Kiss me, I'm Catholic.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Fun Translating Garcia Lorca

Cathedral at Córdoba

Several bloggers have commented on the minor flap over Muslims asking to pray in Córdoba's cathedral. It seems that the request was only a rumor (sigh of relief), but the mention of Córdoba set off echoes in my mind, as it always does. The begining of Warren Carroll's gripping account of Pelayo's resistance and the dawn of the 770-year Reconquista was at the back of my head as I was reading:

"In Spain there was a man named Pelayo. His name was the proto-Spanish version of the Latin name Pelagius, "man of the sea-shore." He came from the north, from the Asturias, the mountains overlooking the coast at Gijón. He was distantly related to some of the Visigothic kings.... Governor Munuza of the Asturias, in Gijón, sent Pelayo as a hostage with a Muslim party going to Córdoba, the new Muslim seat of government, in 717. As soon as Pelayo had left, Munuza seized his sister, whose beauty had evidently caught his eye, and put her into his harem.

South across much of the length of Spain rode Pelayo. As a hostage, his life was forfeit to his Muslim companions. Everywhere he saw the signs of their new dominion, their government, administration, and garrisons. The land where his Visigothic forebears had dwelt for 250 years must have seemed suddenly, utterly alien. It was Muslim land now; to human eyes the whole world would soon be theirs. It was probably summer, so that as the party cantered southward toward Córdoba, it grew steadily hotter under the ardent Spanish sun. More and more they would have traveled in the cool night and slept in the afternoon blaze. We can best visualize that silent, dusky journey on once friendly roads gone strange and sinister with the enemy's brooding presence - a journey ultimately to prove epochal for Catholic Spain, and through her for the whole world - in the haunting images of Garcia Lorca's Canción de jinete (Song of the Horseman)"
("The Building of Christendom," pg. 272)

I remember that poem well, because it was the first Spanish poem I ever translated. Since then, I've come across inumerable English versions of it, all savouring of different poetic philosophies. Here is the text of the poem:

Lejana y sola.

Jaca negra, luna grande,
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.

Por el llano, por el viento,
jaca negra, luna roja.
La muerte me está mirando
desde las torres de Córdoba.

¡Ay qué camino tan largo!
¡Ay mi jaca valerosa!
¡Ay que la muerte me espera,
antes de llegar a Córdoba!

Lejana y sola.

Steven Spender's translation is the one that appears in my little book of Lorca's poems. I'm afraid I don't know much about Spender, but he wrote a poem which involves his son's canary and... the Illiad. It sticks with me for some reason. Anyway, his version is so literal that it sounds as though he ran the poem through Google Translator. For ¡Ay que la muerte me espera, he puts "Ay! That death should wait me." What's with that? True, esperar literally means "to wait" or "to hope," but the construction makes no sense in English. We have a nice word that conveys Lorca's meaning more exactly: awaits. This is my English (better Spanish speakers out there are welcome to correct any mistakes):

Distant and alone.

Black pony, big moon,
and olives in my saddlebag.
Though I know the roads
I will never come to Córdoba.

Through the plain, through the wind
black pony, red moon.
Death is watching me
from the towers of Córdoba.

Oh, the long road!
Oh, my brave pony!
Alas that death awaits me,
before Córdoba!

Distant and alone.

Haunting indeed.

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