Our Blog

Duende is a Spanish word that many translators regard as the hardest word to
convey in other languages. It is difficult to express its meaning when it means a
feeling of inspiration, like in flamenco. While originally used to describe a
mythical elf or goblin that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of
one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning transitioned into referring to the
mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.

It was the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca who first examined the
meaning of this word. In 1933, in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires titled “Play
and theory of the Duende” (“Teoría y juego del Duende”), he addressed the
spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions:

All through Andalusia, from the rock of Jaen to the snail’s-shell of Cadiz,
people constantly talk about the duende and recognise it wherever it
appears with a fine instinct. That wonderful singer El Lebrijano, creator
of the Debla, said: “On days when I sing with duende no one can touch
me”; the old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a
fragment of Bach, and exclaimed: “Olé! That has duende!” but was
bored by Gluck, Brahms and Milhaud. And Manuel Torre, a man who had
more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play
his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: “All that
has dark sounds has duende”. And there’s no deeper truth than that.

The duende, then, is a power, not a labour; it is a struggle, not a
thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is
not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the
feet”. That is to say, it is not a question of faculty, but of a style that’s
truly alive; a meaning of blood, of the most ancient culture, of
spontaneous creation.

En toda Andalucía, roca de Jaén y caracola de Cádiz, la gente habla
constantemente del duende y lo descubre en cuanto sale con instinto
eficaz. El maravilloso cantaor El Lebrijano, creador de la Debla, decía:
“Los días que yo canto con duende no hay quien pueda conmigo”; la
vieja bailarina gitana La Malena exclamó un día oyendo tocar a
Brailowsky un fragmento de Bach: “¡Ole! ¡Eso tiene duende!”, y estuvo
aburrida con Gluck y con Brahms y con Darius Milhaud. Y Manuel Torres,
el hombre de mayor cultura en la sangre que he conocido, dijo,
escuchando al propio Falla su Nocturno del Generalife, esta espléndida
frase: “Todo lo que tiene sonidos negros tiene duende”. Y no hay verdad
más grande.

Así, pues, el duende es un poder y no un obrar, es un luchar y no un
pensar. Yo he oído decir a un viejo maestro guitarrista: “El duende no
está en la garganta; el duende sube por dentro desde la planta de los
pies”. Es decir, no es cuestión de facultad, sino de verdadero estilo vivo; es decir, de sangre; es decir, de viejísima cultura, de creación en


Apparently, this quality can be translated via the use of a calque as “black
sounds”, which is the expression Lorca uses when describing the qualities of
Duende. But I don’t think “black sounds” works like “Duende”, which more
likely will end up being borrowed and becoming a loan word.

Duende represents an emotion or response to a selected piece of art, and that
is what makes it so difficult to translate. Can you translate a feeling? How
would you translate this beautiful concept into English?



Be Sociable, Share!



  1. I’d translate it as “soul” as in “This artist’s got soul”.

    As always, it depends on the context.