Not Word by Word: An Introduction to Arcadia

Nec verbo verbum curabit reddere / fidus interpres
    — Horace, Ars Poetica, 133-134

Deciding on one title has always been difficult for me which is why when I was approached by the editors of Siblíní to write a column about translation, a handful of different titles occurred to me, each feeling nerdier than the last. My first thought was to title the column Nec verbo verbum, originating from part of a line in the Roman poet Horace’s letter in which he advises not to translate “not word by word like some faithful interpreter," but rather feeling by feeling. Ultimately, this line now serves as an epigraph to this column as I'm sure you've noticed. 

Thus, the title of this new Siblíní column, In Arcadia, identical in its original Latin and English, comes from the title of a painting (seen below) by Nicolas Poussin and is part of the sentence engraved on the surface of the tomb: Et In Arcadia Ego translated as “I too, am in Arcadia.” 

Since I’ll be immersing myself in Lope de Vega’s novel, Arcadia, and sharing my adventures with you all—let’s all be In Arcadia together. 

Theories of translation are as numerous as translators themselves and, like the human sensibilities from whence they come, are ever-changing. Rather than try to pin down my own theory of translation in abstract terms and cite translators on translation, I’ll do my best to show how it affects the words that my eyes register in Spanish and my fingers produce in English. But before I get into that, let me tell you a few things about me.

I’m a graduate student studying the cultural translation of nymphs and fauns from their source in Greece and Rome, through language and time into the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since my interest is more thematic than temporal, I’ve found myself looking at texts in various languages, especially Greek, French, English, and Spanish. Speaking the last three on that list has been helpful, being a native speaker of the last two even more so. That said, the ways things are expressed in each language is vastly different no matter how one looks at it.

In the course of my research, I came across a collection of poems linked by a thematic story called Arcadia by the 16th century Spanish poet and playwright Lope de Vega. Immediately, it piqued my interest. Arcadia is the region of Greece where Pan, the half-man, half-goat god is said to reign and wander; Arcadia is the region of Greece where nymphs were most visible. Imagine, then, my surprise at finding out that Lope de Vega, a writer as celebrated and more prolific than William Shakespeare, had a pastoral novel where Greek myth, especially stories about Woodland creatures, by which I mean nymphs and fauns, had yet to be translated into English.    

The title page of  Arcadia

The title page of Arcadia

My challenge, as I start translating this 400-page book seems to have three parts: the first, as always, is to be as faithful as I can be to the original text. The second, to make sure the poems embedded into the novel good enough to stand on their own, as they do in Spanish, and the third, and perhaps most difficult part of the challenge, is to make the 420 year-old language of the novel sound contemporary. I’ll be sharing my successes and struggles here, and hope that you’ll enjoy the process as much as I have. If you have any questions about anything, whether it be translation- or nymph-related, I’d be more than happy to do my best to answer in future installments!

I’d like to start with a pun that we find in the first page of the prologue to Lope de Vega’s Arcadia. In the prologue, our author presents the book as not his own work, but rather as a transcription of the “thoughts of others” whom he calls “rústicos.” I’ve translated this, a little old-fashionedly sometimes, as rustics. At other times, peasants, laborers, or shepherds, depending on context, seemed to sound better to me. I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be yet with the social implications of distancing oneself from one’s work in the late 1500s in Spain, but whatever they may be, this disavowal of his own work seems firmly tongue-in-cheek, and sets up what seems to be a dad joke that is still cringeworthy and funny after four hundred and twenty years.

"Et in Arcadia Ego" by Nicolas Poussin, 1637 (Louvre Museum)

"Et in Arcadia Ego" by Nicolas Poussin, 1637 (Louvre Museum)

Since Arcadia is a pastoral novel, it has as its models the Greek prose romances of Longos and Achilles Tatios, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon respectively. I’ll probably be writing about the similarities to Daphnis and Chloë later. For now, however, suffice it to say that, like Longos’ work, Lope’s takes place in an idyllic Arcadia and is about shepherds. As such, there are a lot of meadows being lovingly and extensively described in the first few dozen pages of his novel.

After telling us that these thoughts are not his own, he gives us his rationale for writing them regardless:



       “I wanted, in effect, to be honorable in writing them––as it was impossible to honor the

        thoughts themselves, I found sad materials to fit into my loneliness, as someone who lives

        far from happy things. And what could a Meadow, so barren, produce if not rough



At this point in his career, Lope de Vega was an established and extremely prolific writer, drawing praise from other Spanish luminaries including Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha who called Vega “el Fénix de los Ingenios, y Monstruo de la Naturaleza” (The Phoenix of Wit and Nature’s Monster) for all of his work ethic.

What does this guy’s work ethic have to do with dad jokes that are approaching half-a-millennium in age? Good question. See, Lope’s last name, Vega, means meadow. So he’s in effect, referring to himself in the third person up there, saying “What could a guy like me (who’s written a bunch and whose work you've probably read before) produce if not ‘rough’ shepherds? P.S. You and I both know I wrote this thing, but it’s fiction, so shhhh…”

If his shepherds are rough, you can rest assured that they will be artfully so, just in the same way that no one would accuse Picasso of having rough drawing skills because his subject’s face is, to put it technically, really out of whack in his Portrait de Dora Maar. My translation, however, is another matter. Stay tuned.


— Jordi Alonso graduated with an AB in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Kenyon College in the spring of 2014, where he studied poetry and literary translation. He was the first Turner Fellow in Poetry at SUNY Stony Brook where he received his MFA, and is now a Gus T. Ridgel Fellow at the University of Missouri, Columbia where he is a PhD candidate studying the cultural translation of nymphs and fauns in literature. He has been published or has work forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Roanoke Review, Edible East End, and Re:AL among other journals. His first book, a collection of erotic poems inspired by Sappho, Honeyvoiced, was published by XOXOX Press in November of 2014. His chapbook, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, was published in 2017 by Red Flag Press.