Translator's Preface to The Life

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The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus

Translator's Preface:


For some time after completing my translation of the Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, in the year 1935, I had no thought of preparing a similar edition of the works of that other great Carmelite, to whom he owed so much, St. Teresa. Even when the welcome given to the works of el Santo in their new dress showed what an unexpectedly and encouragingly large public there now was for this type of literature, it seemed to me that la Santa was on the whole sufficiently well served by the translations already in existence. But many readers of St. John of the Cross were not of this opinion: not all St. Teresa's works, they said, had been satisfactorily translated; not all of them, even, were based on an up-to-date Spanish text; and, in any case, there was ample room for a fresh, modern version of the Complete Works, made by a single hand, with footnotes of an elucidatory rather than a piously discursive type -- an edition, furthermore, which would facilitate individual study by providing comprehensive indices.

As time went on, this point of view was increasingly pressed upon me, and by a great variety of people. In Spain, a well-known Academician asked me when a complete St. Teresa was to appear in English; in the American Southwest, a remote community of Carmelite nuns whom I visited put the same question; in England, the remark became almost a commonplace. At last I began to reconsider the position. The only easily accessible versions of the Life and the Foundations were still, though they had been several times revised, essentially the versions made by David Lewis in 1870-1: as regards both language and interpretation they could certainly be greatly bettered. The Stanbrook Benedictines' translation of the Interior Castle, the Way of perfection and the Minor Works (in prose and verse) dated from the beginning of this century and were much superior to Lewis; yet since these volumes had first appeared P. Silverio de Santa Teresa had published his comprehensive and critical Spanish edition of the Complete Works, which would make it possible to add a good deal, especially in the Way of perfection, to what was already available. The most recently published translation was that made by the Benedictines of Stanbrook of the Letters (4 vols., 1919-24). This excellent piece of work was unfortunately completed before P. Silverio's three-volume edition of the Letters appeared, and, though in 1927 its editors brought out an appendix to their final volume consisting of twenty two letters and some fragments to which they had not previously had access, there is a good deal in P. Silverio's three volumes which it would be worth while to pass on to the English reader. None the less, the Letters presented the least urgent part of the problem.

After full consideration, I decided to undertake an edition of the Complete Works, publishing them all, in one series, as soon as might be, with the exception of the Letters, a new edition of which it seemed better to postpone for the present, since it would be strange if the recent years of upheaval in Spain did not lead to fresh discoveries. Accordingly, the work was begun in the summer of 1939, continued throughout the whole period of the War and is only now completed.


It might be thought that St. Teresa -- so often colloquial and matter-of-fact in her language -- would be a great deal easier to translate than St. John of the Cross, but the truth is very nearly the exact opposite. There are certainly passages and phrases in St. John of the Cross which present the greatest difficulty, but they are relatively few: for all the sublimity of his teaching, his expression is, as a rule, crystal-clear, and at every turn the translator is assisted by his logical and orderly mind and by his great objectivity. Much of St. Teresa's work, on the other hand, is autobiographical narrative, and, even in that part of it which is not, every page bears the indelible impress of her forceful and vivid personality. In addition to the difficulty of interpreting that personality by means of a translation there are stylistic difficulties of a kind presented by few, if any, other Spanish writers of the first rank. As an appreciation of these two points will help us to a fuller understanding of the qualities of the work of St. Teresa, it will be worth our while to consider them in greater detail.

1. To Spaniards there is no writer whose personality communicates itself with greater immediacy and intensity than does that of St. Teresa -- and this both because of her almost complete disregard of the literary conventions and because in nothing that she wrote could her strong individuality ever be concealed. No translator could hope to convey that impression as fully and forcibly as do the original words, but he is not therefore exempted from the obligation to convey as much of it as possible. In an attempt to do this I have denied to her vigorous and pugnacious phrases the superfluous words in which another age might have clothed them. In such passages as these we can hear the authentic and virile note of a saint unlike any to be found in a stained-glass window:

"Rest, indeed!" I would say. "I need no rest; what I need is crosses."[1*] We can make use only of a single cell -- what do we gain by its being very large and well built? What, indeed? We have not to spend all our time looking at the walls.[2] "Oh, the devil, the devil!" we say, when we might be saying "God! God!" and making the devil tremble. Of course we might, for we know he cannot move a finger unless the Lord permits it. Whatever are we thinking of? I am quite sure I am more afraid of people who are themselves terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.[3] If Thou wilt (prove me) by means of trials, give me strength and let them come.[4]
In rendering these and similar phrases I have had always in my mind the Teresa whom I have come to know through close contact with her over many years. A woman who made her decisions and then stuck to them regardless of the consequences:
I was well aware that there was ample trouble in store for me, but, as the thing was now done, I cared very little about that.[5]
Who, if she ever thought she was afraid of the Inquisition, would "go and pay it a visit of (her) own accord."[6] And who counselled her nuns to be like herself:
Strive like strong men until you die in the attempt, for you are here for nothing else than to strive.[7]
Again, St. Teresa has continual outbursts of sanctified commonsense, humour and irony. "I just laughed to myself" is a type of phrase which we continually meet in her work and she has left us an excellent specimen of her sustained laughter in the "Judgment . . . upon various writings".[8] She particularly disliked pretentiousness, even in what was good, and castigated it with those most effective weapons. Even into that sublime commentary on the Song of Songs entitled the Conceptions of the Love of God, creeps a delightfully shrewd description of the lady whose self-importance was so intimately mingled with her devoutness. She, and others like her,
were saints in their own opinion, but, when I got to know them, they frightened me more than all the sinners I have ever met.[9]
Some of her stories are shot through and through with an allusive humour which it needs all one's ingenuity to render -- such are the accounts of her visit to Duruelo, with Fray Antonio sweeping out the porch and the depression caused in the business men who came with her from Medina by all those crosses and skulls[10]; her efforts to address a great lady as befitted her rank and how she "got it wrong'';[11] poor María del Sacramento and her attack of nerves on All Souls' eve in the sparsely furnished convent at Salamanca[12]; the group of devout ladies at Villanueva, only one of whom could read with any ease, who tried to recite their Office using different versions of the Breviary: "God will have accepted their intention and labour, but they can have said very little that was correct."[13] No less apt to evade one are innumerable little natural touches which, in the English, if carelessly rendered, might easily pass unnoticed:
I was . . . ashamed to go to my confessor . . . for fear he might laugh at me and say: "What a Saint Paul she is, with her heavenly visions! Quite a Saint Jerome!"[14] Blessed be Thou, Lord, Who hast made me so incompetent and unprofitable![15] I only wish I could write with both hands, so as not to forget one thing while I am saying another.[16] From foolish devotions may God deliver us.[17]
And in her less frequent ironical passages, such as the description in the Way of perfection of how the devil invents "laws by which we (nuns) go up and down in rank, as people do in the world",[18] or the animadversions in the Life upon the niceties of worldly etiquette:
-- the title "Illustrious" has to be given to a man who formerly was not even described as "Magnificent".[19]
The style here is so sedate that one has to pause for quite a long time before pressing the button lest the photograph should fail to catch the twinkle in the eye.

Then there are the thousand touches which reveal the temperamentally great writer who never became, or wanted to become, a professional one -- the genius born, not made. This trait in herself St. Teresa never allows us to forget -- which is just as well for the translator who might otherwise conventionalize her. She is "stupid", "incompetent" and always busy with really "important" things like her spinning-wheel. She has "no learning", suffers from "noises" in the head, a bad memory, and a "rough" and "heavy" style. It is useless for her to write anything on mystical theology, for -- "I am unable to use the proper terms". She cannot prevent herself from digressing if she feels like it: otherwise, her writing "worries" her.[20] "How I do let myself wander!" begins Chapter XXIII of the Way of perfection.21 As for the dates she quotes -- "you must always understand (them) to be approximate -- they are of no great importance."[22] And she scribbles at breakneck speed and with tremendous intensity, never revising her work -- nor even rereading it to see what she has said last.[23] All the time the translator has to remember that he is dealing with this unique kind of woman -- it would be nothing short of a tragedy if he turned her into a writer of text-books.

2. The second type of difficulty which should be referred to will perhaps be of greater interest to the student than to the general reader. In her "rough style", she says comfortingly at the end of Chapter XVI of the Way of perfection, her argument will be better understood "than in other books which put it more elegantly."[24] That no doubt was true, and may still be true, so far as the general trend of the argument is concerned -- and one has constantly to be on one's guard, when there is some "elegant" word that exactly expresses her meaning, against using it -- but it certainly does not apply to the exact sense of particular passages. Even Spaniards familiar with her books are continually baffled when asked the precise meaning of phrases which at first sight may seem perfectly simple. Vivid, disjointed, elliptical, paradoxical and gaily ungrammatical, the nun of Ávila continually confounds the successors of those "learned men," to whom in her life she turned so often for enlightenment. One often has frankly to guess at her exact meaning, and half a dozen people may make half a dozen different guesses, none of which anybody can pick out as definitely correct.

To illustrate these characteristics of her style, I have, for the sake of brevity, selected examples in which her meaning is fairly evident. When to the difficulty of rendering her words without paraphrasing them is added that of deciding between several possible meanings it can be imagined how much the task is magnified.

In the course of a discussion on melancholy in nuns, in the seventh chapter of the Foundations, St. Teresa observes that lack of discipline is often more to blame than temperament:

Digo en algunas, porque he visto, que cuando hay a quien temer, se van a la mano y pueden. (Lit.: I mean in some, for I have seen that, when there is whom to fear, they become docile and can.)
This, in English, has to be expanded somewhat as follows:
I know it is so in some; for, when they have been brought before a person they are afraid of, I have seen them become docile, so I know that they can.[25]
Again, in the Interior Castle (VI, viii), she has been considering how a person can be sure whether some vision is of Christ or of a saint:
Aun ya el Señor, cuando habla, más fácil parece; mas el santo que no habla, sino que parece le pone el Señor allí por ayuda de aquel alma y por compañía, es más de maravilla. (Lit.: Even now the Lord, when He speaks, [it] seems easier; but the saint who speaks not, but seems to have been placed there by the Lord for aid to that soul and for company, is more remarkable.)
Which means:
When it is the Lord, and He speaks, it is natural that He should be easily recognized; but even when it is a saint, and no words are spoken, the soul is able to feel that the Lord is sending him to be a help and a companion to it; and this is (still) more remarkable.[26]
Then there are shorter phrases, couched in a staccato, almost telegraphic style, hard enough to translate without a weakening of their generally considerable force --
Con esto, mal dormir, todo trabajo, todo cruz! (Lit.: With this, bad sleep, all trial, all cross!) And then, the scant sleep they get: nothing but trials, nothing but crosses![27] --
but quite devastating when the clipt phraseology makes one doubtful of the meaning. And there are words which St. Teresa uses in a sense entirely her own, and conjunctions which do not in the least mean what they say -- e.g., "and" for "but", and vice versa, not to mention the conjunction que, which can stand for almost any other.

One has also to watch for, and preserve, the Saint's colloquialisms. Even in talking with God, she tells us, she has a "silly way"

in which I often speak to Him without meaning what I am saying; for it is love that speaks, and my soul is so far transported that I take no notice of the distance that separates it from God.[28]
How much more unconventional, then, is she likely to be with her readers! Not only in her modes of address, but in the introduction of everyday, semi-proverbial phrases, some of which are no longer in use in Spain and might be unintelligible did she not thoughtfully accompany them with an "as one might put it" or "as they say". It would not be hard to turn into current English slang such phrases as:
They see that these things are considered, as one might say, "all right".[29] (I am) so peevish and ill tempered that I seem to want to snap everyone up.[30] We had not so much as a scrap of brushwood to broil a sardine on.[31]
So with her homely and vivid metaphors: the Christian making progress "at a hen's pace" or even "like hens with their feet tied"; his adversary the devil "clapping his hands to his head" in despair of ever vanquishing him; love finding an outlet and not being "allowed to boil right over like a pot to which fuel has been applied indiscriminately";[32] worldly aids to devotion being of no more use to lean upon than "dry rosemary twigs" which break at the slightest pressure.[33] All these -- and there are hundreds of them enlivening her narratives and illumining her expositions -- can be so easily spoiled in translation.

Another stumbling block is repetition, a practice to which St. Teresa was greatly addicted. Some of her repetitions of words are merely careless and clumsy -- as in her constant use of the word "great"[34] -- and these I have been content to indicate rather than reproduce every time they occur. When she repeats phrases it is generally for emphasis --

Oh, what terrible harm, what terrible harm is wrought . . . when the religious life is not properly observed![35]
and, except occasionally where our language necessitates another formula for the conveying of the effect, her phraseology can as a rule be reproduced as it stands. But often the same word is repeated in a different sense, sometimes so pointedly that it produces an obvious play upon the word's two or more meanings. Some of these usages cannot be conveyed in English; others are best translated freely with the point explained more fully in a footnote. But whenever possible I have rendered this characteristic Teresian trait quite literally: if it gives the reader a slight shock, that is probably what she often intended:
How much more will anyone fear this to whom He has thus revealed Himself, and given such a consciousness of His presence as will produce unconsciousness![36] If I . . . used my unhappiness in order to serve God, it would serve me as a kind of purgatory.[37] But . . . though my will is not yet free from self-interest, I give it to Thee freely. For I have proved, by long experience, how much I gain by leaving it freely in Thy hands.[38]
Alas that one cannot do more to give the English reader the unforgettable effect of intimacy with this woman of the sixteenth century still living and breathing in the twentieth as she writes in her own language! The fine shades of meaning which she creates with her untranslatable idioms, her love for inventing all kinds of diminutives, her characteristic metatheses and other forms of popular misspelling, her curious semi-phonetic transliterations of Latin texts, her long, shambling, breathless sentences, as common as her short sprightly ones, which for reasons of clarity one cannot avoid splitting up -- these make one feel that, when one has done everything possible, one has still done nothing. All I can say is that I have done my best.

Those acquainted with the Spanish text may care to have a few notes on the renderings normally adopted for characteristic words and phrases. One of the Saint's most frequent exclamations, [[exclamdown]]Válgame Dios!, which can express any emotion from playful exasperation to profound distress, is as a rule translated literally, as "God help me!" Occasionally where the context will not suffice to indicate the shade of meaning, it becomes "Oh, God!", "Dear God!" or even "Dear me!" The polite form of address Vuestra Merced is translated "Your Honour" (or sometimes merely "you") when applied to a layman and "Your Reverence" when used to a priest. The word letrados is rendered literally "learned men", though the type of learning to which it refers is invariably theological. The characteristic and rather subtle uses of the word honra ("honour", "reputation", "good name") are dealt with, as they occur, in footnotes. Of terms used in specifically mystical passages, arrobamiento is normally translated "rapture"; arrebatamiento, "transport"; amortecimiento, "swoon"; elevamiento and levantamiento, "elevation"; embebecimiento, "absorption"; and hablas, "locutions" (or, rarely, "voices"). Three words which St. Teresa by no means always distinguishes from one another are gustos, contentos and regalos, generally translated, respectively, "consolations", "sweetness" (in devotion) and "favours", gustos being more substantial than the evanescent contentos and often contrasted with them. The verb regalar may run through the gamut "caress", "pamper", "indulge", "delight", "gladden" and "cheer"; and the singular substantive regalo varies in the same way. Descanso can mean not only "rest" but something very much like "happiness", as also can consuelo ("comfort"). Espíritu can refer to a person's particular spiritual condition or to his or her spirituality. Remedio is more often "help" than "remedy". For convenience's sake, St. Teresa's usage here being very elastic, I have called all religious houses for men "monasteries" or "friaries" and those for women "convents". To the word "soul" the neuter pronoun is applied unless it seems to be equivalent to "person". Where the Spanish gender is ambiguous, "she" is used only if St. Teresa appears to have a woman definitely in mind.


Some idea of the principles which have guided me in the planning of this edition will be implicit in what has already been said. I have aimed at extreme literalness, and have seldom sacrificed this to smoothness and elegance of diction. In an attempt to present the text in the best and fullest form I have utilized all the manuscripts reproduced by P. Silverio; and particular care, as will be seen, has been devoted to the Way of perfection. The notes, greatly abridged from those of P. Silverio, whose discursiveness is not limited to his introductions, have been kept down to a minimum.[39] One need not remind avowed Teresians, but it may be worth while pointing out to the general reader, that the best possible commentary on many of St. Teresa's ascetic and mystical passages can be found by using a subject-index to the works of St. John of the Cross.[40] So much autobiographical material is found in the Life and the Foundations -- and indeed in practically all the works -- that no biographical introduction has seemed necessary; a brief outline of the main events in St. Teresa's career, however, supplemented by references to the works, has been thought worth including.

The style and tone adopted in the translation of the different works varies considerably, just as in the works of St. John of the Cross -- even more so, indeed, than there, for the Exclamations are much farther in this respect from the Foundations than is the Ascent of Mount Carmel from the Spiritual Canticle. But, except in the Exclamations and in parts of the Interior Castle and Conceptions, St. Teresa's style is more pedestrian and colloquial than that of St. John of the Cross, and this I have indicated by the use of more "modern" language, without, I hope, entirely destroying the flavour of a past age. The same remark, mutatis mutandis, applies to the Poems.

St. Teresa's quotations from the Bible are often inexact: my rule has been to give her own words, approximating them as nearly as possible to the text of the Douai Version[41] but never allowing her to say in English anything that she does not say in Spanish. Her mind was so completely immersed in Biblical phraseology[42] that it is sometimes hard to tell if she is consciously quoting at all. Where a Scriptural reference is given in a footnote it is to be understood that I think her to be making a definite quotation.

It would have been attractive to have included a very large proportion of the numerous documents printed by P. Silverio in his nine volumes, which throw so many sidelights on St. Teresa's life and times. But if this translation, like its predecessor, was to be compressed into three volumes there was only a very little space to spare, even when the introductions to the individual works were cut down, as they have been, to a minimum. I have therefore confined myself to translating a few outstanding documents, making them as representative as possible. In order that the pages at my disposal for this purpose should be used to the best advantage, I have occasionally omitted irrelevant passages or condensed their verboseness of expression, without, however (I hope), impairing their spirit.


Chief among my acknowledgments are those to P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, the excellence of whose work I have had occasion to test again and again, and to the Benedictines of Stanbrook, who, holding exclusive copyright for the English translation of his edition, have most generously permitted me to make full use of it. For over twenty years I have been in constant correspondence with the Stanbrook nuns over Teresian matters and have thus been able to appreciate the knowledge as well as the devotion which they put into their labours. I trust that this edition will help to increase the public for their many translations in the field of Spanish mysticism, which includes not only St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross but the less known Francisco de Osuna and Luis de León.

My friend P. Edmund Gurdon, who, when Prior of the Cartuja de Miraflores, near Burgos, helped me so much in the interpretation of difficult passages in St. John of the Cross, died in October 1940, only a year or so after I had begun work on St. Teresa. This edition will be the poorer for the almost entire loss of his collaboration, particularly as he had lived for so many years in St. Teresa's own Castile, and either he or one of his Spanish monks could often suggest a possible meaning for many an obscure elliptical phrase which it was impossible to translate as it stood. Though the World War has made it hard for me to get as much help of this kind from Spain as I should have liked, I have often been able to consult Spanish friends about occasional difficulties -- chief among them my colleague at Liverpool, Don José Castillejo, Don Luis Meana, of the University of Manchester, and Don Pedro Penzol, of the University of Leeds. To these, to my colleague Miss Audrey Lumsden, to the Carmelite Fathers of Kensington, and to the Benedictines of Ampleforth, I tender my most cordial thanks.

E. A. P. University of Liverpool August 15, 1943

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