Tuesday, July 03, 2012


This is a little pamphlet containing verse translations from the Spanish, published in 1954 by
María F. de Laguna, then a resident of Wells, Somerset. An admiring notice was elicited from Roy Campbell ("It beats my attempts hollow") - to which is suffixed: "A photostat copy may be seen, if required."
The translations are indeed quite good, most of them. I'll come back to them later, but first here's more of what I can infer about the translator.

Lady Margaret Sackville (then in her 70s), who contributed a foreword, tells us that MFdL is half-Spanish and half-English, fluent in both languages and herself a poet. (She names three Spanish collections: Arco Iris, Cuarenta Poesías and Cuesta Arriba.)
MFdL was a staunch Catholic, a staunch Spanish nationalist and a supporter of Franco. I know this from various articles (available on-line) that she contributed to the Catholic Herald. In 1938, she was telling us that, at any rate, there were no beggars on the streets of Nationalist Spain. She attributed this to the excellent welfare services. Other articles attack the claims of Basque separatism, urge the return of Gibraltar to Spain, celebrate Science's rejection of the path of arid materialism,  and testify to the validity of synchronicities, tokens, miracles and the Devil. "Satan, for long soft-pedalled in the non-Catholic pulpit and banished from the Press, is now considered a force to be reckoned with." 

It's in the Francoist context that I suppose we must understand her remarks, in the pamphlet, about Spain's "present youthful vigour and revival in every sphere of national life". I don't know what this refers to specifically, but Franco's Spain did achieve two major publicity coups in 1953, signalling the end of international isolation: the Treaty of Madrid (with the USA) and the Concordat with the Vatican.


Sackville writes: "Spain is the most masculine of the Latin countries, with its stern beauty, its language each word of which seems stamped on metal, the glory of its place-names, its poverty and splendour, each in its way magnificent."

Characterizations of a whole nation's culture aren't worth taking seriously, but it's fun to think about this. It's very of its era. The aesthetic thrill of connecting language with metal is familiar from Pound and Eliot. "Masculine" was then quite a common term of praise for literature, though it's hard to recapture exactly what it then conveyed. The writer's Catholicism may be significant, i.e. proposing Spain as the faithful heartland of the Church Militant. By contrast, when the Protestant Richard Ford wrote about Spain, in the 1840s, his fond but critical gaze dwelt on its "Oriental" and therefore "feminine" aspects.


The poems represent in tiny compass a traditional and still recognizably prevalent overview of the canon of Spanish verse: some medieval, some Renaissance, a big gap between Calderón and Ramón de Campoamor, then people like Bécquer and Machado, some Hispanoamericans, and Lorca. The short section from Mio Cid, with rhyme, works well. Machado is such a wonderfully translatable poet that he always comes out well, even though MFdL does things with "Campos de Soria" that I don't agree with. For example she expands Machado's "hierbas olorosas" into "rosemary heather and gorse". That seems to bring the shrubs into flower. I think the point is that in early spring they are still mainly grey scrub - it's only the white marguerites (in the succeeding line) that dot the ground with colour.

Here's the first stanza of Rosalía de Castro's "Las Campanas" (The Bells):

How I love them, and I hear them
like the wind o'er earth and sky,
like the gushing of spring-waters
or the lambs' soft bleating cry. (MFdL)

  Yo las amo, yo las oigo
cual oigo el rumor del viento,
el murmurar de la fuente
o el balido del cordero.

  I love them, I hear them
as I hear the sound of the wind,
the murmur of the fountain,
or the bleat of the lamb. (Michael Smith)
MFdL gives us too many extras, but Smith is too literal. I'm sure she is right that "fuente" here means a spring, not a fountain, and that the last line should convey the bleating of numerous lambs, rather than the solitary bleat of one lamb.


The translation that Roy Campbell particularly admired was St John of the Cross's "Noche Oscura". These are the final three stanzas:

Upon my heart in flower,
Surrendered, for him ever more to keep,
He lay, within that bower,
And of my love drank deep,
The cedars gently fanning him to sleep.

The air embalmed the land,
And while my lover's hair I did caress,
With undisturbing hand
Against my neck did press,
Till I entranced, all but lost consciousness.

There knew I Love's first kiss
When on my lover's breast I laid my face,
And this enthralling bliss,
Left of my cares no trace,
Forgotten, midst the lilies in that place.

Michael Smith (again) has written an interesting article about translations of this poem. Though MFdL would earn brownie points from Smith for correctly understanding that "hería" does not mean "wounded" but "stroked" ("did press" in this case), and that the hand belongs to the air and not to the lover, she would forfeit them, perhaps, for dispensing with the Canticle's "almena" (ramparts) and expecially for the extremely erotic account of a passionate, swooning, extensive and active night of love-making. I think she's right and that you cannot purge that eroticism from John's poem. Accepting that the imagery comes from the Song of Songs, the devotee's body is to be imagined as a woman's. It is beyond dispute that the Lord is lying on the devotee's breast in the first of these three stanzas, while in the last their positions are reversed, i.e. they're closely entwined and rolling about. This is not a static image, it is prolonged love-play. "Dejéme", in the final stanza, implies abandonment - both erotic and spiritual.



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