Through green glasses

paper cranes

Yesterday was the coldest morning so far this year; all the public schools were on a two-hour delay, and the streets were nearly deserted. I sat at a table in the bookstore window, waiting for one of the music stores to open so I could buy a new harmonica. Long strings of colorful paper cranes hung between me and the street — not quite a thousand of them, but nonetheless intended, I think, as a concrete expression of hope for peace.

I had just picked up a a bilingual selection of poems by the great 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated by Alan S. Trueblood: A Sor Juana Anthology. As I’d remembered from his translation of Antonio Machado, Trueblood is a competent but not very imaginative translator, which is fine for my purposes: I’d prefer to have to struggle through the Spanish, referring to the English only for help with vocabulary.

I opened the book to this sonnet, an indictment of shallow faith:

Verde embeleso de la vida humana,
loca esperanza, frenesí­ dorado,
sueño de los despiertos intricado,
como de sueños, de tesoros vana;

alma del mundo, senectud lozana,
decrépito verdor imaginado;
el hoy de los dichosos esperado
y de los desdichados el mañana:

sigan tu sombra en busca de tu dí­a
los que, con verdes vidrios por anteojos,
todo lo ven pintado a su deseo;

que yo, más cuerda en la fortuna mí­a,
tengo en entrambas manos ambos ojos
y solamente lo que toco veo.

After I bought the harmonica, I had a little bit of time to kill before lunch, so I went for a brisk walk. The temperature had risen to perhaps 10 degrees (F), but the sidewalks were still pretty empty. I walked around the west end of town, trying to remember all the front porches on which I had partied at one time or another. I counted twelve. I didn’t feel in the least bit nostalgic, though: that was fun while it lasted, but after a while I felt I had heard just about every conversation it was possible to have while drunk.

I slowed down to admire a line of large sycamore trees. On one of them, some artist had mounted a pair of green eyes — verdes vidrios, indeed! I resolved to attempt a translation, however inadequate, of Sister Juana’s poem.

sycamore face

Green enchantment of every human life,
mad hope, delerious gold fever,
convoluted sleep of the sleepless
where dream and treasure are equally elusive;

soul of this world, leafy senescence,
decrepit fantasy of green
that the happy call today
and the unhappy, tomorrow:

let those who wear green glasses
and see everything just as their desire paints it
chase your shadow in search of a new morning.

For my part, I’ll give fate the greater latitude,
keep eyes in both my hands
and look no farther than I can touch.

18 Comments


  1. I liked the photo of the sycamore with eyes, and you have introduced me to yet another unfamiliar poet. Nice translation1

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  2. I like yours much better than hers. Well, I suppose that’s not too surprising since we’re from the same century.

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  3. Thanks, Larry!

    Jean – Because my version is more unadorned, perhaps? (Trueblood tried to put end-rhyme in his version, which is one reason why I didn’t like it.)

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  4. Superbly done. One nitpick: I would not say generic “fate” for “fortuna mía.” She’s speaking of her specific reality in contrast with the vaunted greenness that others chase after. I’m no poet so can’t really suggest an alternative other than maybe just “my fate.”

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  5. Thanks. Yeah, that’s a valid point and more than a nitpick. (Well, for a poet, no point is too minor!) In earlier drafts I did have “my fortune,” and may revert to that. The attitude here I think is basically, “whatever comes, comes from god,” but I like that she doesn’t make that explicit. A good reason to use the word “fortune” is for the double-meaning of “wealth,” which seems to be echoes by the final image (having/holding, two hands, two eyes). On the other hand, our modern English connotations may not be quite right, either. And probably few besides professional gamblers or baseball players still have a strong notion of personal luck. I’m also not content with using the bland “latitude” for a more concrete word, “cuerda.” After pondering this for a while, I decided that she probably thought of the gaze as a ray or beam — something more active than our modern conception. So that was tricky to try and bring across.

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  6. One alternate rendering I came up with: “For my part, I’ll let my fortune seek its own level…” (Since the heroes in fairy tales are always going off to seek their fortunes.)

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  7. I’ve been having a love affair
    with Sor Juana
    (indirectly)
    for about a year now

    Have the one you mention
    Paz’ Sor Juana
    and two well researched novels about her

    Second Dream and
    Hunger’s Bride (PaulAndersdon
    first novel 12 years in ther writing and ~1200 pages)

    she was a fantastic polymath whiz of a woman
    in a narrow situation

    a real hero

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  8. My unqualified opinion is that you’ve got to be a poet to be able to translate one. I like what you did with this – especially the way you broke the sonnet up into manageable chunks – I think the third is especially nice.

    Might you include Trueblood’s version, just for the sake of comparison?

    I like to play around with prose translation, but would never attempt poetry. Sometimes when I read a poet who writes simply, like Neruda, I’m tempted to make a go of it. I haven’t read Sor Juana since college and still find her difficult to follow.

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  9. Hi suzanne –

    she was a fantastic polymath whiz of a woman
    in a narrow situation

    Yeah, I get clautrophobic just thinking about her situation – not the convent, I mean the short leash. Which may or may not have been in the background of that closing image about reining her vision in…

    Laura – Thanks. I guess I broke it into stanzas because the original had indents at those places, as if they were paragraphs. And in some way it seemed to make up for the fact that my lines didn’t rhyme. :)

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree that one has to be a poet to be a good translator of poetry. I can think of a few great translators, like Arthur Waley or Edward Snow (Rilke) who were/are not serious poets themselves. And I can think of PLENTY of poets who are not able to set their egos aside sufficiently to be good translators.

    O.K., here’s Trueblood:

    Green allurement of our human life,
    mad Hope, wild frenzy gold-encrusted,
    sleep of the waking full of twists and turns
    for neither dreams nor treasures to be trusted;
    soul of the world, new burgeoning of the old,
    fantasy of blighted greenery,
    day awaited by the happy few,
    morrow which the hapless long to see:
    let those pursue your shadow’s beckoning
    who put green lenses in their spectacles
    and see the world in colors that appeal.
    Myslef, I’ll act more wisely toward the world:
    I’ll place my eyes right at my fingertips
    and only see what my two hands can feel.

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  10. Now that’s interesting! You sure it’s the same poem?

    ;-)

    His is just as hard to follow for me as the original. Although I do like the way he ended it.

    Thanks.

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  11. I like his ending, too – at least, the next-to-last line.

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  12. My children love the sycamore tree “saying O”…

    Like the translation–the two quatrains have so much repetition of sound (especially of a long “e”) that they approach the formality of the original.

    Do you like Christopher Logue?

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  13. Thanks for the feedback.

    Do you like Christopher Logue?

    I don’t know. Should I? His name rings a bell. The contemporary Iliad guy, right?

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  14. I was just watching a DVD on belly-dancing this morning – so the tree trunk REALLY looks like a dancing shimmying belly, with all the muscles at work. Great photos, Dave.

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  15. Nice poem. I’ll definitely have to check her out.

    Hey, wasn’t that tree last seen throwing apples at Dorothy and the scarecrow?

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  16. I was just watching a DVD on belly-dancing this morning

    Wow, you just gave me a great new time-killing idea for stuff to look for on YouTube!

    wasn’t that tree last seen throwing apples at Dorothy and the scarecrow?

    It takes the Fifth.

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  17. Yes, and you should try him!
    I was given “War Music” and want to read more…

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