I think you have to go back to King David to find devotional verse that rivals St. John’s in its purity and power. And Rhina Espaillat has lovingly crafted them in translations that are both true and beautiful.
Timothy Murphy is a poet from North Dakota. Together with Alan Sullivan, he translated Beowulf for the Longman Anthologies of British and World Literature , a portion of which appeared in F IRST T HINGS .