Twenty years ago, I visited the Convento de San Miguel in Úbeda, where Spanish poet San Juan de la Cruz died in 1591. I’d hoped that witnessing the last home of the medieval Carmelite friar and doctor of the Church (his official title is doctor mysticus, or mystical doctor) would be revelatory. A Catholic poet myself, I’d read every translation of his elegant, enigmatic work. But even with my limited grasp of Spanish, I could tell the translators had taken too many liberties and lost his original meanings, or had been too literal and lost his music. As I crossed into a roped-off room to touch what had been his writing table, I didn’t know what I expected would happen. Doing so yielded nothing—just like reading those translations. A bit disappointed, I descended an old stone staircase and followed the gift-shop signs to the exit.
While the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz is admired by poets and lovers of poetry for its mystical beauty, it often gets the side-eye from religious. Thomas Moore, a one-time Carmelite himself and author of Care of the Soul, among other books, once wrote:
One of my Pastors once remarked to me, with a grimace that bordered on pain, “St. John of the Cross? I cannot get anything out of him. Even at the Seminary we said ‘What is it that he is saying?’ Is he saying anything at all to us?” Sadly, I must admit that I often meet people who display similar reactions. Why? What causes people to be so turned off by this saint, while others become so turned on?
The saint’s poems, written more than four hundred years ago and considered the apex of Spanish mystical literature, seem to forget the familiar, easy, and convenient, to slip into darkness and unknowing to find God. They are written in a highly symbolic, sometimes sensual language. It’s no wonder translators got it wrong. But I was so impressed by the new version by poets María Baranda and Paul Hoover that I emailed them to ask how they’d managed to keep San Juan’s paradoxes intact without adding words and ideas.
“We had to deal with many things,” Baranda answered. “The linguistic signs, the doctrinal/religious meanings. There were some words that we couldn’t touch: ‘soul,’ ‘Beloved.’ We were trying not to interpret, but to keep certain words as they were.”
Consider this lesson in apophatic theology (also known as the “via negativa” or “negative way”) from San Juan’s poem “The Mount of Perfection,” included in this translation:
To come to what you are not
go where you are not.
When you observe something,
stop throwing yourself at everything.
To come to the all in all
abandon the all in all.
And when you come to have everything,
have it with nothing to have.
Or this paradox, from “Other Verses to the Divine”: “I was fallen so much, so much, / that I went so high, so high, / that I captured my prey.”
“Translation is difficult in the first place,” Hoover echoed, “because you always have to give up something. With San Juan, we had to give up the beauty of his cadence and rhymes. Trying to perfect the rhyme would twist his meaning.”
That beauty can be seen in the skillful interaction of rhymes and off-rhymes in the saint’s sensual “Dark Night”:
En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.
Without those rhymes, though, the meaning still shines through:
On my flowering breast,
reserved only for him,
there he fell asleep,
and I gave him the gift,
and the breeze of the cedars blew.