112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Will the Real Sor Juana Please Stand Up?

Elisa Cogbill-Seiders, "University of Nevada, Las Vegas"

This paper explores the ways translation theory sheds light on the ways Sor Juana’s name, history, and persona were appropriated by contemporaneous artists, to the degree of obscuring the “real” Sor Juana in favor the of an invented one. 


Lawrence Venuti maintains that every text is an intertext “bound in relations to other texts which are somehow present in it and from which it draws its meaning, value and function” (“Adaptation, Translation, Critique” 157). Source texts have relationships with other texts, both in the source language and in other languages, from which they draw meaning. Perfect translation of a source text into a new language requires interpreting the text, texture, and context/intertextual relationships. I’m interested in the ways we may apply Venuti’s theories regarding translation by replacing Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz the person with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz the text. I will analyze the interpretive lenses of other artists—a portrait by Juan de Miranda (1680), an anonymous engraving (1692), and the anonymous portrait completed in 1666. Translation theory sheda light on the ways Sor Juana’s name, history, and persona were appropriated by contemporaneous artists. In fact, this appropriation has defined Sor Juana studies even today—to the degree of obscuring the “real” Sor Juana in favor the of the invented one. She has become as much a character as any of the fictional ones in her dramas and poetry. 

There is relatively little historical evidence about Sor Juana’s life. Most of what we know exists from scant records and her writings. Contemporary Mexican writer Ocavio Paz wrote a biography of her life called Las trampas de la fe in 1988. Many of his assertions are made based on well-researched contextual evidence—he studies the time period and works of other artists and draws conclusions accordingly. Other scholars discuss different methodologies. Glenna Luschei explains that her process in translating Sor Juana’s Enigmas is to render a tone similar to that of Emily Dickinson. In other words, Luschei translates 17th Century Spanish by way of a 19th Century American poet into 20th Century English. Another example is the 1990 movie adaptation of Sor Juana’s life called, Yo, la peor de todas. There are many levels of interpretation here: from writing to film, from 17th Century Mexico to 20th Century Argentina (the director is the famous Argentine director, María Luisa Bemberg), and then from Spanish to English when the movie was adapted for American audiences in 1995. I will situate my paper within this context of various interpretations and adaptations with the understanding that it is a strategy translators must use in order to render the source text meaningful (in this case, Sor Juana) to a new audience.


I plan to use several of Lawrence Venuti’s articles to assist me in understanding translation theory, primarily his discussion of film adaptation, “Adaptation, Translation, Critique” and “Translation, Intertextuality, Interpretation.” I will also use Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” I also rely on the work of the comparativist translation theory scholar Maria Tymoczko in her article, “Post-colonial Writing and Literary Translation.” The use of post-colonial discourse in relationship to translation is a useful way to examine the relationship between Mexican and Iberian Spanish, and also translation of Mexican Spanish to American English. I will also draw on art history, notably Pamela Kirk’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism, and on studies of presentism, like Evelyn Gajowski’s “Beyond Historicism: Presentism: Subjectivity, Politics.”