Lope de Vega describes the birth pangs of his love songs
from Rimas (1602)
by Lope de Vega
Versos de amor, conceptos esparcidos
engendrados del alma en mis cuidados,
partos de mis sentidos abrasados,
con más dolor que libertad nacidos;
expósitos al mundo en que perdidos,
tan rotos anduvistess y trocados
que sólo donde fuistes engendrados
fuérades por la sangre conocidos:
pues que le hurtáis el laberinto a Creta,
a Dédalo los altos pensamientos,
la furia al mar, las llamas al abismo,
si aquel áspid hermoso no os aceta,
dejad la tierra, entretened los vientos,
descansaréis en vuestro centro mismo.
[translated by DK Fennell]
Verses of love, spattered conceptions
spawned by my anxious soul,
breached from my burnt-out sensations,
more in pain than freedom born;
orphans in the world where you’ve wondered
helpless, so worn out and misunderstood
that only where you were gestated
would your blood relatives know you:
Seeing that you plunder the Labyrinth from Crete,
from Daedalus his exalted inspirations,
the rage from the sea, the blazes from hell,
if that pretty little snake doesn’t take you,
leave the earth and amuse the winds,
you will rest where you belong.
The rhetorical gimmick of using the roots of a word to make a point about what that word is describing is a worn out device. It’s both pedantic and puerile. But since writing poetry is both things, and translating poetry is even more so, I will indulge it to explain my view of translating poetry.
To translate comes from roots meaning to bring across. But because poetry itself is liquid and the only translating tools are, at best, leaking vessels, it is not possible to bring the thing whole from one language to another. (Anyone who doubts this should read a Nabakov translation.)
At one time it was thought that rendering a foreign poem into English required preserving the rhyming scheme (or creating an analogous one). This attempt is presented with the obstacle that most European languages have more rhyming possibilities than English. English does not have a store of verbs that use the same regular endings when conjugated. Plus the stems of English words are borrowed from so many disparate sources that rhyming becomes tricky.
Others try to transfer the metrics in some fashion, but that runs into similar problems.
In both cases, in any event, a contemporary reader feels something of a discomfort, because he has been so accustomed to free verse. On top of that, the word choices in English are artificially restricted when rhyme schemes or metrical patterns are required.
I have always thought the meaning is the essential element that translators should convey. Secondarily visual images ought to be conveyed. And so in these translations I will concentrate on word choice and secondarily on a rhythm that most closely conveys what I conceive to be the poet’s tone.
In this poem the use of words for physical conception and birth as an extended metaphor for the creation of his love song comes through, in my view, more clearly if I reject the goal of attempting to replicate the very strict and mellifluous rhyming of Lope de Vega. English doesn’t have the words to do both.
In any event, the very best way to experience the aural beauty of the original poem is simply to read it aloud. It is not difficult to quickly learn the basic principles of pronunciation and accent of most European languages. And as Ezra Pound points out in the ABCs of Reading, you don’t need to know the meaning to appreciate the aesthetics of a poem in a foreign language. In some cases it is easier. With a translation that conveys the sense, together with the experience of reading the original, you have the best way possible to achieve a “bringing across” of a foreign poem.