Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fray Luis de León Introduction and Cantar de Cantares -- Prologue

Fray Luis de León was an Augustinian friar in Spain during the 1500s. He wrote much, both prose and poetry. Aside from his lyric poetry, his best-known work (and only one easily available in English translation) is The Names of Christ, recently printed as part of Paulist Press' "Classics of Western Spirituality" series. Among his other prose works are La perfecta casada, a marriage handbook based on Proverbs 31, and Traducción literal y declaración del libro de los cantares de Salomón, often abbreviated as Cantar de Cantares. As the name says, Cantar de Cantares is a literal translation and explanation of the book of the Song of Songs.

I cannot find an English translation of the Cantar de Cantares online, so I decided to try my hand at my own translation. I must admit, I am not a professional translator, and I cannot vouch for any high technical value in this translation. I am only working on a Spanish minor, and this is also medieval Spanish, so it's more difficult to translate. The goal is to get across, at the least, the overall message of Fray Luis' book. I will include a summary of each section that I translate with the post, and I will include notes attempting to explain bits of my translation. Any words I have trouble translating will be included in braces. Hopefully this translation provides some service to all non-Spanish speakers reading this.

And for anyone who wants to look at the original Spanish, I found it here.

I hope you find this translation helpful!


In the prologue, Fray Luis discusses God's love for us, which is shown in His benefits to us. His Spirit conforms itself to our style and our love, with all its passions and affections, so that we are not separated from His grace. All the Scriptures show this, but the Song of Songs shows it in the most passionate detail. The passion in this book is so strong that it is almost dangerous to study. There is a spiritual sense to this book, with the words describing the mysteries of Christ's Incarnation and His love for the Church: this has been explained better by holier men in greater books. Instead, Fray Luis will merely discuss the meanings of the words themselves, with he says is still difficult, due to two main reasons: one, it is always difficult to make language accurately match the passion of the heart; two, the Hebrew language is a language with its own customs, from a different people of a different time, making the sayings of the book seem strange to us now. Fray Luis sets out to produce a translation as literal to the Hebrew as possible; he also sets out to provide explanations of the more obscure passages of the book (these explanations follow the translations). His wish is to have done what was commanded him [by his cousin, for whom he composed this work: she is the one addressed in the prologue].



Nothing is more proper to God than love; neither is there anything more natural to love than returning to that which loves in the same conditions and the genius of that which is loved; of the one and of the other we have clear experiences. Certain it is that God loves us, and all who are not very blind are able to know this for sure by the important benefits that are constantly received from His hand: being, life, the government of {life}, and the protection of His favor that in no time or place will abandon us. That God appreciates this more than any other thing, and that it is proper that the love between all virtues is seen in His works, that all order themselves to this end, that it is to be distributed and put in the possession of the greater good of creatures, making it so that the same similarity shines in all, and measuring itself to each one of them so that it can be enjoyed by all, that as we say {diximos?}, is the proper work of love. Importantly this benefit and love of God is discovered in man, that which was raised in the beginning in His image and likeness as another God, and in the end made God in his image and likeness, returning man ultimately to nature, and much before by deal and conversation, as is seen clearly in all the discourse of the Sacred Scriptures, in those which for this cause it is a marvelous thing, the warning the Holy Spirit put in conforming himself with our style (in the end so we do not separate ourselves {nos estrañemos?} from Him who loves us infinitely), mimicking our language, and imitating proportionately all the variety of our genius and conditions: such as making oneself happy and sad, showing oneself angry and repentant, sometimes threatening, sometimes conquering with a thousand kindnesses; and there is no love or quality so proper to us and so strange to Him that He will not take on. The Psalms of David testify to this, and much more so the writings of the Holy Prophets; but nothing so much as the Book of the Songs that we have in our hands, where God shows Himself wounded, and all to the end that we do not flee from Him or separate ourselves from His grace; and that defeated, or by love, or by embarrassment, we would make it so that He advises us, for it is in this that our greatest happiness consists. Testifying to this are the verses and songs of David, the speeches and sermons of the Saints and Prophets, the advice of Wisdom, and finally all the life and doctrine of Jesus Christ, light and truth, and all our good and our hope. For among the rest of the divine Scriptures, one is the gentlest song that Solomon, King and Prophet, composed, in which he shows {debaxo?} an enamored reasoning, and between the two, Shepherd and Shepherdess, more than in any other Scripture, God is shown wounded by our loves with all of our passions and sentiments, that this affection paves {suele?} and is able to make human hearts softer and more tender. He prays, He cries and is jealous, He goes out desperate, and He returns later; and varying between hope, fear, joy and sadness, He already sings of contentment, He already publishes His complaints, making testimony to the mountains and their trees, to the animals and to the springs of the shame He suffers. Here are seen living paintings of the loving fires of true lovers, the burning desires, the perpetual cares, the vigorous distresses that absence and fear cause in them, together with the jealousies and suspicions that move between them: here is heard the sound of the ardent sighs, messengers of the heart, and of the loving complaints and sweet reasonings that sometimes are seen coming from hope, and other times from fear; and in short all sentiments that the passionate lovers set out to prove are seen here as sharp and delicate, as lively and pure in the divine love as in the mundane. It tells us with the most delicate of words, the kindliest of compliments, the most special of the most beautiful comparisons, that were never written or heard elsewhere; because of this the lesson of this book is difficult for all, and dangerous to the youth and to all who are not far advanced and firm in virtue; because in no other Scripture is the passion of love explained with more strength and feeling as in this one: and in such a manner among the Hebrews no one had license to read this Book or some others of the Law if he was under the age of forty years. There is no need to deal with danger: the virtue and valor of Your Mercy makes us sure of this: there is much difficulty, and I will work enough to increase my strengths, for they are of little good.

It is a thing certain and known that in these songs how in the person of King Solomon and his Spouse the daughter of the King of Egypt shown {debaxo?} in amorous compliments the Lord explains the Incarnation of Christ and the intimate love He always has for His Church, with other secrets of great mystery and great weight. This sense, which is spiritual, I do not have to handle; because of it there are written great books by very holy and learned persons, who are rich in the same Spirit who spoke in this book, who understood a great part of its secret, that are full of spirit and gift. In this part there is nothing to be said like that, because it is already said, because it is a detailed manner of great space; I will only have to work in explaining the shell of the writing straight-forwardly, since in this book there has been no greater secret than that which the naked words show, in the appearance of the sayings and responses between Solomon and his Spouse, so that only the sound of them will be explained and in this is the strength of the comparison and the compliment; even though it is work of less carats than the first, it does not for that lack the great difficulties that we will see later. Because it is to be understood that this book was in its first origin written in meter, and it is all a Pastoral Eclogue where with words and language of Shepherds Solomon and his Spouse, and sometimes their companions, speak, as if they were people of a small village. The first understanding is made difficult by that which puts difficulty in all the Scriptures where are explained the great passions and major affections of love, that is seems reasons cut and taken aback go; though once the truth is understood the thread of the passion that moves, they respond marvelously to the affections that explain, those which birth some from others naturally; and the cause of appearing so cut is that in the soul vehemently dominated by some passion language does not catch up with the heart, nor is one able to speak as one feels, and even if one can, one cannot say all, except partly, once the principle of reason, and another time the end without the beginning: and in this way the one who loves much says it, that it seems when he takes note of it, it is less understood; and passion with its strength and with incredible swiftness snatches language and heart from one affection to another, and from here are the reasons cut because the movement responds that makes the passion in the soul of it that says these them; he who does not feel or see it, judges them badly, as one would judge as delirious and of a bad brain the fidgeting of those who dance, seeing them from afar he would not perceive who they follow: this is much to be warned in this Book and in all similar to it. The second thing that creates obscurity is the Hebrew language in which it was written, of its propriety and condition, a language of few words and cut reasons, and those are filled with a diversity of feelings, and together with that is the style and judgment of things in that time and among that people so different from the talk now; from this is born the fact that to us the comparisons that are used in this book seem new and strange and out of all good delicacy, when the Husband and Wife want to praise more the beauty of the other: such as when the neck is compared to a tower, and the teeth to a flock of sheep, and other such similarities. Such is the truth that each language and each people have their own ways of speaking where the custom used and received makes it so that what is delicacy and kindness in another language and in other peoples would appear very rough; it is from this that all that grows, that now by the novelty and by the agency {ageno?} of our use all good speech and all the courtesy of that time among that people is crude to us. Because it is clear that Solomon was not only very wise, but also King and son of a King; and when he would not catch up by writings and doctrines, by only rearing and by only the deal of the cut and house he was known to speak better and more courteous language than any other. What I make in this is two things; one is the word for word translation {literally “returning”} in our language of the text of this Book: in the second I explain briefly not each word, but the passages that offer some obscurity in writing, and finally that the entire sense stays clear, and after that the explanation. Near the beginning I will endeavor to conform myself as much as is possible to the original Hebrew, comparing together with the Greek and Latin translations that there are, that are many; and hoping that this interpretation would be responded to the original not only in the sentences and words, but in the currents and air of them, imitating their figures and modes of speaking and manners, as much as is possible in our language, that the truth is responded to the Hebrew in many things. Where it will be possible that some are not contented with this, and it appears in some parts that the reason stays cut and spoken much like the Biscayan and much like the old, and that it does not run like the thread of speaking, I am making it easier by moving some words and adding others; that which I do not do I have said and I knew, because I understand that the office would be different that would translate better these writings of such weight, and that would explicate and explain them. He that translates is to be faithful and upright, and where it is possible, to count the words to give others as many and no more, in the same manner, quality, and condition and variety of significations that the originals have, without being limited {limitallas?} by the proper sound and appearance; such that those who read the translation would be able to understand all the variety of the senses, and to give occasion that the original would be read, and stay free to choose those that appear better to them. Speaking what is understood {estenderse?}, and explaining copiously the reason that is understood, and with guarding the sentence that is most pleasurable, playing with the words, adding and subtracting to our will, that stays which can be explained, whose office it is; and we use it after the position of each chapter, in the explanation that follows. Good is truth, that translating the text, we did not have to go so punctually as the original; and the quality of the sentence and propriety of our language forced us to add some little word, and without it the darkest of the sense would remain; but these are few, and those that are, come enclosed between two lines in this manner. [] Your Mercy receives in all this my will, that the rest to me does not satisfy me much, nor heal what would satisfy others; it is enough for me to have accomplished what was commanded me, that is what in all these things I hope and desire most.

Note: The version of the text corresponds to the original Hebrew, as the author warns in the prologue and in various parts of the text: the Latin text has been placed for the greater comfort of those who understand this language, and for those that use the Vulgate.


Notes on the text:
  • "Your Mercy" is a translation of "Vuestra Merced" (Vmd.), the source of the current Spanish pronoun "usted." In this work, it refers to Fray Luis' cousin, for whom this work was composed.
  • Biscayan is a dialect of the Basque language, a language found in the upper parts of Spain.
  • A phrase Fray Luis uses often is "razones cortadas." I have only found this phrase in this work. Literally, it means "cut reasons." Unless I find another, more accurate, way to translate it, that is how it appears in this text.
  • I will keep the brackets found in the original work which Fray Luis mentions in the prologue: thus my own notes (mostly words or phrases I have extreme difficulty translating) are in braces. {}

No comments:

Post a Comment