You are here:

  • blog

Translating Federico García Lorca’s poem ‘Romance sonámbulo’

Written by Cynthia Stephens |

Cynthia Stephens translates this poem from Federico García Lorca, part of the collection ‘Romancero gitano’. This is a literary translation, which attempts to create a new poem while remaining faithful to the original.  Some of the difficulties which arise in such a translation are discussed in the Commentary.

Original Poem:
Romance sonámbulo’ | Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca as a student at Columbia University, 1929
Federico García Lorca as a student at Columbia University, 1929

A Gloria Giner y a Fernando de los Ríos

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.
Con la sombra en la cintura,
ella sueña en su baranda,
verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Verde que te quiero verde.
Bajo la luna gitana,
las cosas la están mirando
y ella no puede mirarlas.

Verde que te quiero verde.
Grandes estrellas de escarcha
vienen con el pez de sombra
que abre el camino del alba.
La higuera frota su viento
con la lija de sus ramas,
y el monte, gato garduño,
eriza sus pitas agrias.
Pero ¿quién vendrá? ¿Y por dónde?...
Ella sigue en su baranda,
verde carne, pelo verde,
soñando en la mar amarga.

-Compadre, quiero cambiar
mi caballo por su casa,
mi montura por su espejo,
mi cuchillo por su manta.
Compadre, vengo sangrando,
desde los puertos de Cabra.
-Si yo pudiera, mocito,
este trato se cerraba.
Pero yo ya no soy yo,
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
-Compadre, quiero morir
decentemente en mi cama.
De acero, si puede ser,
con las sábanas de holanda.
¿No ves la herida que tengo
desde el pecho a la garganta?
-Trescientas rosas morenas
lleva su pechera blanca.
Tu sangre rezuma y huele
alrededor de tu faja.
Pero yo ya no soy yo,
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
-Dejadme subir al menos
hasta las altas barandas,
¡dejadme subir!, dejadme
hasta las verdes barandas.
Barandales de la luna
por donde retumba el agua.

Ya suben los dos compadres
hacia las altas barandas.
Dejando un rastro de sangre.
Dejando un rastro de lágrimas.
Temblaban en los tejados
farolillos de hojalata.
Mil panderos de cristal
herían la madrugada.

Verde que te quiero verde,
verde viento, verdes ramas.
Los dos compadres subieron.
El largo viento, dejaba
en la boca un raro gusto
de hiel, de menta y de albahaca.
-¡Compadre! ¿Dónde está, dime,
dónde, está tu niña amarga?
-¡Cuántas veces te esperó!
¡Cuántas veces te esperara,
cara fresca, negro pelo,
en esta verde baranda!

Sobre el rostro del aljibe
se mecía la gitana.
Verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Un carámbano de luna
la sostiene sobre el agua.
La noche se puso íntima
como una pequeña plaza.
Guardias civiles borrachos
en la puerta golpeaban.
Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar.
Y el caballo en la montaña.

Poet - Federico García Lorca  
'Ballad of a Sleepwalker' 

[To Gloria Giner and Fernando de los Ríos]

Oh Green, I desire you, verdant as grass.
I long to see you near.    
Olive green, I love you, fresh, unripe.
Green wind, green branches. Air.

A boat on the sea, a horse on the mountain.
She dreams by her balcony rail.
A ghostly shadow, the shade at her waist.
Her eyes fill with cold silver.

Oh Green, I want to see you here.
Green flesh, green hair.
Viridescent and dreamy she seems.
Fresh fruit, fresh air.

Oh Green, I love you. Granada night,
beneath the gypsy moon.
Her reverie is watched by things
which she can’t see on her own.

Oh Green, I want you, fish and fig.
Great stars of frost come down,
with ghostly Pisces. Shadows dark
open the way for dawn.    

The fig tree rubs the wind so hard
with branches rough and gritty.
A thieving cat, the mountain bristles.
Spiny leaves, so bitter.

But who will come? Which route? From where?
With her green flesh and green hair,
she waits in a trance, by the balcony rail.
She dreams of the sea, embittered.

I want to swap my horse for your house,
Companion, friend of mine.
I want to swap a saddle for a mirror,
a dagger for a rug so fine.

I’ve come down Cabra mountain pass,
and I am bleeding, Friend.
Young man, if I could, we would have a deal,
agreement in the end.

But now I am really not myself,
nor is my house my own.
All changed, I’m not the same man.
My abode is not my home.

Dear Friend, I want a decent death, 
in a bed of steel if possible.
Sheets from Holland, in my own bed.
I hope my exit peaceful.

My injury stretches from chest to neck.
So you see my wound, my blow?
Your shirt-front is white. Three hundred roses,
blood-dark flowers grow.

Your blood is oozing out dark red,
around your belt.  It smells.
But I am no longer myself now,
nor home the place where I dwell.

Allow me to climb to the top of the house,
to the highest balcony rails,
ascend by verdant balustrades.
Moonlit terraces where water wails. 

They climb the stairs to the upper heights,
two friends together now.
A trace of blood, a trickle of tears.
They leave a trail in the house.

The rooftops tremble and shudder at sounds
of jangly lanterns of tin.
A thousand tambourines of glass
injure the dawn, wound it within.

Oh Green, I desire you.  All flesh is grass!
Green wind, green branches.  Air!
Goddess “Gaia”. I love you, Green.     
Two friends ascend the stair. 

Their mouths are filled with a strange taste,
- as the great wind blows-
of basil and mint, and sour resentment,
bitterness, bile, and troubles.

Tell me, my friend, where has she gone?
Where is your bitter girl?
She dreamt of you by this balcony view.
She will await you still.    

Her fresh face, her black hair,
by the green balustrade!
The tragic girl remains in her stupor.
A taste of gall in the gale.

On the face of the well the gypsy-girl
is swaying to and fro.
Green flesh in the water, greenish hair.
Her eyes of silver are cold.

An icicle of moon light shivers.
It holds the young girl tight.
Sudden darkness intimate and close,
like a village square at night.

As the moon rocks the “Gitano” girl,
Civil Guards spread fear.
They smash the intimacy of the dark.
Drunken police at the door.

Greenness, I long for your innocence.
Olive groves and pine trees.
A horse gallops the mountain tops.
A boat sails the seas.

Oh, Green, I dream you, verdant as grass.
Green wind. Green branches. Trees.
Sleep-walking I see the boat depart.
On the hilltop, the stallion neighs.

Translation by Cynthia Lucy Stephens 
Copyright © 2022

[From the Spanish poem, 'Romance sonámbulo', by Federico García Lorca.
Part of the collection Romancero gitano.]


Robert Graves famously said that a translator must have “nerve”.  In this translation of one of Lorca’s “Gypsy Ballads” I decided that I would try to turn the poem, which is very musical in Spanish, into a ballad in English.  This is rather different to the other translations of the poem that I have seen, which tend to stick to a more literal line by line translation. 

Having made the decision to stick to the traditional ballad form, at least roughly, I often chose words or phrases for their musicality within this particular form.  I also often expanded a couple of lines in the source poem into a four-line verse in the target.  I tried to create verses made up of lines with four and three beats alternating, and with rhymes or half rhymes on lines two and four.  Sometimes it could be difficult to keep the original sense of the poem and also create the sound effects I wanted, so I did not allow the ballad form to be a straitjacket, but rather a guide.

This is meant to be a creative translation, and every literary translation involves a degree of interpretation.  Lorca’s “Gypsy Ballads” are famously ambiguous, and I tried to capture as many of the possible meanings as I could.  Sometimes I wondered if I should make explicit a particular interpretation or not.  For instance, I explored the meaning of the word “verde”, which literally means “green”, but which may have many other meanings as well.  Some other translators repeat the word “green” more often than I do, as I decided to also explore the meanings “unripe”, “inexperienced”, and “innocent”.  I even inserted a reference to the Goddess “Gaia” at one point, as I felt that Lorca was exploring the meaning of nature at a very deep level, and he may even have been thinking of the Greek Goddess, as some commentators believe he was inspired by Greek myth. Similarly, I put in a reference to Pisces, the constellation of the fishes, which I think is justified as the fish comes within a context of stars in the source poem.  I may have over-interpreted, but I decided to try to create a new poem with its own musicality, which is true to the original in spirit.  

I also added certain words so as to fill out the context of the poem, which is set in Granada before the Spanish Civil War, a context which an English readership may not be aware of or understand.  For instance, I added the words “Granada night” before “beneath the gypsy moon”.  I also referred to “Olive green” and “olive groves” and “pine trees”, so as to reference the greens of Andalucía, which Lorca writes about elsewhere in his “Gypsy Ballads”. Normally I translate the word “gitana” as “gypsy girl”, like most other translators. However, within the context of the Spanish Civil Guards police, a traditional enemy of the Gypsies, I translate the word as “Gitano” girl.  This is the name of Spain’s Romani people, the central motif of these ballads, as explained by Federico Bonaddio in his chapter “Lorca, the Gitano” in “Federico García Lorca: The Poetry in All Things.” (Tamesis, 2022.) 

The final stanza was difficult. I did have the final line as “The horse on the mountain is free”, which I thought sounded good, but it was perhaps my own personal reading of the ending, and possibly rather unwise, given the political sensitivities in this poem. So I altered the final line to “On the hilltop, the stallion neighs”, which although still an interpretation is not quite so bold, and it still sounds good. Once one is involved in a poetic translation like this there is a tendency to want to keep on creating the poem possibly too much, and it is easy to forget about the source poem.  This is a tendency that needs to be resisted, I think.  However, other people may judge whether I have struck the correct balance, between judicious timidity and the “nerve” that the great Robert Graves believed was so essential for a literary translator.

Cynthia Stephens is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (MCIL), the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland (AHGBI), and the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA).