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Translating Lorca

Imagine struggling to translate the work of a poet whose use of language puzzles and intrigues you, and being able to ask that poet, line by line, "What exactly did you mean by that?" Philip Cummings is the only known translator of Federico García Lorca's poetry to have had that opportunity with Lorca himself.

Cummings as translator
The evolution of Songs
Revisiting Songs


In August 1929, Federico García Lorca spent ten days with Philip Cummings and his family at a lakeside cottage in Eden Mills, Vermont. Reminiscing about that long-ago visit in a 1974 letter to Hispanic scholar Daniel Eisenberg, Cummings wrote:

To my mind the best product of those days, besides my several picture records of Federico García Lorca and my personal memories, is the translation of Canciones which I pecked out on my father's old Oliver typewriter on the porch of our camp at Eden Lake...We read all those poems and argued as to their meanings which I gained very well. He could get the nuances of my translation even if he didn't get the exact words.1

The photograph below depicts the very scene Cummings described to Eisenberg. Lorca and Cummings are on the front porch of the summer cottage (typically called a "camp" in New England) that Cummings rented for his family that August. Lorca is perched on the wide porch railing while Cummings types on a typewriter stationed beside him. The two are clearly intent on their work.

Colleción Fundación Federico García Lorca, Madrid.

The book to the left of the typewriter is almost certainly the second edition of Lorca's collection Canciones (1921-1924), the subject of their combined effort.2 Over the course of Lorca's visit, Cummings, with his friend's close assistance, translated all 89 of the poems in Canciones into English.

It is unclear whether they embarked on this project for their own amusement or with an eye toward future publication. We know that Cummings shared some of the translations with the Tyler sisters, unmarried teachers in Eden Mills who befriended the two young men. But Lorca had also begun to express interest in having his poems translated into English on a larger scale, apparently realizing that he would never gain an American audience if his work was available only in Spanish. Whatever their motivation, they worked diligently and managed to complete the task before Lorca left Vermont.

Cummings as Translator

To Lorca, Cummings must have seemed the ideal person to translate Canciones. He was not only a trusted American friend who had lived in Spain and was fluent in Spanish, but also a fellow poet with his own recently published book of poems.3 In addition, Cummings had great respect for Spain's rich poetic heritage and was well aware of Lorca's literary prominence in his own country.

Lorca also knew that Cummings had already successfully translated two of his poems into English. In a June 1929 letter to his parents from New York, Lorca wrote:

[Cummings] is a fine boy; he has studied at Columbia and Onís knows him. Last year, as an exercise in his Spanish class, he translated two of the Gypsy Ballads [Romancero Gitano] into English. In other words, he knows me and hasn’t invited me for just any old reason.4

Cummings's Rollins College transcript shows that he took several advanced Spanish classes in the fall and winter of 1928, though there is no record of his assignments. However, it is interesting to note that the first English translations of Lorca's work published in the United States were two ballads from his Primer Romancero Gitano5 that appeared in the August 1929 issue of the New York literary magazine Alhambra, along with a profile of Lorca.6

The magazine did not identify the source of the translations, and in the absence of other known candidates, Lorca scholar Christopher Maurer has speculated that they might have been the two Cummings did for his class.7 If so, since the August issue of Alhambra was printed before Lorca went to Vermont, it suggests that he brought a copy of Cummings's 1928 translations with him from Spain and shared them with Alhambra editor Ángel Flores in New York.

The Evolution of Songs

A few weeks after Lorca's departure from Lake Eden, Cummings set off for St. Louis to begin his first job as a language teacher. He left most of his possessions with his mother in Vermont, where they remained for the next 16 years while he moved from place to place. When his mother died in 1945, Cummings must have rediscovered the long-forgotten translations, as well as a diary he kept in August 1929, among her belongings.

Beginning in 1948, Cummings made periodic attempts to interest publishers in his diary (which he titled August in Eden) and translations, but without success. By the time Daniel Eisenberg located him in 1974, Cummings had long since given up on the project and was delighted when Eisenberg decided to take it on. The resulting book, called simply Songs, was introduced and edited by Eisenberg and published by Duquesne University Press in 1976. Its primary content was Cummings's translations, but it also included his 1929 diary and two short essays about Lorca and Spain.8

Initial reviews of the book were decidedly mixed. Some critics were scathing, pointing out the many errors in Cummings's translations. Others acknowledged the errors but also the translator's youth and inexperience; they found the book worthwhile in spite of these problems for its unique contribution to Lorca studies. But overall few copies were sold and Songs soon went out of print.

Revisiting Songs

Contemporary scholars who have examined Cummings's translations take a broader view. For example, Jonathan Mayhew, author of Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), commented:

Aside from the purely historic interest of these translations, I find Cummings's translations of the Canciones to be a mixed bag. Some of them are actually very good. I could go on the hunt for mistranslations or for places where I would have made different choices, but Cummings does not do as badly as many others well known for their work on Lorca, like Spender, Belitt, or Humphries...[One can] conclude that particular poems are felicitously translated, and that the translation as a whole has both historical and aesthetic value for a 21st-century reader.9

D. Gareth Walters, author of Canciones and the Early Poetry of Lorca (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), noted the same mistranslations, rhyming problems, and archaic language that bothered earlier critics, but he also added:

On the whole [Cummings] has a good ear for rhythm, certainly no worse than some acclaimed translators of Lorca...In all fairness, there were some signal successes.10

Walters particularly liked Cummings's translations of the seven poems in the section "Songs for Children," especially "A Chanted Song." Cummings's version is shown below beside Lorca's original.11


At the time, Federico's poetry was all but unknown in English. Cummings suggested to Federico translating the Romancero Gitano, of which some poems had recently been translated into French. Federico challenged him instead to tranlate Canciones, the work which the French translators did not want, the work which, Lorca said, had much more of what was dear to him.

—Daniel Eisenberg, introduction to Songs (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1976), 12-13.

This morning, after rowing a little while around the lake, we went to visit two ladies who are unimaginably picturesque and amusing...Cummings, the young man who is my friend here, translated my poems for them. They understood them very well and were really touched (something I can always judge).

—Letter from Lorca to his family in Granada, 22 August 1929, in: Lorca, Maurer, et al., Poet in New York, 239.

Several times that year [1929] Federico, who had no skill in any tongue but his own, showed an insistent desire to have his work put into English. To a man as gregarious and vocal as he was, the frustration of being surrounded by people who could neither understand nor respond to his poems...was repeated torture.

—Mildred Adams, García Lorca: Playwright and Poet (New York: George Braziller, 1977), 106.

Canciones dedication page
Copy of Canciones 1921-1924 Lorca gave to Cummings in 1929. Courtesy Hispanic Society of America.

Canción cantada

En el gris,
el pájaro Grifón
se vestía de gris.
Y la niña Kikirikí
perdía su blancor
y forma allí.

Para entrar en la gris
me pinté de gris.
¡Y cómo relumbraba
en el gris!
A Chanted Song

In the gloaming
The Griffon bird
Clothes itself in grey.
And the little girl Kikirikí
Has lost her paleness
Has lost her form, there.

To enter into the gloaming
I painted myself with gloamy grey,
And how I, myself have shone
In the gloom.

It is noteworthy that at two points in the poem, Cummings translated the color name gris as gloaming, a poetic term for dusk or evening, rather than the literal grey used by other translators, including A. S. Trueblood and Walters himself.12 Why did Cummings forego the literal translation and instead replace gris with gloaming, a more evocative and specific word associated with day's end?

It is possible that Cummings was imposing his own stylistic preferences on Lorca's work, but this seems unlikely. He understood and appreciated Lorca's originality as a poet, noting in the introduction to his translations that Lorca "coins new words when he chooses, he uses words not in the popular vocabulary, and his images are his own."13

It seems more probable that the decision to use gloaming resulted from Cummings's conversations with Lorca as they searched for the optimal English equivalent for each Spanish word and phrase. Cummings wrote that "each poem was a mental wrestling match" marked by "long discussions on words and their visible and invisible meanings."14 Eisenberg saw many signs of their deliberations in the handwritten edits on Cummings's original typescript, but even without this direct evidence, Mayhew noted:

I have a sense that their communication was close, and that Lorca might have clarified certain details of his poems to Philip in cases where the Spanish could have different meanings.15

So in the particular case of "Canción cantada," the use of gloaming may reflect Lorca's unobvious but intended meaning for gris, revealed only through his dialogue with Cummings. If so, it would be but one example of the value of Cummings's 1929 translations to today's Lorca scholars.

1. Philip Cummings to Daniel Eisenberg, 8 July 1974. Journal of Hispanic Philology Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida.
2. Federico García Lorca, Canciones (1921-1924), 2nd ed. (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1929). A first edition of the book was published in Málaga in 1927 by Imprenta Sur, but only 115 copies were printed and quickly sold out.
3. Philip Cummings, Mother Tongue (Winter Park, FL: Rollins Press, 1928).
4. See Lorca's letter of 28 June 1929, trans. Christopher Maurer, in: Federico García Lorca, Poet in New York, ed. Christopher Maurer, trans. Greg Simon and Steven F. White, 2nd ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 210. Note that Lorca seems to have fabricated certain facts in an attempt to reassure his parents; there is no evidence that Cummings had studied at Columbia or met Federico de Onís at that time.
5. Federico García Lorca, Primer Romancero Gitano (1924-1927) (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1928).
6. See: Daniel Solana, "Federico García Lorca," and Federico García Lorca, "Ballads," Alhambra 1, no. 3 (August 1929), 24-25. The two translated poems were "Preciosa y el aire | Ballad of Preciosa and the Wind" and "Romance de la pena negra | Ballad of the Black Sorrow."
7. Christopher Maurer, e-mail communication, 29 March 2011.
8. Eisenberg had also hoped to include Lorca's original Spanish version of each poem opposite Cummings's translation, but he was unable to obtain permission from Francisco García Lorca, the poet's brother and literary executor of his estate. See: Daniel Eisenberg to Francesa Colecchia, 15 July 1974, Journal of Hispanic Philology Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida.
9. Jonathan Mayhew, e-mail communication, 28 April 2011.
10. D. Gareth Walters, e-mail communication, 4 July 2011.
11. Federico García Lorca, Songs, ed. Daniel Eisenberg, trans. Philip Cummings with the assistance of Federico García Lorca (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1976), 49.
12. See "Canción cantada | Song Sung," trans. by Alan S. Trueblood, in: Federico García Lorca, Collected Poems, Revised Bilingual Edition, ed. Christopher Maurer (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2002), 466-467; and D. Gareth Walters, Canciones and the Early Poetry of Lorca (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), 221.
13. Lorca, Songs, 23.
14. Ibid., 183.
15. Jonathan Mayhew, e-mail communication, 28 April 2011.

Copyright © 2017 Patricia A. Billingsley