On "Poet in Spain: Federico García Lorca"

Poetry in Review

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

In 2004, when the legendary Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas offered a concert of her musical adaptations of Federico García Lorca’s poems at the Huerta de San Vicente, his birth home in the outskirts of Granada, the music carried his words deep into the city that had inspired them. For Vargas, whose deeply felt connection to the poet translated into a personal fetish for the places in which his life transpired, reciting his words to music in the garden where he had played as a child, in the city whose streets we walk through in his romances, across plazas scented by the flowers that populate his world was the most fervent tribute she could have offered to the poet she described as “chosen–one of the gods who never died, just left us early.” A similar focus on the living city and its surrounding landscapes–the geography of García Lorca’s personal “Spain”–is the most obvious gift from Sarah Arvio’s new translations of the work of the beloved granadino poet.

In this ambitious volume, which includes selections from all of García Lorca’s work except Poet in New York, Arvio, an award-winning poet in her own right, has set out to recover for English readers his lesser-known “moonlit earthbound Spanish poems about love and death.” In her introduction, Arvio explains her choice of poems as springing from a desire to both recover García Lorca’s “Spanish voice uninterrupted” and give his Spain-centered poems (particularly his Andalusian poems) a chance to contend for the privilege of being considered his masterpieces, a position now occupied in the imagination of his English readers by his posthumously published Poet in New York (1940). What emerges from her choices is a selection that features open landscapes, light-filled spaces, arid lands covered in olive groves, moonlit nights that presage tragedy, and the blood-soaked fields where the disputes of a rural society mired in atavistic feuds end in death.

They are indeed worlds apart from the work produced during García Lorca’s stay in New York and better represent the work that anchors his poetic reputation in Spain and throughout Latin America–the same poems featured in Vargas’s musical renditions. The Spain poems capture the expressive richness of the poet in Spain, the allure of expansive landscapes under open skies populated by a rich array of characters (Gypsies, crowds in religious processions, young women pining against balcony railings, horsemen galloping across a barren plain) and the colorful fauna and flora of southern Spain (the recurrent imagery of olive trees, oleander, jasmine, orange groves; the old mules, magnificent horses, and singing birds), as we see in poems like “Road” (Caminos):

One hundred horsemen in mourning
Where will they go
In the hanging sky
Over the orange grove
Not to Cordoba or Seville
Will they go
Nor to Granada that sighs
For the sea

The translations appear here side by side with the Spanish originals, showing how Arvio works creatively at rendering García Lorca’s entrancing verses into English. Most often she succeeds beautifully, especially in poems of spare elegance like “Float,” whose stylistic grace is captured perfectly in its translation:

Virgin in a crinoline
virgin of Loneliness
as open as a vast
In your ship of lights

There is a deep communion between artist and translator in these subtle, nuanced, fiercely economic poems that move from the vast vistas of the Andalusian Vega to the sweet intimacy of a firefly flickering around a city streetlamp in “Night” or the menacing approach of stealthy dark archers entering Seville in “Poem of the Saeta.” Arvio is at her best in her work on the Poem of the Cante Jondo.

At other times, like all translators of García Lorca before her, Arvio struggles with conveying the sense of life and movement that he expresses with such deceiving effortlessness and which stems from his knowledge of the rhythms and patterns of Andalusian musical forms, his ability to draw on a rich traditional lore built into the language itself, and on the continuities readers recognize throughout his dream landscapes, an Andalusia that is both real and reconstructed by his poetic imagination as a world of his own. Like Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, García Lorca’s own Andalusia, anchored in reality as it may be, emerges from his poetry as a re-created, refashioned cultural world that operates according to rules of its own. We see the difficulties this presents to translators in poems like “Arbolé arbolé” (Tree oh tree tree), a favorite of Chavela Vargas, whose affecting mystery she paired in her Granada concert with the poignant melody of Agustín Lara’s 1935 waltz “Noche de ronda.”

Pasaron tres torerillos
delgaditos de cintura
con trajes color naranja
y espadas de plata antigua.

“Vente a Sevilla, muchacha.”
La niña no los escucha.

Three toreros went by
with narrow waists
wearing orange suits
and swords of old silver

Come to Seville girl
The girl won’t listen

How does one suggest in English the combined affection and dismissiveness of García Lorca’s description of the three young matadors as “torerillos,” or the cultural weight of “traje”/”suit” as shorthand for the “traje de luces” (suit of lights), the traditional costume of a bullfighter? How does one re-create the ambiguity of “La niña no los escucha,” whose verb could be equally rendered as “does not,” “cannot” or “will not”? The difficulty of choices–and what can potentially be lost in translation–reminds us of how García Lorca, as a poet whose simplicity of language belies the complexity of his imaginative world, works through echoes and evocations to imbue his stark landscapes with joy, awe, and nostalgia, as well as violence and menace.

The difficulties are exacerbated by Arvio’s decision to render the poems in English without their original punctuation, which she thought “hindered the flow of language.” She argues in the introduction that García Lorca often drafted his poems without such marks, adding them in late revisions or at the time of publication. She reminds us that “manuscripts unpublished at the time of his death were punctuated by an editor.” This is a bold decision when translating a poet who often depended on punctuation–some of it rather sui generis–to control the rhythm and flow of his verses. The elimination of the punctuation often flattens the poem in translation, especially when, for instance, García Lorca uses exclamatory sequences to mimic the effect of a chorus singing and beating their palms to the music of a flamenco performance as they watch while a young nun ponders the creativity and joy of life that is out of her reach as she embroiders an altar cloth:

¡Qué bien borda! ¡Con qué gracia!
Sobre la tela pajiza,
ella quisiera bordar
flores de su fantasía.
¡Qué girasol! ¡Qué magnolia
de lentejuelas y cintas!
¡Qué azafranes y qué lunas,
en el mantel de la misa!

What graceful stitching
on the straw-colored cloth
She longs to embroider
the flowers of her thoughts
Ah sunflowers ah magnolias
of sequins and ribbons
Saffron-flowers and moons
on the altarcloth

Arvio includes in her collection a translation of García Lorca’s 1933 play Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding), which entranced her by the way it “moves between spoken dialogue and song or chant or poem; the dialogue, too, often resembles poetry.” The play, inspired by a tragic press report of a young woman who eloped from her wedding reception with the married man she had always loved, moves effortlessly from domestic drama to an allegory about death, love, and fate. Played against the endlessly beautiful yet forebodingly arid fields of deep Andalusia, enlivened by the rhythms of García Lorca’s verses modeled on local songs, the sad tale meditates on the lives of seclusion and renunciation lived by rural Spanish women, rendering their powerlessness and forced repression of desire.

There are several existing translations of the play, perhaps the best known (and most often performed) being those produced by John Gassner and Burns Mantle in 1951, included in their three-volume A Treasure of the Theatre, and the translation by James Graham-Luján and Richard L. O’Connell in their Three Tragedies: “Blood Wedding,” “Yerma,” “Bernarda Alba” (1955). Readers are perhaps more familiar with the collaboration of the Spanish director Carlos Saura, the dancer Antonio Gades, and the former Spanish child star Pepa Flores (Marisol) in the 1980 film Bodas de Sangre, focused on a rehearsal of the play through which Saura distills a deep reflection on art and the creative process. Translation of the play into English has become a sort of rite of passage for poets, among the most prominent of whom are Ted Hughes and Langston Hughes. Arvio’s lively translation, which remains very close to the original, nonetheless lacks the authority and pathos of Ted Hughes’s 1996 translation or the lyrical resonance and deep engagement with marginalized musical traditions of Langston Hughes’s 1933 version.

The translations by Ted Hughes and Langston Hughes are of interest here because they highlight the ways in which other poets have built on García Lorca’s fiercely theatrical experiment, which moves away from conventional realistic dramatic representation into allegorical meditation (an element captured so beautifully by Saura in his film). For Ted Hughes, a great admirer of García Lorca whose translations/reworkings of the Spanish poet represented a form of mourning, the power of the play lies in the emotional rawness of the suppressed desire and the violent rage it engenders. His translation offers a more ragged, intense version that blends the two poetic voices into one. Hughes’s own comment on his translation underscored what he saw as “the explosion behind each word, the great howl behind it all … the inner ferocity and the outer simplicity”; it was his efforts at re-creating this power in English that led him ultimately to conclude that “Spanish can’t be Englished.”

Arvio’s approach is radically different, focusing instead on a nuanced channeling of the musicality and magic of the play as it moves from realistic drama to allegory through a careful re-creation of what she sees as the most poetic elements of the play. This brings her version closer to Langston Hughes’s lyrical translation, first performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1992 as Fate at the Wedding. Tragedy rendered as a deadly dance in which Hughes blends flamenco and jazz rhythms, this version addresses the synchronicity between two radical poets confronting similar social constraints through aesthetic explorations of folk cultural and musical expression. What makes Langston Hughes’s version of interest in reading Arvio’s translation of the poems and play is his nuanced understanding of the lexicon and symbolism of race and color, which Arvio struggles to address in her treatment of race and Gypsy culture.

Langston Hughes identified a rapport with García Lorca in a shared concern with representing authentically a hybrid, socially suppressed culture, which he addresses through his access to a richly nuanced vocabulary for expressing race and color difference. In Arvio’s collection, race is often awkwardly rendered, seemingly “untranslatable” given the inability of English–or at least the English that is suitably accessible to Arvio–to convey subtle meanings of racialized culture. We see this most clearly in her struggle to translate the word moreno/morena through its multiple uses in García Lorca’s poems. The poet assumes his readers’ familiarity with the protean term, their ability to switch between meanings as we switch between language registers. The translator, alas, does not have that luxury. Most often translated throughout the collection as “dark-haired” or “dark-eyed” (as in “Morena de luna llena”/“Dark-eyed girl of the full moon”), it becomes more problematic when Arvio renders “Cristo Moreno” as “Gypsy Christ,” turning a possible translation into English as the translation, thereby racializing the ambiguity of meaning built into the poem.

These difficulties aside, there is much to savor and admire in Arvio’s generous translations–from the selection itself and its privileging of often neglected suites in García Lorca’s poetry to the availability in English of poems not translated before. She captures the élan and enchantment of García Lorca’s work, opening his fascinating world to a new generation of English readers–the same sense of enchantment that Chavela Vargas sought to convey to her audience in her Granada concert as she spoke of the poet as someone “who had accompanied her through life, in her loneliness, her pain and best moments.” In that we must rejoice.

Poet in Spain: Federico García Lorca, translated by Sarah Arvio (Knopf, 576 pp., $35)

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert is a professor of Caribbean culture and literature in the department of Hispanic studies and in the environmental studies program at Vassar College, where she holds the Sarah Tod Fitz Randolph Distinguished Chair.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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