Personal response: Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett

Ghosts of Spain

A few weeks ago, after reading the first three chapters of Giles Tremlett’s exploration of the effects of the Civil War on modern Spain, I was compelled to write down the following in response:

the pact

in this city sirens blare
streets fill with people
voices loud
footsteps boisterous
on unmarked concrete pavements
this is silence
where wounds fester
just as pencilled out notes
cause paper to fall apart
i see within countless pages
countless gaps
and buried beneath textbooks
endless decay
skeleton remains
our glorious inheritance

I don’t know why, but this book struck a chord with me… and perhaps my recent trip to Barcelona has given me a new perspective post-reading. With so little knowledge of Spain and its various cultures, I am not able to make criticisms. Though the book must have its flaws, I’m in no position to identify them. It’s such a wonderfully accessible, absorbing and insightful journey through Spain’s past, present and, in some ways, the country’s future. I’m so glad I bought it.


Attempting translation: Campo by Antonio Machado



La tarde está muriendo
como un hogar humilde que se apaga.

Allá, sobre los montes,
quedan algunas brasas.

Y ese árbol roto en el camino blanco
hace llorar de lástima.

¡Dos ramas en el tronco herido, y una
hoja marchita y negra en cada rama!

¿Lloras?… Entre los álamos de oro,
lejos, la sombra del amor te aguarda.


The afternoon is dying
just as a humble fire, flickering, might fade.

There, above the mountains,
few hot coals remain.

And that tree, defeated, on the white road,
brings forth tears of shame.

Two branches on the wounded trunk, and a
single leaf, withered and black, on each branch!

Oh, do you cry now? … Waiting for you,
between the golden aspens, which stand far away, is the shadow of love.


I adore this poem so I was afraid to translate it, but I decided that ultimately it would be a good exercise and would help me. I may come to revise it later because I feel uncertain about certain sections of emphasis and various word choices I’ve made.

  • Translating “hogar” as “home” or even “fireplace” just wouldn’t have worked, but in the dictionary “fire” isn’t an listed as an option… I’m hoping it’s a justifiable choice though.
  • Yes, “flickering” is an unnecessary extra word which doesn’t exist in the original and maybe I ought to remove it… It’s just that when I read the poem in Spanish, that’s the visual it conjured in my mind… that of a flickering, dying flame.
  • I’ve always had a problem with the word “algunas”. Perhaps it’s my fault for thinking that the default translation “some” is too vague. Does “some” mean “several” or “few”? Does its implication tend towards the positive or negative? In my translation, I settled on “few”, because I felt it more likely considering the atmosphere and theme of the poem; however I am still unsure.
  • When translating the word “roto”, why did I go for “defeated” as opposed to “broken”, the harsher and perhaps more dramatic sounding word? I don’t know. In my mind, “defeated” was the more evocative, more emotive word because its connotations of struggle and time were more obvious, but I’m not sure if others will feel the same way.
  • The reasons I translated “hace llorar de lástima” as “brings forth tears of shame” are, firstly, because the action sounds more detached and therefore the direct address to the reader later on is made more intimate… and, secondly, because I thought it more poetic… although perhaps arguably more archaic and formal.
  • The last two lines I had trouble with… I’ve completely rearranged the word order so the emphasis may lie in different places. I felt that separating “you” and “the shadow of love” by two clauses would stress the distance and time between the two. I was almost tempted to place the “Oh, do you cry now?” at the end of the poem. I’m not entirely convinced by where I’ve chosen to break the line but I think the emphasis falling on “you” and “shadow of love” does work.

Cuando sale la …

Cuando sale la luna
se pierden las campanas
y aparecen las sendas
Cuando sale la luna,
el mar cubre la tierra
y el corazón se siente
isla en el infinito.
Nadie come naranjas
bajo la luna llena.
Es preciso comer
fruta verde y helada.
Cuando sale la luna
de cien rostros iguales,
la moneda de plata
solloza en el bolsillo.

La Luna Asoma Federico García Lorca

Currently reading: Platero y yo by Juan Ramón Jiménez

Platero y yo

I bought Platero y yo on a whim after picking it up whilst browsing the Spanish literature section in a bookshop in Costa Rica – this thin paperback with its unassuming book cover.

Perhaps my impulsive purchase did have something to do with the fact that I had previously been told by our librarian that this slim volume of lyric prose would be too challenging, too difficult a read, especially in Spanish. I was resentful. And pretty damn arrogant I’ll admit, because it is too difficult.

La noche cae, brumosa ya y morada. Vagas claridades malvas y verdes perduran tras la torre de la iglesia. El camino sube, lleno de sombras, de campanillas, de fragancia, de yerba, de canciones, de cansancio y de anhelo. De pronto, un hombre oscuro, con una gorra y un pincho, roja un instante la cara fea por la luz del cigarro, baja a nosotros de una casucha miserable, perdida entre sacas de carbón. Platero se amedrenta.

Extract from Chapter IV

Yet, at the same time, it’s gorgeous and lyrical and surreal. Each chapter almost reads like a separate poem. You drift from one little snapshot in their life to the next and the loose, vivid, fragmented images make it all the more intense . The rhythm of the lines is hypnotic, heightening contrast where it exists, producing subtle, lingering moments when the pace slows.  

I’m making imperceptible progress. Sometimes I find myself reading simply for the sound, forgetting to process the words themselves. I get so caught up in the idea of the Spanish that I lose my understanding of the language. Or maybe the understanding was never there to begin with.

But the dictionary’s out, and once I’ve started something, I don’t like to stop. Besides, this must be doing wonders for my vocabulary. I’ve never read lyric prose before and I think I’m on my way to enjoying it, if not a little overwhelmed.