a failed defense against our common fate
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Language: Spanish
Poet: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Translator: Edith Grossman

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a failed defense against our common fate

Three poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated and with a note by Edith Grossman

My usual practice in translating poetry is to focus on rhythm and meter and give much shorter shrift to rhyme, not because it lacks importance (rhyme is actually an integral part of a poem’s rhythmic structure) but because for me it is extremely difficult to re-create in English the abundant rhymes, both assonant and consonant, that proliferate in Spanish and seem to be there for the taking. Not so in English. A poetic genius like Yeats makes rhyming seem a simple, natural matter, no more difficult than drawing breath, but for lesser mortals, moving from an easily rhymed language to one in which finding rhymes can best be described as arduous is an excruciating process. Even more discouraging is the sad fact that, more often than not, a translation that stresses the re-creation of rhyme begins to resemble not the source poem but doggerel plagiarized from a cheap greeting card. Then too, lines can become drastically convoluted in a translator‘s desperate effort to create rhymes and convey the sense of the original. Consequently, experience has led me to concentrate on the rhythm of the poem and take as my own the wisdom found in the Duke Ellington tune: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”  

—Edith Grossman

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695) was a fiery feminist and a woman ahead of her time. Her contemporaries called her “the Tenth Muse” and “the Phoenix of Mexico,” names that continue to resonate. This illegitimate child, self-taught intellectual, and court favorite rose to the height of fame as a writer in Mexico City during the Spanish Golden Age.

Acclaimed for her best-selling translations of Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman has received many awards including the PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation. She lives in New York City.

Sonetot 145

Procura desmentir los elogios que a un retrato de la poetisa
inscribió la verdad, que llama pasión

Éste que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores
es cauteloso engaño del sentido;

éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado:

es una necia diligencia errada
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

Sonnet 145

In which she attempts to refute the praises of a portrait of the poet,
signed by truth, which she calls passion

This thing you see, a bright-colored deceit,
displaying all the many charms of art,
with false syllogisms of tint and hue
is a cunning deception of the eye;

this thing in which sheer flattery has tried
to evade the stark horrors of the years
and, vanquishing the cruelties of time,
to triumph over age and oblivion,

is vanity, contrivance, artifice,
a delicate blossom stranded in the wind,
a failed defense against our common fate;

a fruitless enterprise, a great mistake,
a decrepit frenzy, and rightly viewed,
a corpse, some dust, a shadow, mere nothingness.

Sonetot 147

En que da moral censura a una rosa, y en ella a sus semejantes

Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura.

Amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo ser unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura.

¡Cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida

de tu caduco ser das mustias señas,
conque con docta muerte y necia vida,
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas!

Sonnet 145

In which she morally censures a rose, and thereby all that resemble it

O rose divine, in gentle cultivation
you are, with all your fragrant subtlety,
tuition, purple-hued, to loveliness,
snow-white instruction to the beautiful;

intimation of a human structure,
example of gentility in vain,
to whose one being nature has united
the joyful cradle and the mournful grave;

how haughty in your pomp, presumptuous one,
how proud when you disdain the threat of death,
then, in a swoon and shriveling, you give

a withered vision of a failing self;
and so, with your wise death and foolish life,
In living you deceive, dying you teach!

Sonetot 164

En que satisface un recelo con la retórica del llanto

Esta tarde, mi bien, cuando te hablaba,
como en tu rostro y tus acciones vía
que con palabras no te persuadía,
que el corazón me vieses deseaba;

y Amor, que mis intentos ayudaba,
venció lo que imposible parecía:
pues entre el llanto, que el dolor vertía,
el corazón deshecho destilaba.

Baste ya de rigores, mi bien, baste:
no te atormenten más celos tiranos,
ni el vil recelo tu quietud contraste

con sombras necias, con indicios vanos,
pues ya en líquido humor viste y tocaste
mi corazón deshecho entre tus manos.

Sonnet 164

In which she responds to jealous suspicion with the rhetoric of weeping

This afternoon, my love, when I spoke to you,
I could see in your face, in what you did,
that you were not persuaded by mere words,
and I wished you could see into my heart;

and Love, assisting me in my attempt,
overcame the seeming impossible,
for among the tears that my sorrow shed
was my breaking heart, liquid and distilled.

Enough of anger now, my love, enough;
do not let tyrant jealousy torment you,
nor base suspicion roil your serenity

with foolish specters and deceptive clues;
in liquid humor you have seen and touched
my broken heart and held it in your hands.