Poetry, Translation

A master-class in poetry & the rhythm of words


Back in the stegosauraus-era when I studied Spanish in high-school (AKA ‘gymnasiet’ in Sweden), our teacher had us read Spanish poetry for part of the course. One of those poems has stuck with me ever since: even if my knowledge of the language has faded a bit with time, this poem is still there. It’s Federico García Lorca’s ‘Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías’ / ‘Lament For Ignacio Sánchez Mejías’, a poem inspired by the death of a famous bullfighter.

The poem is breathtakingly beautiful in itself, and it’s also a master-class in how a poet can use words and rhythm to create something that wrenches your heart and pierces your spirit. If you read it, even if you don’t understand the Spanish, you’ll feel the pull, the ebb and tide, in Lorca’s writing. It’s like the poem’s pulse, its heartbeat.

As a translator, this poem also makes me think of the impossibility of translating poetry.

Having recently translated my own poetry into English from Swedish (more on that here), I know that translating poetry can feel like trying to thread a needle while wearing ski-gloves and a blindfold.  Yes, you can translate the words, but you can’t quite capture that rhythm, that ebb and flow of the original, in any other language. At best, you can give an echo of it, a shadow on the wall, but I believe it’s impossible to fully capture it.

Compare one of my favourite parts of the poem, in Spanish, and in English.

In Spanish:

Por las gradas sube Ignacio
con toda su muerte a cuestas.
Buscaba el amanecer,
y el amanecer no era.
Busca su perfil seguro,
y el sueño lo desorienta.
Buscaba su hermoso cuerpo
y encontró su sangre abierta.

And in English:

Ignacio goes up the tiers
with all his death on his shoulders.
He sought for the dawn
but the dawn was no more.
He seeks for his confident profile
and the dream bewilders him
He sought for his beautiful body
and encountered his opened blood

When I read it in English, I know that the surface of the poem is still there, but some of the deeper magic is lost. To quote Umberto Eco: “Translation is the art of failure.”

Beautiful Lorca. Always a master, best in original Spanish.

Dile a la luna que venga,
que no quiero ver la sangre
de Ignacio sobre la arena.

Federico García Lorca at Amazon:

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