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ASU professor discusses St. Francis, the pope and translating heresy

"Motivos: The Life of St. Francis" by Gabriela Mistral trans. by Elizabeth Horan
May 24, 2013

Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was a Chilean diplomat, poet and essayist, and in 1945 was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Elizabeth Horan, professor of English and affiliate faculty in the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, has published extensively on the Nobel laureate. Most recently, Horan translated Mistral’s meditations on Saint Francis in the collection, “Motivos: The Life of St. Francis” (Bilingual Review Press, 2013).

ASU Department of English outreach coordinator Kristen LaRue sat down with Horan this spring to discuss the book’s relevance in the twenty-first century. Their discussion touched on issues of class, gender, religion and the significance of “what’s in a name.”

Kristen LaRue: With the election of the first Latin American pope – who has taken the name Francis – your book is incredibly timely. Is there a tradition of veneration for St. Francis in Latin America? Can your book help twenty-first-century lay people understand the character of St. Francis, and therefore perhaps better understand this pope’s name choice?

Elizabeth Horan: The new Pope would be aware of how the Franciscan tradition counts as one of the oldest continuing aspects of Latin American Christianity, for the Franciscan Friars were among the earliest Europeans in the New World, where they brought medicine as well as established educational systems to create some degree of order following the chaos of the Conquest. Past and contemporary Franciscans are known throughout Latin America for working among the urban and rural poor, as poverty, a key aspect of the life of Francis of Assisi, is a central aspect of the Franciscan order.

Especially interesting in the Pope's choice to take the name Francis is that he's a Jesuit, an order whose association with the education of the elite is very different from the traditions of the Franciscans. Reports about the pope's decisions to live in a frugal manner are very consistent with Franciscanism. Francis of Assisi was born into a wealthy merchant family whose wealth, rich clothing and sumptuous life he renounced early in his career when he dramatically "went naked," stripping off his clothes in front of the bishop of Assisi to show his renunciation of what his father, a cloth merchant, had planned for him. Francis adopted the rough brown robe, tied with a cord. [This mode of dress] became the habit of Franciscan clerics and is part of how they have been identified throughout the U.S. Southwest and California, as well as throughout Mexico and Latin America, from the earliest European contacts.

These factors are part of what an Argentine, Jesuit pope would be looking to invoke in choosing to identify with the tradition of Franciscanism and of Franciscans working with the pope. I should add that within the traditions of sainthood in Latin America, the tenet of social involvement and aid to the poor is extremely important; there is very little of that tradition of hermits or recluses in Latin American Catholicism that appears in European Catholicism, or in the lives of Saints from southern Europe and the Middle East.

KL: I read that Mistral was a lay member of the Franciscan order. Was this part of what prompted her to write formally about St. Francis? Who was St. Francis to Mistral, personally?

EH: What prompted Gabriela Mistral to write about St Francis reflects a very unusual decision that she took, seemingly at odds with the place and time she was living. It was this unusual decision that led me to look more deeply into this aspect of her life. Until 1922, she had had an extraordinary career as an educator and poet. Despite having no university studies, being almost entirely self-taught with no formal education past the age of twelve, and having been born into an impoverished family in a remote Andean valley, she rose from being an assistant in rural schools to directing the most prestigious girls’ Liceo, or preparatory school, in the nation's capital of Santiago. She did this by publishing poetry and prose, and also through the force of an extraordinarily charismatic personality. Her rise made other teachers jealous and they barred her way to further advancement. Friends in post-revolutionary Mexico invited her to work there to organize the new nation's public schools. What was really unusual in all this is that her only spiritual interests before going off to Mexico were in Theosophy, which was a variety of spiritual study that was very distant from Catholicism. It included versions of Buddhism and Hinduism and spiritualism. But when she came to Mexico, she became very interested in the colonial aspects of Mexico, its relation to Spain, and its Catholicism.

The intersection of interest in Theosophy, which stresses the divine presence in all of creation, including trees and even non-sentient beings such as earth and rocks, and Franciscanism, which is deeply attuned to nature (think of St. Francis preaching to the birds, or convincing the ferocious wolf not to prey on villagers, and Francis's delight in flowers, and his addressing the Sun as "brother" and the Moon as "sister"), was something that led her to become a lay Franciscan and to write the life of Francis. She expresses this in her motivos, her lyrical portrait of his life. He is, for her, an artist and someone who experiences the world intensely, feeling the deepest compassion not just for people who are suffering, but for the feelings of the whole ecology of the world. Her Francis is both an artist and a teacher of artists. This too reflects what she found in Mexico: with other teachers, she encouraged the development or redevelopment of traditional folk arts of painting and ceramics, and song and dance. All these go into her portrait of St. Francis, who is, for her, someone who has an artistic soul that leads him or her to take a road very different from the one of his or her birth.

KL: I find it fascinating that a Latin American woman saw fit to write a well-known saint’s vita, something that previously had been the purview of European white males. What is the significance of this?

EH: The Saint Francis that Mistral presents is European, in coming from Umbria, in Italy, and is influenced by the tremendous folk poetry of medieval Southern France, Provençal, which also greatly influenced Dante. At the same time, Mistral's portrait of Francis is very much in keeping with other "lives" that she wrote later, in that she stresses the central figure's mother and childhood. From her own background in education, she placed a tremendous importance on how mothers and maternal love shape the child. She thus writes about how Francis was shaped by his mother's breastfeeding him, about how she taught him language, about how she protected him from his father's anger and about how she paid no heed to village gossips who said that he was crazy. All these are aspects of her life of Saint Francis that appear in her other celebrations of mothers, and of her own mother, that she wrote at this time.

KL: What were some of the challenges you faced in translating these works? (And it’s “works” right?  It wasn’t just one book that you translated, you collected several of her works in your book?)

EH: This is a collection of prose poems that hasn't been previously translated and that hasn't been all collected into a single volume. One of the greatest challenges I faced as a translator was that there were a variety of previously published (but untranslated) versions that differed from each other, some reprinting errors from previous versions, some including lines that didn't appear in other versions. As a translator I had to choose from the various possible versions and pick the one that seemed the most reliable, among the various ones that had been printed in earlier sources. For each prose poem, I had to determine which was the most reliable text based on internal and external evidence. This was very challenging.

Also challenging was trying to keep a sense of the richness and sometimes, strangeness of the words that the poet chose, without alienating an English reader. Finally, another challenge consisted of working across the different registers that appear in the original prose poems. Some have language that's very close to the language of prayer. Others are more purely descriptive. Others are written from within the consciousness of the natural world, such as the final "motivo" which is written from the perspective of the wolf that Francis meets and befriends, who subsequently lives out his days hoping that Francis will return. Still others describe how Francis felt as death crept over him, or how his brother monks felt when they realized that he had received the “great gift” of the stigmata, which continues a theme that appears throughout the Franciscan tradition and borders on heresy: that Francis was/is a "second Christ."

KL: What were some of your surprises or discoveries in this project?

EH: I was most surprised to find the longstanding evidence of Franciscanism's impact in the arts and in society in Latin America, so that it in some way unites two countries that are so very different from one another, as are Chile and Mexico (and the U.S. Southwest). I was also surprised, in traveling to Chile and presenting the book there, how many questions I had and how people are quite fascinated by translation, a line of literary criticism and contact that is at once a very deep, profound reading, and a celebration of the text. [It is] an attempt to reproduce [the text] in another language, trying to bend that language (in this case English) to make it be more like Spanish - such as in the focus on nouns and adjectives - and to make English have the freer word order that Spanish has, and to make English be less precise in, or reliant on, finite verbs to get the meaning across.

Aside from translation, I was very pleased to discover in this project how very much Gabriela Mistral was immersed in post-revolutionary Mexico, including her contacts with painters there, such as Diego Rivera and Roberto Montenegro, and to find through these how she was deeply involved in the literary, artistic and diplomatic worlds of Mexico in the later 1920s. [This involvement] utterly changed the course of [Mistral’s] life, with results that I am now writing about in her biography, on which I've been working for several years and hope to complete this summer.

The Department of English and the School of Transborder Studies are academic units in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This article first appeared in the ASU Department of English’s spring 2013 newsletter.