The Gypsy Balladeer
Coleman, Alexander, New Criterion
Federico Garcia Lorca Collected Poems, Edited by Christopher Maurer. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 960 pages, $50
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was once asked which were the best and worst language vehicles for his poetry in translation. After pondering the matter, the poet opined that he preferred Italian, since it "comes closest (to my original Spanish), because by keeping the values of the words, the sound helps reflect the sense." English was deemed the worst for his purposes, "being so much more direct, [it] often expresses the meaning of my poetry but does not convey its atmosphere." Indeed, the poet added, "the accuracy of the translation itself, of the meaning, may be what destroys the poem." It should be noted that the French language did not fare well, either: "In many of the French translations ... my poetry seems to me to vanish, nothing is left, yet one can't complain because they express what one has written." Translation is clearly a complex problem, best summarized by the impression that a whole range of poetic expression in Spanish has an emotional charge and a verbal power best realized by reading the poetry aloud, as most certainly is the case with both Neruda and Lorca--their verses take flight only with the spoken word, and their respective public triumphs were often in theaters, if not stadiums (as in Neruda's case). English poetic expression is far more muted, pace Dylan Thomas, more for the eye than the ear. One only has to compare and contrast any of the recordings made by Neruda and T. S. Eliot to hear the most convincing testimony on this matter.
The poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca has offered similar challenges to a translator from Spanish to English over the years. It cannot be just happenstance that Ted Hughes, exasperated after the near-impossible task of translating Garcia Lorca's stark tragedy Bodas De Sangre into Blood Wedding, pronounced in definitive fashion that "Lorca cannot be Englished." All the more compliments and salutations are therefore due to the eminent Lorca scholar Christopher Maurer for bringing out this year, some sixty-six years after the poet's gruesome assassination near his home in Granada, the first almost complete bilingual edition of the Lorca corpus, with many previously uncollected and unpublished poems translated here for the first time. The volume is "almost complete" due to the fact that the editor has thankfully given us only a brief selection from Lorca's first collection, The Book of Poems, the poet's lengthiest book and easily the worst, plain and simple. Indeed, it is difficult to glimpse the future in this mass of poetic mediocrity, but Lorca was soon to find his voice with Poem of the Deep Song, and after that, there was no stopping him--that is, until Franco's goons rounded him up along with every other local free-thinking university professor, liberal town councilor, the odd Mason and the local Homais, doctors, teachers, humble workers, and trade unionists. Before Lorca was shot in late August 1936, some 280 citizens had suffered the same fate in the same place.
Professor Maurer has given us a short literary history of Lorca's poetic development, and there are so many disparate elements synthesized therein that summary is well nigh impossible. Probably the surest way to start is by realizing that Lorca, a good pianist, came to literature from music--a hovering presence over all of Lorca's life is the saintly figure of Manuel de Falla, a mentor in every sense of the word. In 1922, just at the start of Lorca's meteoric career, the poet and the composer organized a one-time only Festival of Cante Jondo, more popularly known as "flamenco," where distinguished artists and instrumentalists were presented well away from smelly bars and dives--both poet and musician were arguing for the musical and poetic identity of Andalusia, a miniscule patch of land that reached out somehow to Bizet, Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, and Debussy. …