To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Two Dialect Poems, with a note on Sor Juana & the Pitfalls of Translation

Translation from Spanish & related dialects or faux-dialects by Jerome Rothenberg & Cecilia Vicuña


At the high & holy feast
for their patron saint Nolasco
where the flock of the redeemer
offers high & holy praises,
a black man in the cathedral,
whose demeanor all admired,
shook his calabash & chanted
in the joy of the fiesta:


tumba la-lá-la tumba la-léy-ley
where ah’s boricua no more’s ah the slave way
tumba la-léy-ley tumba la-lá-la
where ah’s boricua no more is a slave ah!


Sez today that in Melcedes
all them mercenary fadders
makes fiesta for they padre
face they’s got like a fiesta.

Do she say that she redeem me
such a thing be wonder to me
so ah’s working in dat work house
& them Padre doesn’t free me.

Other night ah play me conga
with no sleeping only thinking
how they don’t want no black people
only them like her be white folk.

Once ah takes off this bandana
den God sees how them be stupid
though we’s black folk we is human
though they say we be like hosses.

What’s me saying, lawdy lawdy,
them old devil wants to fool me
why’s ah whispering so softly
to that sweet redeemer lady.

Let this saint come and forgive me
when mah mouth be talking badly
if ah suffers in this body
then mah soul does rise up freely.


Now an Indian assuaged them,
falling down and springing up,
bobbed his head in time and nodded
to the rhythm of the dance,
beat it out on a guitarra,
echos madly out of tune,
tocotín of a mestizo,
Mexican and Spanish mixed.


The Benedictan Padres
has Redeemer sure:
amo nic neltoca
quimatí no Dios.

Only God Pilzíntli
from up high come down
and our tlat-l-acol
pardoned one and all.

But these Teopíxqui
says in sermon talk
that this Saint Nolasco
mi-echtín hath bought.

I to Saint will offer
much devotion big
and from Sempual xúchil
a xúchil I will give.

Tehuátl be the only
one that says he stay
with them dogs los Moros
impan this holy day.

Mati dios if somewhere
I was to be like you
cen sontle I kill-um
beat-um black and blue

And no one be thinking
I make crazy talk,
ca ni like a baker
got so many thought.

Huel ni machicahuac
I am not talk smart
not teco qui mati
mine am hero heart.

One of my compañeros
he defy you sure
and with one big knockout
make you talk no more.

Also from the Governor
Topil come to ask
caipampa to make me
pay him money tax.

But I go and hit him
with a cuihuat-l
ipam i sonteco
don’t kow if I kill.

And I want to buy now
Saint Redeemer pure
yuhqui from the altar
with his blessing sure.

[Scheduled for publication in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman.]


The centrality of Sor Juana to the poetry of the Americas is by now unquestioned, the great summation coming in Octavio Paz’s epical biography: “In her lifetime, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [1651-1695] was read and admired not only in Mexico but in Spain and all the countries where Spanish and Portuguese were spoken. Then for nearly two hundred years her works were forgotten. After [1900] taste changed again and she began to be seen for what she really is: a universal poet. When I started writing, around 1930, her poetry was no longer a mere historical relic but had once again become a ‘living text.’”

In the translation, above, another side of her work emerges – one of less concern to Paz than to the present translators: her experiments with a constructed Afro-Hispanic dialect & with the incorporation of native (Nahuatl) elements into her poetry. Here the translation question comes up as well, not only the issue of political aptness, which may also be raised where the class & status of the poet & her subject are at odds, but something at the heart of the translation process as such. For it is with dialect that translation – always a challenge to poetic composition – becomes or seems to become most elusive. Though many dialects approach the autonomous status of languages, there is always the presence behind them of the official, dominant language, which can make them, in the hands of a poet like Sor Juana (as with a Belli or a Burns in a European context), an instrument for the subversion both of language & of mores. Their particularity is nearly impossible for the translator to emulate, even while bringing up similar particularities in the dialects or faux-dialects into which he translates them.

The wordings in the villanicos (carols) presented here are faux-dialects with a vengeance, while their intention (or hers, to be more precise) seems obviously liberatory in practice. We have chosen therefore to approximate both the measure in which the poems were written & the spirit of invention & play through which the dialects were constructed. For this our principal models for transcription & composition come from nineteenth-century American & African-American dialect poetry & practice, much of it as artifactual & inauthentic as our approximations here. Our view, like that of Sor Juana four centuries before, is from the outside, looking in.


Tolteca said...

I have friends from Guerrero, Mexico living as artisan dealers in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They speak Nahuatl as a native language and Spanish as a second language.

They cannot enjoy your post because they have VERY limited English. Do you have the Sor Juana writing in the Spanish and Nahuatl? I think they would enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

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