A Book Review and Interview with Stalina Emmanuelle Villareal
on her translation of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s Enigmas


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Enigmas
Translated by Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse: Señal Series 2
2015, 25 pages, paperback, $7.

THERE IS A benefit that modern readers take for granted when interacting with poetry. Often, we have access to hearing it read aloud or performed and are able to gain insight into the poet’s intentions in that moment, while also having the special experience of reading the work privately, and appreciating it on a personal level. When we read work from poets, even poets as prolific as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, that are outside our time and outside the majority language, there is much left to interpretation. That is the challenge, and the beauty of reading Enigmas, a chapbook of some of Sor Juana’s lesser known poems translated by poet Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal, collected by Señal, a chapbook series of Latin American poetry in translation and published by Ugly Duckling Press. The ability to hold in one’s hand a beautifully printed chapbook, like an intimate secret, of poems written four centuries ago is a gift restored to the modern reader. This chapbook presents many challenges in attempting to unravel the enigma that is translation, the span of time and culture, and the playfully radical mind of Sor Juana herself.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a young creole woman of Spanish ancestry in New Spain during the 17th century. She was self-taught, highly educated and radical in her beliefs that the pursuit of knowledge and curiosity were natural inclinations for all, including women. As a nun, she wrote many subversive texts and poetry, some religious, some secular, and some that made her an enemy of the male leaders of the Catholic Church in Mexico City at the time. Though she was ultimately silenced by her critics, she is known today was one of Mexico’s most influential female poets.

The Enigmas is a collection of twenty quatrains, presented on each page with the original Spanish form first, then the English translation, which interrogates the abstract fancies of the poet’s mind. Each quatrain, presented in an ABBA rhyme scheme in the original Spanish, seeks to question, to unwrap something intangible and stir the contents of the idea in four lines. The enigmas, formulated as questions, all begin with the same first word—“Cual,” or “What,” which changes as each verb is ascribed to it—what “ is,” what “will be,” what “can be.” The enigma is the idea presented with innate limitations and often, contradictions. One that I continue to revisit is quatrain three:

What can be the grief
of such lopsided impact
that the chief monster in fact,
remedies a more monstrous mischief?

I admit that, as a bilingual reader, I read the Spanish versions of the quatrains first. Being bilingual gave me insight into the translator’s process and how we understand abstract philosophical concepts in different languages. In this particular one, the word “dolor” is translated to “grief” when “dolor” can mean a versatile definition of pain, both physical, mental and spiritual. The original also says “mayor mal” to describe the “chief monster,” when it could also mean great evil. Where there are abstractions in the Spanish versions, I liked how Villarreal played with meaning to create a more defined image, and possibly a more accessible image, for an English reader.

What I love most about the chapbook is Sor Juana’s propensity towards raising questions and curiosities that she has no intention of answering. As Villarreal says in her translator’s note at the end of the book, “Sor Juana does not force the reader to decide between either yes or no but rather facilitates the coexistence of yes and no to illustrate the viscera of an oxymoron on paper.” After reading, and re-reading this collection, I found that the Enigmas are best enjoyed when one isn’t searching for an answer, instead allowing each individual quatrain and it’s beautifully cryptic phrases to fill you with a feeling and curiosity you are content not to fully comprehend.

—Leticia Urieta

In a conversation with the translator of this collection, Stalina Villarreal, we discuss her journey to this project and what it means to her as a Chicana poet and admirer of Sor Juana’s legacy.

How did you come to this project as a translator and poet? What drew you in and why did you choose Sor Juana’s “Enigmas” as opposed to her other prolific works?

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has been part of my familial feminism for generations.

My school mentors had me interpreting and translating periodically since fifth grade, but I rejected the translation process until my M.F.A. program at California College of the Arts. My mentor Zack Rogow drew my attention toward the craft of poetic translation, and my mentor Denise Newman said that since the poetry industry was dying, we poets needed to serve the poetry community either as an editor or a translator. At that time, my advisor Gloria Frym had me read Sor Juana to improve my poetic skills.

My post-M.F.A. professional development included a literary-translation workshop with Amanda Powell, who spoke of her own methods to translate Sor Juana. I also taught Sor Juana empowerment to a writing-therapy workshop in Spanish for breast-cancer survivors. In an art installation, I sculpted an ecofeminist character Doña Poly-Froufrou whose skirt was formed by intertwining speaker wire and recycled bottles containing Sor Juana’s dramatic verses.

Sor Juana is one of the few poets whom I’ve agreed to supply upon demand. When Libros Antena Books called me, I was told of the Señal interest to publish Sor Juana’s enigmas because few versions have been published since their discovery in 1968. Jen Hofer and John Pluecker matched me; J.P. called me “barroca.”

In your translator’s notes at the back of the collection, you discuss, as a Chicana woman, how poetry is, for you, a refuge. How did this translate to your work with this collection?

Poetry and poetic translation have been fundamental in my bilingual thought and expression—I have loved the freedom to codeswitch. In addition, escaping prose’s prescriptivism refreshes me. I especially love changing ambient noise by reading poetic rhythms and sounds aloud. I can call this translation “fun”!

Where are the “Enigmas” centered in Sor Juana’s illustrious and contentious career as writer?

The enigmas were decentered; I believe that is why they were lost for centuries. Sor Juana wrote them in 1693, the year after she got rid of her library and musical instruments but also the year before she vowed in her own blood that she was the worst.

In [Un]Framing the “Bad Woman”: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui and Other Rebels with a Cause, Alicia Gaspar de Alba argues that Sor Juana “gives up” because she was a “victim” who escaped being “publicly humiliated in the Quemadero (the place set aside for burning heretics).” That is a logical explanation. Did other factors contribute to Sor Juana’s path to the enigmas? Gaspar de Alba acknowledges Sor Juana’s “indulgence in melancholia,” and my interests in Disability Studies seek the context for combating this emotional state.

I imagine that, even as a bilingual writer, the antiquated nature of Baroque Spanish that Sor Juana writes in would present challenges in understanding her meaning and the inevitable ambiguity of her enigmas. As a bilingual writer, I attempted to gain a sense of the poetic form in Spanish first and then in English, but found this difficult because, though the Spanish and English versions are presented together, they are almost different entities. What were some of the unique challenges that translating this particular work presented you with and how did you circumvent these challenges to translate the meaning for English readers?

I usually read Sor Juana in Spanish and love the cross-reference challenge.

She was a lover of rhyme, so I felt compelled to be loyal to the envelope quatrain. Still, the nature of riddles requires lucid content, so I aimed to balance content and sound.

Applying rhythm was most challenging. In the United States, I’ve often encountered a distaste for Latinate rhythms in English. I workshopped the translations with my Antena editors, and they encouraged me to overcome my fear of cognates. In sum, I’ve attempted to shift rhythmic flow by summoning languages from my history. One of my earliest memories is my Mayan babysitter, who sat next to me if I found Michael Jackson on TV but who walked away if Luis Miguel sang. Rhythmic compensation = hello instead of adieu.

Did you find yourself revisiting any one of the twenty quatrains more than others, or do you feel that each one fits together as a whole? What do you hope 21st century readers walk away from with this collection?

I have always valued audience interpretation, so readers should walk away with honest reactions. May each enigma possess a unique appeal, but I am sorry if any appall.

Reader response 1: I remember my “vulgar wow” when my abuelo called me an “orgullosa” who should sleep on the floor instead of a bed. Instead, Dominican Sisters allowed me to stay in their convent, and the silence made me wonder if Sor Juana thought about “echoes” because of rhyme or because convents in Mexico would’ve had more reflective sounds than the wooden ones built in the United States.

Reader response 2: It’s often my “grief” that makes me “lopsided” when the “chief monster” problem overshadows the “monstrous mischief” trigger.

For myself as a Xicana writer, I know that I am drawn to Sor Juana because of her mixed parentage and her early expressions of feminist thought. In reading the Enigmas, it is easy to draw a connection between the enigmas, whose ambiguity and mystery are so attractive to read, and the mysterious persona of Sor Juana herself. As translator, do you feel it is your responsibility to interpret the Sor Juana’s poetic intentions as much as it is to translate her words?

Yes! Non-poet translators may give an appreciated service to poetry translation that is quite thoughtful regarding form, but I feel it is my duty as a poet to produce a poetic reading in the target language.

How do you think Sor Juana’s intersecting identities help her work to stand the test of time? What do you consider to be her legacy?

I grew up hearing Mexicanas and Xicanas talk about Sor Juana’s proto-feminism, and her ambiguity is part of the attraction. Sor Juana’s fame may have come from her use of Spanish, yet her fluency in Nahuatl impresses her audience. Gaspar de Alba may focus on lesbianism, but I am a fan of the crossdressing. Her extremes between repression and liberation have opened a huge window of shared suffering and resistance solidarity. She lived a broad spectrum; pick your colors.