Mystical religious poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. It plumbs the depths of a particular language’s relationship with the unsayable, but the means by which one language plumbs those depths may differ from the means of another. Therein lies the difficulty: to retain, along with the usual elements of verse, the elusive meaning that can only be indicated, never said.
What good, then, is translated religious poetry? And what good is such poetry when it dates from many centuries ago, given our time’s increasing skepticism of organized religion?
Our historical moment thus makes Rhina Espaillat’s new translation of the poems of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross a daring project, but one that she is uniquely equipped to undertake. Espaillat has spoken both English and Spanish from a young age, and she is an accomplished poet in her own right. But a writer is more than her professional skills, and Espaillat also has a surprising qualification to create a contemporary translation religious poetry from the time of the Renaissance: she approaches these profoundly religious poems not as a Catholic, but as an agnostic. Such an irresolute orientation toward God and religion might seem at odds with St. John’s vision. But Espaillat’s careful attention to St. John’s Spanish verse unveils twin truths about the mystery of God: one for the agnostic reader, and one for the religious.
Most translations of St. John of the Cross’s poetry take their title from his best-known poem, “Dark Night of the Soul.” Espaillat, however, finds the title of her translation, The Spring that Feeds the Torrent, in the epigram for the poem “The Song of the Soul that Takes Pleasure in Knowing God by Faith.”
Her translation of this poem (initially published in First Things) is the finest in the volume, and an extended reading of it will illuminate the strengths of the entire book. I have studied many other translations of this poem, and Espaillat’s is the best I’ve read. She retains the meter and rhyme of the original Spanish—which, thankfully, is printed alongside each poem in this edition—almost exactly, down to such pleasing rhymes as “Since it has none, I know not where its source is,/ but know that there all things begin their courses.”
The eleven-stanza poem is a canticle sung by a soul rejoicing in its ability, through faith, to wonder at God. The spring lending the collection its title appears in the first stanza:
The spring runs from forever, and past finding;
how well I know it as it flows down winding,
though night has fallen.
The spring may be God Himself, or it may be faith in God; such intriguing ambiguities are common in St. John’s verse. These poems are deeply engaged with the question of how we know God, or to be more technical, the nature of the relationship between what we can know of God and what God Himself truly is. For St. John of the Cross, the intellectual practice of seeking God must become a mystical practice, because God lies beyond our intellectual capacity. In this framework, it makes perfect sense to conceive of a “spring that runs forever, and past finding” as God Himself and as the faith that allows one to delight, beyond intellectualism, in Him.
The really masterly part of this translation, however, comes in Espaillat’s rendering of the repeated line, “aunque es de noche.” This line closes ten of the eleven stanzas in the poem and has received countless treatments, from John Frederick Nims’s lush “in dark of night” to the Faber edition’s rather awkward “though in the night” and Roy Campbell’s alternating “although by night” and “though it be night.” Espaillat, keeping with her evident desire to make these poems eminently readable, gives us the simple but inspired “though night has fallen.” The repetition of this line allows its meaning to flex and change throughout the poem. At first, it is wistful and a little sad: the fallen night obscures something from the poet. But as the song goes on, that very obscurity (echoing the themes of “Dark Night of the Soul”) becomes a source of clarity.
Even more important, Espaillat’s translation captures the variation in the one stanza that ends different: the penultimate, which concludes “porque es de noche.” No other translation that I have read treats this variation with the care it deserves; even Nims’s translation, which I deeply enjoy, translates this line in the same way as “aunque es de noche.” Only Espaillat finds the frisson in the original as she renders this second-to-last stanza differently:
They’re called to this, all creatures here abiding,
to come and drink their fill, although in hiding,
since night has fallen.
This variation sets up the return of the repeated “though night has fallen” as triumphant in final stanza:
That living foundation that I most desire
I find in this, the bread of life, entire,
though night has fallen.
The falling of the night, which began as a limitation on one’s knowledge of God, has become by the song’s end the means of attaining that knowledge.
This is the kind of transformative precision Espaillat brings to these translations: they are clear, readable, and syntactically straightforward. The language gets out of its own way, which, in spiritual poetry, is the whole game. Espaillat’s precision with regard to language exists to show language’s limits. This is the revelation she offers for religious readers: spiritual truth is not, at the end of the day, reducible to language.
But Espaillat has a revelation for agnostic readers as well. It might seem odd to expect such technical precision from a book of mystical poetry, and odder still to apply such rigorous criticism to a translation of such a book; after all, isn’t mysticism supposed to be beyond such nitpicky details? Isn’t it more about feeling than adherence to rules? It is, however, a modern error to put spiritual truth in conflict with rigor, precision, and care—that is to say, with form. Espaillat’s commitment to form seems to imply that the more mystical the reality we are attempting to grasp, the more form can help us, and the more exact our language must become. Whatever one might call that “spring” of all that exists—God, the divine, the sublime—and whether one is a believer, disbeliever, or simply unsure, Rhina Espaillat insists that in our search for the unsayable, we must walk the path of precision all the way until language itself ends.