November 19 Federico Garcia Lorca: La Guitarra as translated by…

Today, I wanted to conclude my translation portion with a team effort.

The textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy) has a poem that is translated into English, but it asks the reader to have a native speaker of Spanish look over to find the inconsistencies in the translations. For this, I went to my dear friend Tere who was brought to Los Angeles when she was young, but still retains her Spanish. She is a true bilingual as English gives her no problems either.

I set the poem before her explaining (and this I’d talked about in other posts) some of the other translations had more poetic licence than a more straight forward translation. For instance, in the Baudelaire poem in French he writes a line: “Et, comme un long linceul trainant a l’Orient.” This literally translates as “and, like a long shroud dragging to the East”, but other poets have translated it as “And while the sun sinks in the west…And her long robe trails all about the South.” I suppose I’m a literal soul, but nowhere in the original language are the directions “west” or “south” mentioned and the East (specifically with a capital E) is not mentioned at all.

The line reads in the French as if the sun is setting backwards. “The dying Sun rests itself under an arch,/and, like a shroud dragging to the East.” So, it’s resting (or sleeping) like a shroud dragging to the East. It seems that an interpretation is needed for the interpretation, because it doesn’t seem to make any sense. As I imagined a sun, now black orb, being pulled darkly towards the East (after being pulled out from under an arch), I tried to see in my mind a natural analog and couldn’t. I could guess that it wasn’t meant to read as a natural phenomenon, that the point of the line is that the sun is doing something that it doesn’t naturally do (i.e. seek shade, remain dark, set backwards). And it is a shroud not the sun dragging towards the East; this suggests that there is no sun in the sky, that some great thing (a large dark cloud?) is dragging over to the house of the sun (the East) and blotting out the light. It was my conclusion that not only this particular line didn’t fit the literal interpretation, but was off with even the metaphorical interpretation.

This is what I used as an example to my friend to show how an English interpretation might not be as close to the actual text or the idea of the text as a non-native speaker of that language might think.

Luckily, when she read the text and the English translation, they were very close. The only issue was some of the verb tenses chosen. This does still speak to word tense. The line “Llora flecha sin blanco,” is translated as “It is crying the arrow without aim.” But Tere pointed out that the word “Llora” is translated as “cry” not “crying”. This tense was chosen because it clarified the Spanish meaning as “Llora” means crying with tears of sadness, not to speak out (as in “he cries out for justice”) that interpretation for “Llora” does not exist in Spanish.

Similarly the line, “Llora monotona” could read, “cry monotone” which could be mistaken by an English speaker as “a monotone cry”, but that would be incorrect.  A more correct interpretation would be “a monotone sadness” (or ennui) as the speaker is not speaking out in monotone voice, but crying with monotone sadness. The next line clarifies the meaning of the word “cry” even further, “like crying of water” which gives the reader the image of tears. If the translator had called it a monotone cry, then it would have taken the poem into a different direction, then the guitar isn’t crying but speaking out without feeling – instead of sorrow we are talking about depression or even losing our voice (if a guitar loses its musicality, it loses its voice). (I know that it can be argued that sorrow and depression are the same thing, but they are not. Sorrow is feeling bad, feeling loss; and depression is a lingering black mood, a feeling of uselessness that often seems to have no origin. They are not the same. It’s why there is medication for depression and none for sadness.)

It is picky to point this out, but it does make the point that language interpretation is a tricky business and one small word can effect the expression of the sentence and thus the poem. There is a big difference between east and the East (one is the direction and the other is a part of the world) and to cry with tears versus to cry out with your voice are two different distinct things. To change a line is to change the poem and veer the interpretation in a radically different direction.

I’m going to go ahead and post the Spanish version first and then the English translation. Once again, I have to apologize to my Spanish speaking friends, I don’t know how to manipulate this program to insert the correct accents on the words, so they won’t appear. Sorry!

La Guitarra

by Federico Garcia Lorca

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es intutil
callarala.
Es imposible
callarala.
Llora monotona
como llora el agua,
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.
Es imposible
callarla.
Llora por cosas
lejanas.
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin manana,
y el primer pajaro muerto
sobre la rama.
Oh, guitarra!
Corazon malherido
por cinco espadas.

English translation

Guitar

Begins the crying
of the guitar.
From earliest dawn
The strokes are breaking.
Begins the crying
of the guitar.
It is futile
to stop its sound.
It is impossible
to stop its sound.
It is crying a monotone
like the crying of water,
like the crying of wind
over fallen snow.
It is impossible
to stop its sound.
It is crying over things
far off.
Burning sand of the South
which covets white camelias.
It is crying the arrow without aim,
and evening without tomorrow,
and the first dead bird on the branch.
O guitar!
Heart heavily wounded
by five sharp swords.

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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2 Responses to November 19 Federico Garcia Lorca: La Guitarra as translated by…

  1. A. J. Glick says:

    If the sun is setting in the West, the shadows it casts will elongate toward the East, n’est-ce pas? Otherwise, thanks for the translation of the Lorca; I was trying to find a connection between it and the Beatles’ “My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

    • penneloppe says:

      Sure. I think I was thinking too hard about that one. I had a lot of neurons firing all at once, reading the poem, translating the French, translating the metaphors. My brain was pretty tired after that one.

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