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May 22, 2014

Stanford scholars view Iberia's multicultural history through poetry

Through the study and translation of over 100 late medieval and early modern lyric poems in Catalan, Portuguese and Spanish, Associate Professor Vincent Barletta and two of his students shed light on the interconnectedness of Iberian languages and cultures.

By Cuauhtemoc Garcia-Garcia

The literary life of medieval and early modern Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan poets is revealed in a new book by Stanford scholars of Iberian and Latin American cultures. (Illustration: Anna Cobb / Stanford News Service)

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis

Stupid men that wrongly
accuse women,
not seeing that you are the very cause
of what you blame

These lines excerpted from a 17th-century poem represent one of the first manifestations of feminism in the New World.

Written in Mexico by the Hieronymite nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, this poem has been newly translated from Spanish into English by three Stanford scholars of Iberian literature.

Vincent Barletta, an associate professor of comparative literature and Iberian and Latin American Cultures (ILAC) at Stanford, and Mark L. Bajus and Cici Malik, both doctoral students in ILAC, have translated this work and nearly 100 others as part of an effort to create a single representative selection of Iberian poetry from the late Middle Ages and early modernity.

In fact, it was the absence of a text that comprehensively covered 14th- to 17th-century Iberian poetry that led Barletta to begin work on Dreams of Waking, the first such publication of Iberian poetry representing the three main Iberian languages from this era with English translations.

During the period covered in their anthology, Barletta said, "most of the cultural and linguistic practices of the Iberian Peninsula's different speech communities were in flux."

The amorphous nature of cultural boundaries is reflected in the multilingual and transnational literature produced then. In that age, Barletta observed, nearly all poets read and wrote in a variety of Romance languages and also tended to engage classical and humanistic Latin literature in a serious way.

Add to this the "historic influence of Arabic philosophy and literature in the Peninsula and the new realities of imperial expansion (first for Portugal and then for Castile,) and one sees that the linguistic and literary scene was extremely complex," Barletta noted.

Breaking away from traditional studies of language and culture, which tend to focus on one nation or one language at a time, Barletta and his fellow researchers offer a broader picture of the poetic production of the time.

Barletta and his co-editors selected more than100 poems from 33 poets, with the aim of offering a chronology of works in Catalan, Portuguese and Spanish. "We saw this project as an opportunity to engage Catalan and Portuguese texts that have tended to be ignored in previous anthologies," he said.

In addition to providing new translations of canonical poems by poets such as Luís de Camões, Ausiàs March and Garcilaso de la Vega, the team also translated poems that have never before been edited or translated into English. Poems by lesser-known authors, such as the Catalan poet Francesc Fontanella and the Portuguese poet Sóror Violante do Céu, and an anonymous Aljamiado poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, illustrate their substantial contribution to Iberian letters.

Presented together, these works illustrate the fluidity, pluralism and diversity of Iberian cultures. "As much as modern Portugal and Spain have attempted to project an image of themselves as culturally homogeneous European nation-states," Barletta said, "the fact is that the Iberian Peninsula has always been a region characterized by porous (and shifting) borders and a high degree of cultural and linguistic diversity."

Attending to this diversity "in an adequately contextualized and open way is crucial if we wish to move beyond a superficial and distorted vision of Iberian culture and history. Our anthology is, at the most basic level, a tool in this effort."

Intersection of language, poetry

The Iberian Peninsula in the late medieval to early modern period was a place in which linguistic boundaries either did not exist or were extremely porous.

Thus, the idea that "Portuguese was limited to Portugal, Spanish to Castile and Catalan to Catalonia was certainly not true in the 14th to 17th centuries, where you have poets from different speech communities reading each other's material," Barletta said.

Although it was originally envisioned as a project for undergraduate teaching, Barletta said he sees Dreams of Waking as filling a larger vacuum by presenting a multilingual compilation that illustrates how poetry and language intersected across the Iberian Peninsula.

Barletta, currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, said that although there exist excellent anthologies of medieval and early modern Castilian poetry, it is very hard to track down Portuguese as well as Catalan works with an English translation.

Traditionally, Iberian anthologies have all too often been heavily slanted toward Castilian literature; in contrast, by presenting Portuguese and Catalan side-by-side with Castilian, Barletta said, he wanted to "break away from the anachronistic ideas of Iberian language and culture."

By placing the translations in a single text, Barletta said readers can discover and explore the interconnectedness of Iberian literature.

They can see, for example, how Francisco de Quevedo, a 17th-century Castilian poet, borrowed directly from a poem from the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões and how Camões embedded Castilian verses by Joan Boscà in his work.

Interestingly, it is believed that after its 15th-century Golden Age, Catalan literature entered a period of decadence, manifested as a decline in written production. This perceived decline occurred even as Castilian and Portuguese literature entered a singularly prolific period of production.

But Barletta said that the anthology is "trying to say that this is not necessarily the case. There are certainly fewer publications in Catalan after 1500 than before; however, there is nonetheless marvelous poetry produced in Catalan during the 17th century that we simply tend not to consider." 

A literary trampoline

Barletta, who regularly teaches undergraduate courses on medieval and early modern Iberian literature, has experienced firsthand the challenges associated with analyzing poetry from different nations and languages, especially when English translations are not available for the material.

One motivation behind Dreams of Waking was to make the Portuguese and Catalan texts available to English-speaking students who otherwise would not be exposed to them at all, Barletta said.  

With the poems in their original language, accompanied by a brief commentary and an English translation crafted primarily to preserve meaning, students have the linguistic tools necessary to start working with the original materials. 

"What we want students to do is to look, for example, at the Quevedo poem, the Camões poems, and the Boscà poem to see how a Castilian poet makes direct use of a Portuguese poem and vice-versa," Barletta said.

"Rather than creating a stand-alone translation, we are providing a trampoline from which students can work directly with the material on their own. We need students to see the connections, and we want students to want to know more about the connections. To this end, we need to produce not only scholarship but also practical teaching tools."

Cuauhtémoc García-García is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit The Human Experience.



Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

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