While today we consider Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a pioneer or prodigy, during her own lifetime, she was often considered a legitimate social danger. This was in 17th-century colonial Mexico, when women weren’t meant to be intellectuals, write poetry, or pursue the sciences—all areas in which de la Cruz excelled. A wunderkind who learned to read and write at the age of three, de la Cruz lived for many years under the royal tutelage and protection of various viceroys, who championed her education and even published her work in Spain. She eventually became a nun so she could continue her studies and enjoy a room of her own, so to speak. Her religious devotion was not, however, enough to silence her critics. Led by the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, de la Cruz was castigated for her studies, a warning call that extended to all women with intellectual pursuits. De la Cruz later repented in writing and then permanently silenced her pen. It is still in dispute as to whether she gave away her books and musical instruments or they were confiscated.
More than three hundred years after her death, de la Cruz’s legacy continues through NEA Translation Fellow Enriqueta Carrington. Carrington is a Renaissance woman in her own right: she is a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, writes poetry in Spanish and English, and also translates poetry from the Spanish to English. For her NEA fellowship, Carrington is translating all 66 of de la Cruz’s surviving sonnets, as well as her 14, 000-word autobiographical letter defending a woman’s right to education. We recently spoke with Carrington by e-mail about the project, the overlap between poetry and mathematics, and the art behind her translation process.
NEA: In your own poetry, you frequently write in rhyme and use classical forms. Can you describe the appeal?
CARRINGTON: The appeal is musical, or mathematical—for me that comes close to being the same thing. Good free verse can be full of original thoughts and fresh ways of expression, and often its own idiosyncratic music. Good formal poetry can be as original and fresh, and at the same time it has the music of rhyme and meter. In classical poetry, as in classical music, there is a dynamic interplay between the pleasure of satisfied expectancy and the jolt of the unexpected.
NEA: You write poetry in both Spanish and English. Is the decision to write a poem in one language over another based on intuition, or are you guided by other factors?
CARRINGTON: Spanish is my native language and English is my mother tongue. I learned to speak both languages at the same time, to read and write them at the same time. Both languages are mine, and I am theirs.
A poem may want to be born in a particular language. Sometimes a voice in my head will speak a few lines when I am taking a walk or gardening, or engaging in some mundane task. Later I work on filling out those lines into a poem, in the same language in which I heard them. Other times I write with a particular reader in mind, so I use the language in which I normally communicate with that person.
Now and then I write two versions of a poem, one in English, one in Spanish. I consider the attempt a success if my bilingual friends cannot tell which version came first.
NEA: How do you think your work in mathematics influences your writing and translation work, or vice versa?
CARRINGTON: Mathematics and poetry are the same thing, or one is a translation of the other. Well, perhaps that is an overstatement; but both math and poetry are about beautiful patterns, about creating, gazing at, and sharing them, and about appreciating those created by others. It is not necessary to be a great mathematician or a great poet to enjoy this beauty, as I can tell you from my own experience.
This applies to some degree to all the arts. But the arts most closely related to math are music and poetry. Many mathematicians are also musicians or poets. Arnaut Daniel, the Occitan troubadour who invented the sestina back in the 12th century, was a mathematician—anybody who invented that poetical form had to be a mathematician. The mathematician most famous for his poetry is probably [Alice in Wonderland author] Lewis Carroll; it's quite likely that he was writing the Alice books at the same time that he was working on his Treatise on Determinants, or his books on mathematical logic.