The Book of My Life
By Teresa of Àvila
Translated by Mirabai Starr
Boston: New Seeds, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
One of the challenges of being a reviewer is learning the discipline of maintaining an open mind. When reading a book with the intention of writing about it, I cannot help but forming opinions as the reading experience progresses. But just as one cannot judge a book by its proverbial cover, so it is also dangerous to allow early assessments of a book’s worth to color the overall reading experience. Maybe it made sense for Jimmy Carter to concede the 1980 presidential election even before the polls on the west coast closed (after all, his opponent was from California), but for a critical reading of a book to have any hope of fairness, the reviewer needs to suspend final judgment until the last page has been read.
My point in leading this review off with a philosophical digression is that The Book of My Life is one such book in which I struggled to keep my prejudice at bay. In reviewing this title, I am not commenting so much on the writing of Teresa of Àvila as on the translation of Mirabai Starr. And it was Starr’s candor in her introductory “Note on the Translation” that I struggled for the length of the book to accept without judgement. Here’s what set off the warning bells:
I confess to taking a few liberties with the translation … I sometimes substitute “missing the mark” and “transgression” for sin. I call the devil the “spirit of evil.” … In the interest of making this treasure of religious literature accessible to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, I selected more general terms for some of the particular Catholic terms and titles.
Eek. Yes, I know I’m a progressive and a staunch supporter of inclusive language and I’m on the same page as Ron Martoia in believing that Christians need to be careful about using language that has become excessively loaded over the centuries. True enough. But when it comes to the writings of a great mystic, I tend to prefer explanatory footnotes and commentary to heavy-handed editing or translation of the text itself. As much as I believe that St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians and Colossians for women to submit to their husbands is evidence of sexism in the first century and has nothing to do with God’s will, I’d be uncomfortable if we started published “improved” Bible translations that left those passages out. Why? For the simple reason that as soon as we edit one passage out of the text, ten years from now we’ll be editing something else out… and soon we’ll be left with a text that would be virtually unrecognizable to its authors. Therefore, following the great Jewish tradition of midrash, we ought not take away (or alter) text so much as we append commentary to it, in which the ongoing discernment of how the Spirit continues to lead us might hopefully emerge.
So back to Starr and Teresa. Her honesty about the choices she made as a translator reassured me in one sense, since I believe transparency is a good thing, but it also alarmed me, since I am not familiar enough with this text (in either Spanish or in earlier English translations) to be able to readily identify any translation-related problems. After all, if she is so willing to admit to “taking a few liberties” with her rendition of the book, who knows what excessive tampering she may have done to it? But I basically had to read this book on faith. Still, I tried to keep in mind that even the most conservative of translators must make thousands of decisions to recast words in a different tongue, when faced with an author’s use of puns, idioms, proverbs, figures of speech, or various other linguistic elements that simply cannot be translated word for word. Every translator must do this; consider the Bible, where the English translations regarded as the most literal (such as the New American Standard) are also the least read-able. At least Starr was willing to state right up front what biases she brought to her work.
So as I read The Book of My Life, I kept my heresy-hunter antenna turned up high to make sure I could identify any potential problems in the text. My fear was that in her zeal to make Teresa palatable to a postmodern, interfaith, ideologically-liberal readership, that she would either project too much of herself into the text or at the very least do violence to the contours of Teresa’s thought. Over the course of the book, the following three passages in particular gave me pause to wonder, “Is this Teresa’s voice or Starr’s editorializing?”
- “O God, help me! How a soul suffers when she loses the freedom to be who she truly is.” (chapter 9)
- “Without a doubt, I fear those who fear the devil more than I fear the devil himself.” (chapter 25)
- “I think this vision is especially advantageous to committed practitioners of prayer who know what it is to be recollected. It teaches them that the Lord resides very deep inside their own souls. This notion is much more attractive and fruitful than the idea that God is outside us.” (chapter 40)
It sure seemed to me that insisting on the freedom to be one’s self, fearing those who fear the devil, and declaring that God is found within all sounded like egregious examples of injecting baby-boomer individualism into Teresa’s prose. Convinced that I had found enough evidence to downgrade this book from a “translation” to a “paraphrase,” I looked these passages up in the two most well-regarded English translations of Teresa’s autobiography, one by E. Allison Peers and the other by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. And that’s when I realized that I had allowed my prejudices to get the better of me.
Here’s how Peers casts the passages in question:
- “Dear God, what a soul suffers and what torments it endures when it loses its freedom to be its own master!”
- “I am quite sure I am more afraid of people who are themselves terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself.”
- “This vision seems to me a very beneficial one for recollected persons, for it teaches them to think of the Lord as being in the very innermost part of their soul. This is a meditation which has a lasting effect, and, as I have said on other occasions, is much more fruitful than thinking of Him as outside us, as certain books do which treat of prayer, telling us where we are to seek God.”
And Kavanaugh and Rodriguez:
- “Oh, how a soul suffers, God help me, by losing the freedom it should have in being itself; and what torments it undergoes!”
- “Without doubt, I fear those who have such great fear of the devil more than I do the devil himself, for he can’t do anything to me.”
- “I think this vision is advantageous to recollected persons, in teaching them to consider the Lord as very deep within their souls; such a thought is much more alluring and fruitful than thinking of Him as outside oneself, as I mentioned at other times.”
So much for my career as an inquisitor. All three of Starr’s “suspect” passages seemed perfectly congruent with how the other, unmistakably orthodox Catholic, translators had rendered them. But the good news here should be obvious: far from projecting onto Teresa values that are alien to her, Mirabai Starr has produced a fresh and readable translation of the great Spanish mystic’s autobiography that reveals just how liberating her message is, even some 450 years after it was written.
One way in which Starr admittedly edited the text is in how she reduced the number of times that Teresa describes herself as a “wretched worm” or with some other self-deprecating terminology. And as pointed out above, she softened the terminology of sin. Well, now that I’m comfortable that she hasn’t gone on to rewrite Teresa’s theology, I can live with those editorial intrusions. As I noted previously, Ron Martoia’s wonderful book Static helped me to see the value of recasting loaded terms like “sin,” and as for the self-deprecating language, editing that out seems no more momentous than editing a podcast to lose all the ers and ums that normally clutter a person’s speaking voice.
So maybe in reading The Book of My Life I learned more about my own literary conservatism than I did about Teresa’s colorful and exceptional mystical theology. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book on its own terms. Teresa’s writing is maddeningly right-brained, with digressions collapsing on top of one another to the point that her narrative seems hopelessly buried under her thankfully rather charming stream of consciousness. As a mystic, her spiritually is deeply experiential and involves preternatural experiences of the first order; but in the end, her genius lies not in her experience of rapture and levitation so much as in her penetrating and cunning sense of psychology and of detailing the mind’s capacity to delude itself in the most subtle ways. Although she is most merciless when deconstructing her own behavior, she is equally astute in assessing the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of others, especially the men who wielded spiritual and temporal authority over her.
So Teresa remains a mystic of the highest caliber and Mirabai Starr’s translation of her autobiography is well worth reading. Perhaps those who truly wish to study Teresa’s work need to balance this translation with the original Spanish or at least the other translations mentioned above; after all, this is how any serious student of the Bible approaches the problem of translation, by considering multiple voices. But I think that Starr’s voice is one that ought to be included in such serious consideration of how Teresa’s wisdom comes to the English speaking aspirant today. And it’s certainly accessible enough to be well suited for any newcomer to Teresa as well.