Art Talk with Translation Fellow Enriqueta Carrington

By Rebecca Gross
photo of woman in front of computer screen

Enriqueta Carrington. Photo by Roe Goodman

While today we consider Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a pioneer or prodigy, during her own lifetime, she was often considered a legitimate social danger. This was in 17th-century colonial Mexico, when women weren’t meant to be intellectuals, write poetry, or pursue the sciences—all areas in which de la Cruz excelled. A wunderkind who learned to read and write at the age of three, de la Cruz lived for many years under the royal tutelage and protection of various viceroys, who championed her education and even published her work in Spain. She eventually became a nun so she could continue her studies and enjoy a room of her own, so to speak. Her religious devotion was not, however, enough to silence her critics. Led by the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, de la Cruz was castigated for her studies, a warning call that extended to all women with intellectual pursuits. De la Cruz later repented in writing and then permanently silenced her pen. It is still in dispute as to whether she gave away her books and musical instruments or they were confiscated. More than three hundred years after her death, de la Cruz’s legacy continues through NEA Translation Fellow Enriqueta Carrington. Carrington is a Renaissance woman in her own right: she is a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, writes poetry in Spanish and English, and also translates poetry from the Spanish to English. For her NEA fellowship, Carrington is translating all 66 of de la Cruz’s surviving sonnets, as well as her 14,000-word autobiographical letter defending a woman’s right to education. We recently spoke with Carrington by e-mail about the project, the overlap between poetry and mathematics, and the art behind her translation process. NEA: In your own poetry, you frequently write in rhyme and use classical forms. Can you describe the appeal? CARRINGTON: The appeal is musical, or mathematical—for me that comes close to being the same thing. Good free verse can be full of original thoughts and fresh ways of expression, and often its own idiosyncratic music. Good formal poetry can be as original and fresh, and at the same time it has the music of rhyme and meter. In classical poetry, as in classical music, there is a dynamic interplay between the pleasure of satisfied expectancy and the jolt of the unexpected. NEA: You write poetry in both Spanish and English. Is the decision to write a poem in one language over another based on intuition, or are you guided by other factors? CARRINGTON: Spanish is my native language and English is my mother tongue. I learned to speak both languages at the same time, to read and write them at the same time. Both languages are mine, and I am theirs. A poem may want  to be born in a particular language. Sometimes a voice in my head will speak a few lines when I am taking a walk or gardening, or engaging in some mundane task. Later I work on filling out those lines into a poem, in the same language in which I heard them. Other times I write with a particular reader in mind, so I use the language in which I normally communicate with that person. Now and then I write two versions of a poem, one in English, one in Spanish. I consider the attempt a success if my bilingual friends cannot tell which version came first. NEA: How do you think your work in mathematics influences your writing and translation work, or vice versa? CARRINGTON: Mathematics and poetry are the same thing, or one is a translation of the other. Well, perhaps that is an overstatement; but both math and poetry are about beautiful patterns, about creating, gazing at, and sharing them, and about appreciating those created by others. It is not necessary to be a great mathematician or a great poet to enjoy this beauty, as I can tell you from my own experience. This applies to some degree to all the arts. But the arts most closely related to math are music and poetry. Many mathematicians are also musicians or poets. Arnaut Daniel, the Occitan troubadour who invented the sestina back in the 12th century, was a mathematician—anybody who invented that poetical form had to be a mathematician. The mathematician most famous for his poetry is probably [Alice in Wonderland author] Lewis Carroll; it's quite likely that he was writing the Alice books at the same time that he was working on his Treatise on Determinants, or his books on mathematical logic. To say that the well-spring of math or poetry is the aesthetic impulse is not to deny the great social value of these pursuits. Poetry brings people together, gives a voice to the dispossessed, keeps a historical record of the emotions and thoughts of humankind. Basic mathematics is liberating, like reading and writing, and speaking one's own language correctly. Everybody should own these tools. Higher mathematics is perhaps not for everyone, but it is necessary to save the world. Science and technology have done much to improve people's lives, but they has also brought the world to a perilous position—I am speaking primarily of global warming, the destruction of the global habitat on which life depends. It is not possible to convince the majority of the human race to save the environment by returning to caveman conditions, or even to the relatively simple lifestyle of medieval times. Nor can we reduce our population to what it was a few centuries ago. We should all try to minimize our impact on the environment, but that will not be enough. It is science and technology that can avert the danger. The explosion of scientific knowledge of the past few decades has been accompanied by an explosion of mathematical knowledge. Indeed, new science is not possible without new mathematics, and without people who can understand and apply the older discoveries.  I am not myself very fond of applied mathematics, or of applied poetry. Beauty and depth tend to be sacrificed in the interest of applications. I have always left the applied work to others, but there is no denying it is useful and necessary. NEA: How did you first become interested in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? CARRINGTON: When I was a child in Mexico City, I would look out of my bedroom window at the snow-capped volcanoes. In the clear air of that time, they seemed so close one could almost stretch out a hand and touch them. I would gaze at a point, high on the skirts of one of these giants, and know it was the place where that wonderful little girl Juana Inés grew up. Then her words would resound in my head. All my life I have loved poetry, and Sor Juana has always been my favorite poet in the Spanish language. Her story has gained in fascination as I grew to understand her work better. To present her poetry to English-language readers is both a great honor and a heavy responsibility. NEA: De la Cruz was very much a feminist. What does it mean to you to be a female artist? CARRINGTON: Her life is almost as inspiring as her art. The struggle for equality is not over, but it has already gained much. Nowadays, a woman artist or scientist must still overcome more difficulties than a man—we have to face the unconscious presumption that, because we are female, our work cannot be deep or important. But we do not have to face the threat of a process by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for daring to express “heretical” or “unfeminine” thoughts, or to acquire “unwomanly” knowledge. Sor Juana did. NEA: When translating, how do you balance capturing the poetic beauty of a piece with staying faithful to its meaning, meter, and rhyme? CARRINGTON: Form and content are inseparable in poetry, as body and spirit are inseparable in a living creature. Kill one and you kill the other, because life itself depends on their union. Translate a sonnet into a piece of prose, and you get a ghost (which is still better than nothing). Translate a sonnet using a computer program and you get a stinking corpse. The best thing to do with that is to bury it out of sight, or to burn it. Any good or decent translation of a poem is a poem. The translator of poetry has to be a poet, as the translator of mathematics has to be a mathematician. A translator who doesn't get the deeper meaning will give you nonsense and garbage. How can anyone say something effectively, or even correctly, if they don't understand what they are trying to say? NEA: Can you walk me through your translation process? How does this differ from your process when writing poetry, or solving a mathematical problem? CARRINGTON: Translating poetry is a lot like transcribing music, say taking an opera aria and making a version for woodwind trio. My husband does such transcriptions, which gives him insight into my work. (He is a mathematician and a bassoonist.) In writing an original poem, you follow your own ideas and intentions. In translating a poem, you first make another's ideas and intentions your own, and then you write the poem. You must resist the temptation to put in ideas which are not already there, or to leave out opinions you do not agree with. My method of translating a sonnet consists of ten, ten, and ten. Ten minutes to write the first, raw version. Ten hours to work out what I call a “first final version” (that's a draft which feels final, but probably isn't). Ten days to bear the poem constantly in mind, listening for the revisions the subconscious will send up, because a part of my mind will keep working on the poem, long after I think I'm done. That long soaking of the soul in the problem (usually for a much longer time) is essential also in mathematical work. I read lots of poems, including many that were originally in other languages. But I avoid reading translations of poems which I intend to translate myself. I want my version of the poem to come from the original poet alone, and not from any interpreter. I want to avoid any possibility of conscious or unconscious plagiarism. If you read other people's versions, someone else's solution to a problem might come to your mind, masquerading as a new idea, when it is in fact a memory. That memory can be several years old. After I have completed my own translation of a poem, I allow myself to look at other people's versions. Some of the published translations of Sor Juana are lovely, but they tend to be of the same few sonnets over and over, while the more “difficult” poems tend to be ignored. In some cases a misunderstanding of the original poem has become established—one translator gets it wrong, and the others follow. This is the case, for instance, with Sor Juana's poem 149 (Si los riesgos del mar considerara). All the translations I've seen of sonnet 149 say something like this: a truly brave person “would not meekly choose a way of life binding a whole life through”meekly they say, adding the precisely wrong word! In fact Sor Juana's poem says that taking “vows that bind for life” requires more courage than embarking on a sea voyage or facing a raging bull. The persistence of this error illustrates the perils of relying on older translations, instead of a close reading of the original. NEA: Fill in the blank: We need art because _______. CARRINGTON: Art enlarges our human sympathies; it is in fact what makes us fully human. A life without art would be reptilian.