Leave your thoughts on Dark Night of the Soul here

surham's picture

Wrong translation of St. John's poem

A grave issue I have find when reading Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book ‘Transformations in Consciousness’, concretely in its Part II –Introceptualism -Introceptual Process: St. John of the Cross.
Since I am Spanish and native from Castilia I am in an optimum situation to understand the writings of John of Yepes (not ‘John Yepes’, as it appears his name in Pathways Through to Space, which Spanish translation we (Kathryn O’Flynn and I) have almost finished. But, regardless my origins, it is to be noted that, concerning the poem on which we shall discuss, its language is simple enough -in its syntax- as to be quite easily understood on the part of practically all Spanish speakers, even those not too cultured.
The afore-mentioned grave issue refers to the absolutely wrong translation of that part of St. John’s poem showed in said Merrell-Wolff’s book, a translation which the author himself declares as taken from E. Allison Peers, trans. and ed., The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, 3 vols., new rev. ed. (London: Burns, Oates & Washburn, 1934), 2:448.
Before starting my argue, I want to express, once more, my admiration to Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who, even from a so disastrous translation, was able to somewhat appreciate by intuition that there was a certain lack in the poem -that is, in that which he believe was the true poem-, as we shall see later.

In order to avoid useless discussions concerning the true original Spanish text, since it is possible to find a great variety of versions, depending on the date, as long as the Spanish grammatical rules, particularly with refer to the placement of commas, have been largely modified since XVI century, I have find the original manuscript, which is again available online:

The first ‘error’ of FMW comes from his apparently ignorance of the original subtitle which appears under the title of the poem, perhaps not showed in the translation on which he did work. That subtitle reads: ‘…and made [the stanzas] on an ecstasy of full contemplation’ (where ‘contemplation’ is to be taken in the meditative or religious sense). Hence the assertion that St. John has no idea of how or where he “enter’d in” is only true with refer to the ‘where’, but by no means to the ‘how’, so that, in its turn, the assertion that the process was unconscious falls short of being accurate.

We shall follow the same order in which FMW himself analyse the translated poem:

I entered in –I knew not where. [Entreme donde no supe]
Here the translation is acceptable, and that which FMW derives from it is totally accurate, save in his commentary with refer to the afore-mentioned ‘how’. I says ‘acceptable’ because the very sense of the Spanish form ‘entreme’ carries in this context a soubtle two-fold meaning of both ‘enter some place’ and ‘enter into oneself’, a double sense which, as far as my understanding of English language permits, is not contained in ‘I entered in’. Yet the truth is that Kathryn is not here at this moment, so that it is well possible I do loss some subtleties here.

And, there remaining, knew no more. [y quedeme, no sabiendo]
Here the translation could be acceptable again if, and only if, ‘knew no more’ is taken in the sense of ‘knowing no more about’, that is, exclusively referring to where he had entered and by no means to ‘from then onward’, which is precisely the sense on which FMW does his commentary, so that his conclusion “The ‘knowing no more’ implies a destruction of consciousness” is not a valid one.
On the other hand, I would mark this translation as merely ‘acceptable’ since ‘there remaining’ does not fit too justly with the Spanish form ‘quedeme’, which, together with its following comma, could well have, in addition to its most immediate sense of merely ‘remaining’, another of ‘intentionally remaining’, although this is a point whorty to further disccussion.

At any rate, the Spanish form of this verse has little to null possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader, even having a short degree of literacy. In fact, it is quite a very typical Spanish mode.

Transcending far all human lore. [Toda sciencia trascendiendo.]
Here, first, the inclusion of ‘far’ would be totally fanciful, since the Spanish term ‘toda’ is fully represented by the English ‘all’ and no part of the original verse talks about the measure or extent reached by such ‘all human lore’ trascending. Perhaps some consideration concerning style has been take into account. In any case this would not modify the meaning to a significant degree. Second, to translate ‘sciencia’ as ‘human lore’ would be, at least, worthy of a wide discussion. Yet it is to be noted that this term is used here in its very Latin form, so hence it is crystal clear that such discussion would be reduced to the etymology of this Latin term, which in its turn cames, at least, from the Greek. But the point here is mainly the correlation FMW establishes between this latter verse and the previous one, finding therein an “apparently contradiction” which, on the other hand, he resolves brilliantly so that his conclusions, even from such a precedents, are as quite right and well expressed as we are used to.

I knew not where I enter’d in. [Yo no supe dónde entraba, ]
‘Twas giv’n there myself to see [pero cuando allí me vi]
And wondrous things I learn’d within [grandes cosas entendí]
Yet knew I not where I could be [sin saber dónde me hallaba]

Here it is to be noted that the order in which the last two verses appear in the original poem has been reversed, so that I have written in my turn the original Spanish text in reverse mode. The extent to which such a reversal does affect the meaning may be disccussed, but in principle I would say that not too much.

In the second verse, FMW himself has written in cursive the term ‘myself’, and he says in his subsequent commentary, “… he learned tremendously valuable things, including the seeing of himself.”

The translation of this second verse is absolutely wrong. This Spanish form is actually one of the most widely used in oral Spanish language, to a extent that it can be understood even by the most uncultured folks. It may be translated properly enough as ‘I found myself’. To be sure, this has a certain relation with ‘I see myself’, provided one consider ‘see’ in a sense not directly related to physical perception, a point FMW has well detected since he says “The word seeing used here is deceptive, since it suggest a perceptual process. It is more akin to the sense of seeing an idea.”, which is another proof -one more- of his deep insight, and thus his subsequent explanation is worthy of admiration.
From all this it is clear that it is the translation of the second verse that is deceptive and by no means the verse in itself.
The translation of the third verse contains a grave error, namely, the translation of the Spanish verb ‘entendí’, which corresponds literally to the English ‘I understood’, as ‘learned’.
The fourth verse I consider as quite rightly translated, provided my own English translation of it (Yet knew I not where I was) fits there. In any case here the difference, at least in Spanish, concerns form far more than essence or meaning itself.

I tell not what was shown to me: [No diré lo que sentí]
Remaining there, I knew no more [que me quedé no sabiendo]
Transcending all human lore [toda sciencia trascendiendo]

Here and to the translation of the first verse, I do see or find no appropriate adjective. In spite of the verbal time (I tell not), which should be a future one (I shall not tell), which here is a matter but of little, if any, significance concerning meaning, the statement ‘what was shown to me’ has been wholly invented, since the Spanish text says: I shall not tell what I felt. Yet, translation-issue apart, FMW explains a quite interesting and accurate issue which would be quite valid in either cases. Nevertheless, it has been impossible to him, due to another grave lack in the translation of the second verse, realise that in the original one it is fully explained the reason for which the author does not tell what he felt, namely, because he did remain in that state in which he ‘knew no more’. This ‘because’ derives directly and unmistakably from the Spanish form ‘que me quedé no sabiendo’, in which this ‘que’ is to be immediately taken as synonym of ‘because’. There is no room for a doubt here. In fact, it is a so usual Spanish form that even the most uncultured rural folks do understand it perfectly. Yet the conclusions drawn by FMW concerning the difficulty to convey such states through words are impeccable, and surely St. John itself would be in agreement. But the point is that the afore-mentioned reason is explicitly showed.

But, concerning anew the latter verse, he focus on the presence of the term ‘human’. Admittedly this term, which does not appear in the Spanish text, is, say, implicit in ‘all science’, as long as it is clear that St. John refer to human science. But, since ‘all science’ has been translated as ‘all human lore’, the term ‘human’ has been shown explicitly, a fact which FMW interprets as carrying “an implication of far reaching importance”. As always, if the translation were right and the original text should include explicitly the term ‘human’, then the conclusions he derived would be right (in the sense of accordingly). Yet such conclusions are actually right in either cases, the point here being that they cannot be derived from the original text, although I suspect that St. John itself would be in full agreement with them.

So in the whole translation of this part of the poem showed in the book, we have another instance of that which Milan Kundera calls ‘The betrayed wills’, the title of his book which should include this case, and most likely would include it if Kundera had been aware of.

Naturally I am fully disposed and even willing to discuss whatever matter related to this case if any forum’s member were interested to do so.

Carlos Mondéjar Otero