in rural Paris, Iowa, and Wordpress

Federico García Lorca

I cannot remember the last time we indulged ourselves in books in this blog.

When walking the pipeline where this spare length of pipe lies to the side, I can see the little lizards who inhabit that rock on the left sunning themselves. When I come abreast of the spare length of pipe, they begin scrambling for cover.

The Selected PoemsSo it was that when I encountered Federico García Lorca’s poem The Old Lizard, I had willingly to suspend my disbelief. However old that lizard was, he would have scrambled for cover himself rather than stand there and listen to Federico. Still, I have never had any difficulty in suspending my own disbelief and would go so far as to say that I have a particular talent for suspending my own disbelief. On occasion in my previous life I was able to persuade others willingly to suspend their disbelief, too, a satisfying thing to accomplish.

I have written ad nauseam here and here about my views on the translation of novels. I will not insult anyone’s intelligence by going into the whole new set of problems that present themselves in translating poetry. Suffice it to say that the biggest problem from my own point of view arises from the simple fact that far and away most poetry is intended for recitation, not silent reading. The sounds of the words themselves in the language in which the poem was written add another dimension to the poem. We lose the puns, too. It is probably for this reason that many of Lorca’s poems that are included in the dialogue of his plays resist any translation at all, as I am informed.

Still, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need. Let us take a look at Lorca’s poem, first in the Castilian Spanish in which it was originally written and then in English by virtue of the effort at translation of Lysander Kemp. I first became enamored of this poem simply because of the characterizations of a lizard as “one drop of crocodile” and as a “dragon of the frogs.” Once the hook was in, however, I began to like it for other reasons as well.


En la agostada senda
he visto al buen lagarto
(gota de cocodrilo)
Con su verde levita
de abate del diablo,
su talante correcto
y su cuello planchado,
tiene un aire muy triste
de viejo catedrático.
¡Esos ojos marchitos
de artista fracasado,
cómo miran la tarde

¿Es éste su paseo¿
crepuscular, amigo?
Usad bastón, ya estáis
muy viejo, Don Lagarto,
y los niños del pueblo
pueden daros un susto.
¿Qué bascáis en la senda,
filósofo cegato,
si el fantasma indeciso
de la tarde agosteña
ha roto el hoizonte?

¿Buscáis la azul limosno
del cielo moribundo?
¿Un céntimo de estrella?

¿O acaso
estudiasteis un libro
de Lamartine, y os gustan
los trinos platerescos
de los pájaros?

(Miras al sol poniente,
y tus ojos relucen,
¡oh, dragón de las ranas!,
con un fulgor humano,
Las góndolas sin remos
de las ideas, cruzan
el agua tenebrosa
de tus irís quemados.)

¿Venís quizá en la busca
de la bella lagarta,
verde como los trigos
de Mayo,
como las cabelleras
de las fuentes dormidas,
que os despreciaba, y luego
se fué de vuestro campo?
¡Oh, dulce idilio roto
sobre la fresca juncia¡
¡Pero vivir¡ ¡qué diantre¡
me haéis sido simpático.
El lema de “me opongo
a la serpiente” triunfa
en esa gran papada
de arzobispo cristiano.

Ya se ha discuelto el sol
en la copa del monte,
y enturbian al camino
los rebaños.
Es hora de marcharse,
dejad la angosta senda
y no continuéis
Que lugar tendréis luega
de mirar las estrellas
cuando os coman sin prisa
las gusanos.

¡Volved a vuestra casa
bajo el pueblo de grillos!
!Buenas noches, amigo
Don Lagarto!

Ya está el campo sin gente,
los montes apagados
y el camino desiertos;
sólo de cuando en cuando
canta un cuco en la umbría
de los álamos.


In the parched path
I have seen the good lizard
(one drop of crocodile)
With his green frock-coat
of an abbot of the devil,
his correct bearing
and his stiff collar,
he has the sad air
of an old professor.
Those faded eyes
of a broken artist,
how they watch the afternoon
in dismay!

Is this, my friend,
your twilight constitutional?
Please use your cane,
you are very old, Mr. Lizard,
and the children of the village
may startle you.
What are you seeking in the path,
my near-sighted philosopher,
if the wavering phantasm
of the parched afternoon
has broken the horizon?

Are you seeking the blue alms
of the moribund heaven?
A penny of a star?

Or perhaps
you’ve been reading a volume
of Lamartine, and you relish
the plateresque trills
of the birds?

(You watch the setting sun,
and your eyes shine,
oh, dragon of the frogs,
with a human radiance.
Ideas, gondolas without oars,
cross the shadowy
waters of your
burnt-out eyes.)

Have you come looking
for that lovely lady lizard,
green as the wheatfields
of May,
as the long locks
of sleeping pools,
who scorned you, and then
left you in your field?
Oh, sweet idyll, broken
among the sweet sedges!
But, live! What the devil!
I like you.
The motto “I oppose
the serpent” triumphs
in that grand double chin
of a Christian archbishop.

Now the sun has dissolved
in the cup of the mountains,
and the flocks
cloud the roadway.
It is the hour to depart:
leave the dry path
and your meditations.
You will have time
to look at the stars
when the worms are eating you
at their leisure.

Go home to your house
by the village of the crickets!
Good night, my friend
Mr. Lizard!

Now the field is empty,
the mountains dim,
the roadway deserted.
Only, now and again,
a cuckoo sings in the darkness
of the poplar trees.

Translation by Lysander Kemp

Federico García Lorca was murdered by right-wing Falangists in Spain on 19 August 1936 at the age of 38.

10 Responses to “Federico García Lorca”

  1. veraersilia

    Thank you for this one. I am a translator. One of the greatest and most thrilling challenges in this work – as you observe – is translating poetry. I will go over this piece with a very fine tooth comb, for my own pleasure.

    • StephenBrassawe

      I just returned from breakfast and was delighted to find your comment, vera. I am a fan of translators and so grateful for what different translators working in different languages have given me over my life. Some that come to mind are Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer in Spanish and Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear in Russian. My latest hero is Ralph Manheim who works in French and translated Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

      I continue to work on my own Spanish every day, the Latin-American variety that is. I had to transcribe both the original poem and the English translation. I could not copy and paste. You can see both in the preview–the “look inside”–of The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca available at I proofed my transcriptions, but should you encounter a typographical error, kindly let me know so that I can correct the transcriptions here.

      Thank you so much for visiting and for your comment.

  2. Verónica

    I love Federico Garcia Lorca. And you are absolutely right – Lorca in particular must be read aloud. There is music to his poetry.


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