Langston Hughes as Translator: Lorca’s “Gypsy Ballads”

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Brawl

 

Half way down the ravine,

Gay with rival blood

The knives of Albacete

Shine like fishes.

*

A light hard as playing cards

In the acid greenness

Silhouettes furious horses

And the profiles of riders.

*

On the crest of an olive tree

Two old women cry.

The bull of the dispute

Charges up the walls.

Black angels bring

Handkerchiefs and snow-water,

Angels with big wings

Made of knives from Albacete.

*

Juan Antonio of Montilla

Rolls dead down the hill,

His body full of lilies

And a pomegranate at his temples.

Now he rides a cross of fire

On the road to death.

*

The judge, with the Civil Guards,

Comes through the olive groves.

Slippery blood sings

A silent song of serpents.

Honourable Civil Guards:

The same as usual –

Four Romans dead

And five Carthaginians.

*

Crazed with hot rumours and fig trees,

The afternoon falls fainting

On the wounded limbs of the riders.

Black angels fly

Through the western air,

Angels with long braids

And hearts of oil.

_____

 

“Reyerta”

 

En la mitad del barranco

las navajas de Albacete,

bellas de sangre contraria,

relucen como los peces.

*

Una dura luz de naipe

recorta en el agrio verde

caballos enfurecidos

y perfiles de jinetes.

*

En la copa de un olivo

lloran dos viejas mujeres.

El toro de la reyerta

su sube por la paredes.

Angeles negros traían

pañuelos y agua de nieve.

Angeles con grandes alas

de navajas de Albacete.

*

Juan Antonio el de Montilla

rueda muerto la pendiente

su cuerpo lleno de lirios

y una granada en las sienes.

Ahora monta cruz de fuego,

carretera de la muerte.

*

El juez con guardia civil,

por los olivares viene.

Sangre resbalada gime

muda canción de serpiente.

Señores guardias civiles:

aquí pasó lo de siempre.

Han muerto cuatro romanos

y cinco cartagineses

*

La tarde loca de higueras

y de rumores calientes

cae desmayada en los muslos

heridos de los jinetes.

Y ángeles negros volaban

por el aire del poniente.

Angeles de largas trenzas

y corazones de aceite.

 _____

 

The Faithless Wife

 

I took her to the river

Thinking she was single,

But she had a husband.

It was Saint James’ Eve,

And almost because I had to.

The street lights went out

And the crickets lit up.

At the farthest corners

I touched her sleeping breasts

And they opened for me quickly

Like bouquets of hyacinths.

The starch of her underskirts

Rustled in my ears

Like a piece of silk

Slit by ten knives.

With no silver light to crown them

The trees grew bigger,

While a horizon of dogs barked

Afar from the river.

*

Beyond the brambles,

The bulrushes, and the hawthorns,

I made her mat of hair

Hollow the muddy bank.

I took off my tie,

She took off her dress,

Me, my belt with the pistol,

She, the four parts of her bodice.

Neither lilies nor snail shells

Have such a lovely skin,

Nor do the crystals of the moon

Shine with such a light.

Half bathed in fire

And half bathed in ice,

Her thighs slipped from me

Like frightened fish.

That night I rode

Down the best of roads

On a mother-of-pearl filly

With no bridle and no stirrups.

Being a man, I can’t tell you

The things that she told me.

The light of understanding

Makes me very careful.

Soiled with kisses and sand

I led her away from the river

While the swords of the lilies

Battled with the breeze.

I acted like the thoroughbred

Gypsy that I am,

And gave her a present,

A big sewing box

Of straw-coloured satin.

But I didn’t want

To fall in love with her

For, having a husband,

She told me she was single

When I took her to the river.

 

_____

 

“La Casada Infiel”

 

Y que yo me la llevé al río

creyendo que era mozuela,

pero tenía marido.

Fue la noche de Santiago

y casi por compromiso.

Se apagaron los faroles

y se encendieron los grillos.

En las últimas esquinas

toqué sus pechos dormidos,

y se me abrieron de pronto

como ramos de jacintos.

El almidón de su enagua

me sonaba en el oído,

como una pieza de seda

rasgada por diez cuchillos.

Sin luz de plata en sus copas

los árboles han crecido

y un horizonte de perros

ladra muy lejos del río.

*

Pasadas las zarzamoras,

los juncos y los espinos,

bajo su mata de pelo

hice un hoyo sobre el limo.

Yo me quité la corbata.

Ella se quitó el vestido.

Yo el cinturón con revólver.

Ella sus cuatro corpiños.

Ni nardos ni caracolas

tienen el cutis tan fino,

ni los cristales con luna

relumbran con ese brillo.

Sus muslos se me escapaban

como peces sorprendidos,

la mitad llenos de lumbre,

la mitad llenos de frío.

Aquella noche corrí

el mejor de los caminos,

montado en potra de nácar

sin bridas y sin estribos.

No quiero decir, por hombre,

las cosas que ella me dijo.

La luz del entendimiento

me hace ser muy comedido.

Sucia de besos y arena

yo me la llevé del río.

Con el aire se batían

las espadas de los lirios.

*

Me porté como quién soy.

Como un gitano legítimo.

La regalé un costurero

grande, de raso pajizo,

y no quise enamorarme

porque teniendo marido

me dijo que era mozuela

cuando la llevaba al río.

 

_____

 

Langston Hughes ( February 1st 1902 – 1967)

lived in México for part of his boyhood, and,

two decades later, travelled to

Spain when he became interested in Communism.

Though he was familiar with the Spanish poetry of

Federico García Lorca (1898-1936),

the poet had already been killed by the time

Hughes got to Spain (toward the end of

The Spanish Civil War) in 1938.

*

Inspired by the Fiesta de Cante Jondo (Festival of

Deep Song) in 1922, Lorca had immersed himself

in the gypsy subculture of Andalucía, Spain.  The

result was his 1928 collection of poems,

“Primer romancero gitano”.   In 1951, Langston

Hughes published his translations into English

of a dozen or so of these “Gypsy Ballads”,

two of which we feature here.

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