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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
acto.

Wow.

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?

 

 

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2 Comments

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

    As always, it depends on the context.

    Cheers,
    Maggie