Hopkins and his Mexican Translators

Hopkins and his Mexican Translators

Mario Murgia National Autonomous University of México

In the sonnet “Let me be to Thee as a circling bird...,” Hopkins musically states the nature of a new found kind of communication with his God:

I have found my music in a common word,
Trying each pleasurable throat that sings
And every praised sequence of sweet strings,
And now infallibly which I preferred.

As sensuously striking and tenuously Keatsian as these lines may be, the overall purpose of the poet does not remain on the level of worldly experience, but rather transcends the possibilities of sensorial apprehension and expression. The music found in the tunes of commonplace utterances, and in the sounds and movements of nature, determines a decision made in the light of the poet’s contemplative character. This decision implies the recognition of God in the surrounding world and in the personal contemplation of it:

The authentic cadence was discovered late
Which ends those only strains that I approve,
And other science all gone out of date

And mirror sweetness scarce made mention of: I have found the dominant of my range and state— Love, O my God, to call Thee Love and Love. The discovery of this “authentic cadence” will enable the poet to artistically communicate with the Divinity and ultimately live

His capitalised “Love.” In a few words, the love that is God can only be attained and experienced by means of music: music itself and, at the same time, the music that is said to be contained in poetry. That is, it is through the poem’s music-like cadences that a revelatory state, a sort of illumination or divine epiphany, may be achieved. Now, there is a commonplace I need to address here. It is inevitable, as every good commonplace is, but being such, it is also exemplary of an attitude, an aspect of the world, a belief, a train of reasoning. And here it is: there is no poetry without a sense of rhythm, or at least without a sense of musicality. The catchphrase “the music of poetry” is in this sense another way of stating the nature of poetic language, which is, at once, verbality and beat, a throb and elocution, a tongue and a string of notes.

To sum up: the language of poetry, in its hybrid and even protean nature, is an anomaly, a startle, a conscious departure from everyday speech. It is an escape, perhaps even an escapade, and a running away from habitual linguistic exchanges. There may be music without poetry, but there certainly is no poetry without musicality, without the unusual rhythms of extra-ordinary speech, even if poetry, strictly speaking, is also something other than music. As the great American poet Alfred Corn says, “poetry has its own way of addressing the ear, and to praise that accurately we might speak of ‘effective sound’ or ‘expressive rhythm’ or ‘rich verbal texture’.” It is significant that, in trying to escape a great commonplace, the poet should come up with other metaphors that may be not altogether original, especially the latter. After all, what makes a commonplace what it is, is the relative truth that it carries in its predictability. As we say in Spanish, “cuando el río suena, agua lleva” (very literally, “when the river sounds, it’s because it carries water.”

You might find it contradictory that I should try to characterise (not define by any means) poetry through the summoning of commonplaces, but even in preconceived notions such as “the music of poetry,” or its mirror concept “the poetry of music,” there is a high degree of associative potentiality, a possibility of fancy that—once again, inevitably—leads to evocation. When we put together the terms “poetry” and “music” we are necessarily metaphorising, and the construction of a metaphor implies the evocative association of thoughts, concepts, and mental images. This kind of evocation is not only intellectual, in the original sense of the word (intellectus means “a discernment, an understanding”), but also sensorial. In lines such as “Let me be to Thee as a circling bird,” the opening verse to the poem I initially quoted, we not only evoke the bird in its visual potentiality (the birds does not really exist; it has not come into being for it is but a fancy of the poet), we can very well imagine that we hear it: Let mé bé to Thée… In time, the sounds, the vocalic alliteration if you will, become the chirping of the bird. The bird, through sound, becomes a presence. So far, we have “discerned” the animal. But then, the discernment of such a presence inundates the poem, and uniquely, the poem flows into its own musicality as the rhythms of the words, at the same time, infuse the lines. The poem, as such, satisfies its own verbal, rhythmical, musical, and prosodic needs. It has turned into a thing which cannot be touched, though, but sensed and responded to.

For sure, Gerard Manley Hopkins was aware of this process, and it was such a process, no doubt, that lay at the heart of conceptions such as “inscape” and “instress.” There is complexity, of course, in the previous reasonings. And certainly, being fully aware of the complexities and possibilities that the union of rhythm, music and language may bring forth, Hopkins offers his own theory of what poetry should and should not be. In a famous letter addressed to Alexander William Mowbray Baillie, dated 10th September 1864, Hopkins speaks of the language of verse and how he has divided it into separate kinds.

The first two are of particular interest on this occasion. According to Hopkins, The first and highest is poetry proper, the language of inspiration. The word inspiration need cause no difficulty. I mean by it a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain, or to strike into it unasked. Notice how Hopkins brings together inspiration, abnormality, and stress in order to define the linguistic and imaginative brainchild—and lovechild, if the expression may be allowed in this particular context—of the poet proper. The process is not only complex, but also even violent; it is a kind of intellectual and aesthetic rape, or rapture (“strike into it unasked”), not altogether unknown to other mystic poets who share, I believe, some of Hopkins’s most outstanding creative traits—suffice it to mention Saint Teresa, or Saint John of the Cross.

The second kind of poetry one is what Hopkins calls Parnassian, and it is “that language which genius speaks as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing (I have been betrayed into the whole hog of a metaphor) in its flights.” What stands out here is how Hopkins establishes a relationship—metaphoric in itself—between exaltation, singing, and flying, which he has put into poetic practice in the sonnet with which I have already dealt. By means of contrast, we can say that, for Hopkins, the true language of poetry both sings and flies, very much like his unavoidable windhover: I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air… Of course, the one who sings here is not the bird, but the voice of the poet (poetic voice, maybe?) who, in an ecstasy resulting from sensorial (re)apprehension, puts into motion a series of evocations, both phonic and visual in origin, that necessarily exact a response from the readers, or listeners. Do we actually see the bird? Only to an extent, perhaps, but we do reconfigure its presence in our minds and re-appropriate its being through the language of the poem—music and all. It is, as Hopkins has put it, “the language of inspiration” at its most meaningful and evocative. Obvious though it may seem, Hopkins’s poetic language is a mode, a variation, of the English language. Every poet (poet proper, that is) conceives his or her verse in a particular dialect, or an idiolect if you will. A Hopkinsian poetic idiolect is always peculiar, individual, but never predictable. On occasion, it has been considered as verging on the incomprehensible. What happens, then, when such a unique type of language is transplanted into a completely different linguistic code? In other words, how does the poetry of Hopkins manage to take flight—as vigorously as it does in its “original”— in other languages like, say, Spanish?

Let us revisit the aforementioned lines from “The Windhover,” in Spanish, and see what happens.

El cernícalo Sorprendí esta mañana al favorito de la mañana, delfín del reino
De la diurna luz, Halcón pintado de aurora, cuando remontaba
La vasta llanura del aire firme a sus pies…

The poem was rendered into Spanish by the Mexican dramatist and translator Juan Tovar. It is contained in a brief collection of Hopkins’s poetry, first published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1978, and reissued in 2008. In his brief introduction to the booklet, Tovar says that his translations “aspire to be faithful and clear enough to provide a good idea [of Hopkins’s poetry].” Indeed, the translator struggles to maintain Hopkins’s poetic meanings and forms in such a way that both vocabulary and syntax are replicated in the new language.

Are Juan Tovar’s efforts successful?

Of course, that depends on what we deem to be successful in the field of poetry translation. We should acknowledge that Hopkins’s language is as self-willed as it is evocative. Any attempt of translation will, therefore, result in tension between the respect for Hopkins’s strict formality and his largely metaphysical musings. Notice, for starters, the contrast and tension between “windhover” and “cernícalo.” The former is a compound word, not unusual in English, which actually describes de creature in flight: it hovers on the wind. In Spanish, the word comes from the Latin “cerniculum,” meaning “sieve.” This relates to the manner in which the bird prepares to attack its prey—it halts in mid-flight and spots its victim from above. That, in the Spanish language of falconry is called “cerner.” Hopkins’s title readies us, sensorially, for what we can see and feel in the poem—the majestic profile of the bird as it shoots through the sky (its inscape), and the speaker’s emotional response (the instress). Tovar’s choice conjures up the animal’s hunting habits, which refers to a somewhat more violent aspect of the creature. Also, from a purely linguistic point of view, while “windhover” (wind•hov•er) is only one syllable shorter than “cernícalo” (cer•ní•ca•lo), the latter actually sounds much longer due to a phonic effect caused the combination of “closed” an “open” vowels (e, i, a, o). In fact, “cernícalo” contains four out of the five Spanish vowels. There is also the powerful stress over the “i,” which forces us to raise our pitch (cernÍcalo). Hopkins’s bird steadily rides the wind from the very beginning. Tovar’s falcon soars, then dives and plunges into a whirlwind of plurisyllables: “Sorprendí esta mañana al favorito de la mañana.” Notice the contrast with Hopkins’s sharp, stress-timed sprung verse: “I cáught this mórning mórning’s mínion,” enhanced by repetition and the vibrating alliteration in “m.” Tovar provides alliteration of his own: “SorprenDí,” “De la,” “Delfín Del,” “De la Diurna,” “pintaDo.” May this serve to exemplify the serious problems that a Spanish-speaking translator must face when translating Hopkins. Tovar’s success, however strenuous his opening lines may sound to the English/Irish ear, become evident in the sense of wholeness that the elongated lines in Spanish provide to the piece:

El Cernícalo
A Cristo nuestro Señor

Sorprendí esta mañana al favorito de la mañana, delfín del reino
De la diurna luz, Halcón pintado de aurora, cuando remontaba
La vasta llanura del aire firme a sus pies, andariego
De la altura, ¡cómo giraba sobre la rienda de un ala plegada
En su éxtasis! para luego lanzarse, fugar oscilante
Como el talón de un patín barre suave el arco de una curva: el impulso y el desliz
Desairaban al gran viento.
Mi corazón escondido Se agitó por un ave: ¡la proeza, la maestría de aquello!
Brutal belleza y valor y acto, ¡oh aire, pluma, orgullo, aquí
Trenzados! Y el fuego que de ti brota entonces, un billón
De veces a voces más adorable, más peligroso ¡Oh mi caballero!
No hay ahí prodigio: el puro afán hace que el arado por el surco
Brille, y los pálidos rescoldos azules, ah mi amado,
Caen, se hieren, y abren tajos de oro y bermellón.

St. Beuno's, 30 de mayo de 1877


Mexican Translator, Salvador Elizondo

My favourite Hopkinsian translator in Mexico is somewhat more ambitious (or perhaps more daring) than Tovar himself. The great Mexican novelist, poet, journalist, critic, and playwright Salvador Elizondo published his translation of The Wreck of the Deutschland, in 1978, the same year that Tovar’s translations of Hopkins’s shorter poetry saw the light of day. Unlike Tovar, however, he claims to be incapable of achieving faithfulness: “I could not remain faithful but to the remotest resonance that the original produces, especially in our ear,” says Elizondo in his translator’s note to the poem. And yet, Elizondo’s Spanish does make itself at home in the realm of poetic resonance, ring, and texture. Take one of Hopkins’s most tuneful lines, either in The Wreck of the Deutschland or in his poetry as a whole: “And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.” The ring that Hopkins attains, once again, by means of repetition, and most of all, by the alliterative use of fricatives “f” and “h.” The brisk, dart-like movement—not only physical but essentially spiritual—conveys a vertiginous passage from feeling, or perhaps more accurately, embodied sentiment (heart) to incarnated, apprehensible, divinity (Host). Listen to Elizondo’s rendition: “y voy de vuelco en vuelo desde mi corazón al corazón de la hostia.” The Mexican poet both respects Hopkins’s notion of alliterative verse, and provides his own interpretative twist by making the movement even more sudden, extreme, and further-reaching: “voy de vuelco en vuelo,” translates back into English literally as “I go from turn to flight.” The translator’s sensitivity to Hopkins’s rhythms manifests itself in the syncopated, almost-unfaithful lines that constitute the rest of the stanza. Let us hear how the English and the Spanish compare, if comparisons are indeed possible in this particular case:

The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell, Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

El ceño de su rostro ante mí, el tumulto infernal atrás, ¿dónde? ¿dónde había? ¿dónde había sitio?
Alas que brotan mías dispersas con ellas huyo y voy de vuelco en vuelo desde mi corazón al corazón de la Hostia.
Mi corazón, con alas de paloma, bien lo sé, instinto mensajero presumo te arrojó de la llama a la llama y a volar de la gracia a la gracia.

As is clear, the translation of poetry, and especially Hopkins poetry, is no easy task, whether it be into his own language (every reading is, after all, a translation of sorts), or into foreign tongues. Both Tovar and Elizondo are aware of the difficulties, and they are the first ones to address them. “Every translation implies a loss; in Hopkins’s case, it is unfathomable,” claims Tovar as he clarifies that his are “approximations” rather than proper translations. Similarly, Elizondo says, “In this version of Hopkins’s great poem I have not achieved, I’m afraid, but the scaffolding of the scaffolding.” To some, such degree of translational self-awareness, and the consequent self-diminution on the part of these poets may be commonplaces in themselves, unnecessary understatements given the brilliant results that are obtained in both cases. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that the anguish of the translator before an “original” is, more often than not, comparable to that of the poet before the revelatory experience that produces a poem. They are facing, in very Hopkinsian terms, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Hopkins Mexican Translator, Tedi López Mills.

Regrettably, and for a number of years now, not many Mexican translators have taken on the challenge and the joy of translating Father Hopkins’s verse—in contrast, some of his most important prose was translated fairly recently, in 2013, by yet another poet, Tedi López Mills. Let us hope that occasions such as the one that brings us together here today will rekindle the poetic urge to translate Hopkins not only into Spanish, in Mexico, but also in the rest of Spanish-speaking America, a part of the world that is much in need of the kind of poetic revelation that brought together language, rhythm, and music in the verse of the English Jesuit.

Works Cited

Corn, Alfred (2001). The Poem’s Heartbeat, Ashland, Oregon: Story Line Press.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1999). El naufragio del Deutschland, translated by Salvador Elizondo, México: Libros del umbral. Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1978). Gerard Manley Hopkins. Antología, edited and translated by Juan Tovar, México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Material de Lectura) Hopkins, Gerard Manley (2013).
Paisaje interior
. Páginas escogidas del diario y la correspondencia de Gerard Manley Hopkins, translated by Tedi López Mills, México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1970). The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W. H: Gardner and N. H: MacKenzie, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Check out other great Hopkins Lectures from Hopkins Festival 2016


US Ambassador O'Malley Opens Hopkins Festival | UK Ambassador Dominich Chilcott Lecture | Hopkins Society in Japan | Natural Anxiety in Hopkins's Landscape Poetry | Hopkins's Favorites Poem: Saint Winifred's Well | Hopkins Sermons: Priest Preacher | Jesus: Prophet Betrayed | Bridges and Hopkins’ Poems of 1918