Review: Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet

Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet: Francisco de Quevedo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Hernández
By Willis Barnstone (translator)

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This collection of Spanish sonnets is an excellent book. The selections are in general difficult to argue with.

Barnstone, like other verse-translators who are also accomplished poets, faces the Sisyphean task of trying to bend his own voice and verve to fit those of the poet he is translating. This is where most of the book's vulnerabilities lie for two reasons: (1) Barnstone is not just any old good poet but actually one of the very best sonnet-writers alive, and he would be likely to have a really hard time keeping himself in line, as it were, and (2) The six poets represented in this volume have very different voices, and come from very different time periods, which renders the translations particularly susceptible to intertemporal comparison.

Unfortunately, these two vulnerabilities pervade the book. The six poets in question end up sounding a little too similar to each other. What's more, they all sound a little like Barnstone. Quevedo suffers particularly badly in this regard. Here, by way of an example, is one of Quevedo's most famous sonnets followed by a literal prose rendering and then Barnstone's translation.

Enseña Cómo Todas Las Cosas Avisan de la Muerte

Miré los muros de la patria mía,
si un tiempo fuertes, ya desmoronados,
de la carrera de la edad cansados,
por quien caduca ya su valentía.
Salíme al campo; vi que el sol bebía
los arroyos del hielo desatados,
y del monte quejosos los ganados,
que con sombras hurtó su luz al día.
Entré en mi casa; vi que, amancillada,
de anciana habitación era despojos;
mi báculo, más corvo y menos fuerte.
Vencida de la edad sentí mi espada,
y no hallé cosa en que poner los ojos
que no fuese recuerdo de la muerte.


I looked at the walls of my homeland/hometown which, if they were mighty once, were now dilapidated, tired by the race of time, which was already causing their courage to atrophy. I made way into the country, and saw that the sun drank the streams unbound from the ice, and the cattle complaining of the copse that purloined the light of day from them with shadows. I went into my house. I saw that, despoiled, it was the ruins of an aged room; my cane more curved and less strong. I felt my sword to be conquered by the age, and I did not find a thing to rest my eyes upon that was not a reminder of death.

He Shows How All Things Warn of Death

I gazed upon my country's tottering walls,
one day grandiose, now rubble on the ground,
worn out by vicious time, only renowned
for weakness in a land where courage fails.
I went into the fields. I saw the sun
drinking the springs just melted from the ice,
and cattle moaning as the forests climb
against the thinning day, now overrun
with shade. I went into my house. I saw
my old room yellowed with with the sickening breath
of age, my cane flimsier than before.
I felt my sword coffined in rust, and walked
about, and everything I looked at bore
a warning of the wasted gaze of death.


First of all, mad props go to Barnstone for knowing that, in Renaissance Spanish, "monte" meant not "hill" but "forest." If you know Spanish or read the prose version, you'll notice the great liberties and compromises of image and diction that Barnstone has taken. There's nothing particularly wrong or unusual about this in a poetic, non-literal translation. It's to be expected. However, much of it does not sound at all like Quevedo or, for that matter, any Baroque Spanish poet.

For starters, the half-dozen half-rhymes, though common in modern English poetry, sound peculiar here in a poem supposed to represent classical forms. Even more jarring, though, is the enjambment of lines 8 and 9. The 9th line traditionally marks the volta or "turning point" of the classical European sonnet. In Quevedo's original, the first 8 lines discuss the speaker's experience outdoors, whereas the last 6 discuss his experience upon entering his own home. The "overrun/with shade" does violence to this classical balance to force a rhyme in a way that Quevedo would have found weird, if not in outright poor taste. Likewise, enjambments that split phrasal verbs such as "walked/about" in lines 12-13 are also peculiarly modern and not in keeping with the classical baroque aesthetic, particularly not in a poem with a theme, tone and music as solemn as this one's.

"I saw/ my old room yellowed with the sickening breath/ of age" seems egregious, even in a poetic translation. The original literally reads "I saw that it was despoiled, the remnants of an aged room." Though anciana can mean "elderly" and usually describes a person, the main metaphor is not anthropomorphic, but rather a suggestion of ancient, abandoned ruins. I can't shake the feeling that the image of sickness and pallor was employed simply to force the rhyme "breath" to go with the "death" of the final line.

Speaking of the final lines, "about, and everything I looked at bore/ a warning of the wasted gaze of death" is not only slightly incomprehensible, but also un-Baroque. The original Spanish reads "and I did not find a thing to rest my eyes upon/ that was not a reminder of death." The double negative lending force to a positive statement (a rhetorical figure also known by the two-dollar word "litotes,") balanced neatly over two whole lines, is what gives this poem's conclusion a kind of epigrammatic resonance. Barnstone's version, marred as the penultimate line is by the enjambed "about," quickly degenerates into phrase-making with a "warning" and a "wasted gaze." This poem, though a fine work by Barnstone, doesn't sound like Quevedo at all. It sounds like Barnstone's idea of how he would have written it. In my view, this renders it unsuccessful.

In one way or another, a large portion of Barnstone's versions of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Quevedo suffer from the aforementioned ills: inappropriate enjambment, forced rhyme, abandoned rhyme and the occasional Barnstonism.

That said, Barnstone does do a much better job with the later poets: Borges, Lorca, Hernandez and Machado, whose modern aesthetic and tones are a little closer to those of his own sonnets. Even though he uses the same stylistic tricks to find rhymes (such as odd enjambments and peculiar paraphrases) they seem less offensive in the modern poets because they are less foreign to their aesthetic. I found myself coming upon passages by Lorca and Hernandez that seemed damn near perfect, like the following four lines by Lorca from "Night of Sleepless love"

Climbing the night, we two in the full moon,
I wept and you were laughing. Your disdain
became a god, and my resentments soon
were morning doves and moments in a chain...


This passage is paced very differently from the original Spanish. Nonetheless, it still sounds plausibly like Lorca.

Borges in particular fares spectacularly well in Barnstone's versions, probably because Borges collaborated in their revision! In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there is no better translator of Borges' poetry than Barnstone. He has a unique ear for Borges' oddities and idiosyncratic shifts of thought. Even when he deviates from and modifies Borges' text, he still manages to sound peculiarly like Borges. Here, for example, is Borges' poem Baruch Spinoza first in Spanish, then in prose, then in Barnstone's English:

Baruch Spinoza

Bruma de oro, el Occidente alumbra
la ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.
Un hombre engendra a Dios. Es un judío
de tristes ojos y de piel cetrina;
lo lleva el tiempo como lleva el río
una hoja en el agua que declina.
No importa. El hechicero insiste y labra
a Dios con geometría delicada;
desde su enfermedad, desde su nada,
sigue erigiendo a Dios con la palabra.
El más pródigo amor le fue otorgado,
el amor que no espera ser amado.


A golden haze, the west illumines the window. The assiduous manuscript awaits, already laden with infinity. Someone is constructing God in the penumbra. A man begets god God. He is a Jew with sad eyes and sallow skin; time bears him along as a river bears a leaf on declining currents. No matter. The magicians perseveres and fashions God with delicate geometry out of his infirmity, out of his nothing, He continues to build God up with the word. To him the most prodigious love was granted: the love that does not expect to be loved.

Baruch Spinoza

A haze of gold, the Occident lights up
The window. Now, the assiduous manuscript
Is waiting, weighed down with the infinite.
Someone is building God in a dark cup.
A man engenders God. He is a Jew
With saddened eyes and lemon-colored skin;
Time carries him the way a leaf, dropped in
A river, is borne off by waters to
Its end. No matter. The magician moved
Carves out his God with fine geometry;
From his disease, from nothing, he's begun
To construct God, using the word. No one
Is granted such prodigious love as he:
The love that has no hope of being loved.

In conclusion:

Buy this book for (mostly) excellent renderings of Lorca, Hernandez, Machado and Borges. If it's translations of Quevedo and Sor Juana Ines De la Cruz you're after, be prepared for a much more uneven, and occasionally jarring, performance.

(NB: Mind you, rewriting a poem as if it is your own is totally okay as long as you admit that's what you're doing)

Final Grade: B+

1 comment:

  1. Its common sense that any translator's responsibility is to produce translations which (to the best of his or her ability) both convey an impression of the spirit and effect of the original and which are as literal as possible without sounding clunky. My problem with Barnstone (and most  translators) is that they automatically assume the main criterion for a good translation is readability (i.e., something dumbed down and oversimplified for the lowest common denominator). Nor is really as hard as one would think to reproduce the original effect and style of certain works; Donna Freed did a magnificent translation of Kafka's stories that captured the basic ambience of turn-of-the-century Europe, and Vladimir Nabokov managed to do the same with the ancient "Lay of Igor," the Russian Illiad,  

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