Writers' Corner

Enriqueta Carrington

2015 Translation Projects

Translator's Statement

This NEA grant will allow me to finish a project very close to my heart: that of translating all the extant sonnets of my favorite poet, Juana Inés de la Cruz, together with her Reply to Sister Filotea de la Cruz.

In poetry form is indivisible from content, as body is inseparable from soul if life is to persist.This is especially true of the poetry which we call "formal;"  to present a piece of prose and call it the translation of a sonnet is to present a ghost or a cadaver and call it a person –– to say the least, something is missing. I must, then, translate Spanish sonnets into English sonnets; I should make it possible for the English-language reader to imagine the experience of reading the originals as a native speaker, (or native reader) of Spanish. That, at least, is the impossible ideal I will strive for.

The Reply to Sister Filotea is a long and fascinating letter where the poet tells the story of her life in 17th-century New Spain –– the best description of a woman's life in that time and that quarter of the globe–– and then goes on to use her story to argue that women have a right to learn, to think, and to write. She wrote this document in answer to a letter signed by "Sister Filotea," (actually the Bishop of Puebla in person), which chastised her for writing non-religious works (unsuitable for a nun) and for daring to express opinions on questions of religion (inexcusable for a woman). Sister Juana Inés must have sensed that this was the beginning of a concerted attack from the ecclesiastical authorities. In fact, she would soon be coerced into renouncing her sinful ways –– that is the habit of reading and writing, although I cannot believe they stopped her from thinking. Who knows what poetry she wrote in her head?

Sixty-six of her sonnets have survived, and all of them are perfect. There were probably many works from her hand, lost to the vicissitudes of history and the devouring zeal of the Inquisition.

Juana Inés de la Cruz came close to her own ideal: that of comprehending all human knowledge. Her poems are rich in allusions to music, science, mathematics, the Bible, and the classics. The sonnet below is one example; the octet is an exposition of the cosmological ideas of her century: that the stars and planets remain faithful to their appointed courses because physical forces have attained a state of equilibrium, and this equilibrium happens when form is perfect, and hence most beautiful. Then, in a wonderful turn, the sestet likens the soul in love to the cosmos in balance. It is interesting that the love she chooses to speak of here is not Divine (as one might expect of a nun) but quite human.

"Poem 183" by Juana Inés de la Cruz

[translated from the Spanish]

There is good reason to believe the bond
thanks to which the heavens do not tatter,
although there's not much constancy in matter,
comes from the way in which matter's informed.

When flawless shape's attained, matter, though fond
of change, is satisfied and will not shatter
the noble form that contents it, nor scatter,
since it has nothing more to seek beyond.

And in this way, Celia, your terrible
hold on my loving soul serves to inform
it, so that corruption is impossible;

to no other could it ever conform;
not that its matter's incorruptible,
but through your love my soul has perfect form.

Original in Spanish

About Juana Inés de la Cruz

Juana Inés de la Cruz is considered Mexico's most important poet. An illegitimate child and a child prodigy, she was born around 1648 in a hamlet high on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano, in what was then New Spain, one of the kingdoms of the Spanish Empire, and is now Mexico.

While still a teenager, she entered the Convent of San Jerónimo in Mexico City, and never set foot out of the nunnery for the rest of her life. For many years she was able to combine her religious duties with her literary work, but eventually she was censured by the Archbishop and compelled to give up her library and her writing. She was allowed to keep only three books –– prayer books, of course. She died the following year, 1695.

 Enriqueta R Carrington

Enriqueta Carrington's poetry in Spanish and English has appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her poetry translations from the Spanish have appeared in The New Formalist, Rattapallax, and A Gathering of the Tribes, among other journals. Her translations from the Sicilian have appeared in Descant (Canada).

She is the translator of several volumes of poetry, including Treasury of Mexican Love Poems (Hippocrene Books, Treasury of Love Series) and Samandar: Libro de Viajes/Book of Travels by Lourdes Vázquez (Editorial Tsé-Tsé, Argentina).

She holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Rutgers University, and taught for many years at the National University of Mexico, the University of California at Berkeley, Temple University, and Rutgers University. In September 2013 she retired from mathematics to become a full-time translator and writer.

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Photo courtesy of Enriqueta Carrington