Dictionary.com

In lists compiled by linguists and translators, it seems “duende” is a word that many experts regard as the hardest word in Spanish to convey in other languages.

In the dictionary, the word is listed as “elf” or “magic.” However, in actual practice, when the word shows up in text, it is rarely in the context of a woodland spirit, although that is where the word’s etymology begins.

(Sure, “love” in Spanish is amor, but it isn’t that simple. Get to the bottom of love in Spanish, here.)

In 1933 Spanish poet and theater director Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires titled “Play and Theory of the Duende” in which he addressed the fiery spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions:

“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.”

So, could this quality be translated via the use of a calque as “black sounds?” That doesn’t quite work, although Lorca does use that term in describing the qualities of duende. A meaning for the untranslatable usually ends up being borrowed from the original language and becoming a loan word.

The word “duende” often represents an emotion or response to a selected piece of art. Perhaps this is exactly what makes it so difficult to translate; can you ever really translate a feeling? How would you translate this beautiful, if difficult concept into English?
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123 Comments

  1. Lexi -  October 7, 2013 - 1:48 pm

    So I just messed up my page by clicking tab and realized my above comment posted to the wrong thread. Lovely.

    Reply
  2. Lexi -  October 7, 2013 - 1:47 pm

    “War” is a word that bothers me, more than disgusts me… Really, though, try to pronounce it over and over again. “Wor.” “War.” “Warrr.” “Wore.” “Warr.”

    That makes my mouth sore.

    But as for sick words?

    “Secretion” and “crevice” have got to be pretty high up there.
    And “slit,” like when someone says something about “slitting” their wrist or something. Eugh…

    Reply
  3. licha -  April 17, 2013 - 3:22 am

    My mom used to always tell us, “ya duermete. Pareces duende despierta toda la noche.”

    Reply
  4. [...] Duende:   Spanish – While originally used to describe a mythical, sprite like entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” There’s actually a nightclub in the town of La Linea de la Concepcion, where I teach, named after this word. http://hotword.dictionary.com/duende/ [...]

    Reply
  5. LYING-IN | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  December 1, 2012 - 3:16 pm

    [...] — ‘Lying-In’ observing Media Control — The Search for a Soul — DUENDE –  And in general ‘Madness’ and skulduggery. — ‘Empurple’ the [...]

    Reply
  6. Charmetolls -  August 14, 2012 - 3:06 am

    @GWSTB

    “Sunshower” – wiki it

    Reply
  7. Peter -  August 5, 2012 - 2:50 pm

    http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm

    Other words similar to Lorca´s Duende;

    Taksu (balinese), Tarab (arabic), It or Groove (beat culture, jazz, etc), Ashé (Capoeira), Zone (sports), Flow (psychology), Element (K. Robinson), and maybe also Mojo etc………. It´s not the same, but it points the same way.

    May we all have it !!!!! (the little gnomes too)

    Reply
  8. Sonja -  April 22, 2012 - 11:31 am

    Oh, dang-it. I was supposed to be commenting on the word that sounds grossest in the English language. Sorry!

    Reply
  9. Sonja -  April 22, 2012 - 11:30 am

    tutelage. I can’t stand that word. It sounds gross.

    Reply
  10. James -  March 28, 2012 - 1:10 pm

    Aesthetic ecstasy is termed “rasa” in Sanskrit, referring to the ineffable after-”taste” of bliss that results from experiential participation in true art. “Like a mute tasting sugar for the first time,” you can’t really put words to it, but it is real–and it is truly “magical”. Thus, by its very nature “rasa” is a metaphor for what is beyond the confines of verbal-conceptual mind. How does one rightly “translate” a word that is meant to only expressively point to what exists outside the cage of language and mere thought?

    “Duende” is–at least regionally, and perhaps archaically, in Andulasia–like “rasa”, an expressive pointer to the reality of aesthetic ecstasy. Rather than pointing to the subjective experience of bliss, however, “duende” points to the presumed agent of that magical transaction: What is happening is clearly supernatural, beyond the merely human. The artist has been taken under a spell and is transmitting that spell to those who truly participate in the artistic happening.

    Who cast that spell? It must have been one of those chthonic spirits we see from time to time at twilight and dusk. The “duende” has got you, artist friend, and it has got me, too.

    Reply
  11. christian -  March 27, 2012 - 4:28 pm

    i’m mexican and i had never heard that “Duende” meant emotion, perhaps in other places of Latinoamerica means something else, but in here it only means Elf, but thank you for the contribution to my knowledge…

    Reply
  12. Mary -  March 27, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    Well, I speak spanish, my native language, and I must say “I don’t know what you are talking about!” A duende is a duende, a gnome, a troll, a leprechaun, someone short or small (I remember one of my cousins use to call my youngest cousin “duende”, just because she was little).

    I think the text from Garcia Lorca is just a metaphorical text, he was a poet after all. I don’t see why you take it literally.

    Really, a duende is a duende.. hehe

    Reply
  13. [...] It is appropriate to end this conversation about Portuguese magic on the Duende. Recently, the word has taken additional meaning, originating with the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. He said, ‘All that has dark sounds have duende.’ And there is no greater truth…thus duend… [...]

    Reply
  14. Cassie -  April 14, 2011 - 7:04 pm

    I think spirit is a good translation here, as it can be a nonphysical entity or exist inside a body, for example an elf or dwarf, as seems to be most common here, and also has mystical, somewhat magical qualities. I think Federico Garcia Lorca uses the term metaphorically, to mean something along the lines of a spirit or a soul, or just soul meaning unique, awe-inducing-ness.

    Reply
  15. Noxodas -  April 14, 2011 - 12:23 pm

    This is so interesting… in a wacky (or wacked-out) sort of way…
    I am a native spanish speaker, have worked as an interpreter and translator. Never had any difficulty with this word. To me, “duende” has always been an elf, perhaps with a touch of fairy and a pinch of sprite, a magical, playful, sometimes mischievous creature. Never a goblin, which most often has malicious or evil connotations. Never the soul… and although duende is a magic creature, it is not “magic” per se in the sense that “mojo” is “magic”. It is not an inner longing, no hidden muse, no search for the inner anything… and although anybody is free to use Duende as a metaphor for whatever they may please, most times a Duende is just a duende…

    Reply
  16. Ray V -  March 27, 2011 - 1:24 pm

    Nymph is and remains a magical woodlands creature, impishly playful and residing somewhere between the higher gods and mankind. They have been magical since before early English existed. There is nothing hard or black about the term in English, Greek, Latin, or Spanish. That one artist conveys a dark, or black, impression in the word to heighten the marketing mystique around his work is not surprising. But don’t sucker the rest of into some difficult and unique dark meaning here. It’s bad enough modern science has tried to do away with the wood nymphs in the forrest behind my home. Luckily they pay no heed to modern science. I suggest translators do the same to this article.

    Reply
  17. Roberto De León González -  March 25, 2011 - 5:41 pm

    There is a current in language and translation studies which advocates the use of words without a short, one-word translation, in the original. You have to provide context in order to understand, for example, that “Buen provecho” is roughly equivalent in sense to “Bon appetit”. A good book on the matter is Christopher J. Moore’s “In Other Words”, published by Levenger Press and Walker & Company.

    Reply
  18. Astalethought -  March 23, 2011 - 4:49 pm

    Uhm,,,,isn’t this exactly how we use the word “muse” nowadays? Noone thinks of a muse as a mythological being but as an artistic,creative inspiration. What is your muse could be interior, a person, a thought, a feeling, “The muse is not in the throat; the muse climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.”

    Reply
  19. Joel -  March 22, 2011 - 8:21 pm

    Could it be related to the Greek concept of “Logos”?

    Reply
  20. JuanManuel -  March 22, 2011 - 11:18 am

    Un duende… a gnome.

    Reply
  21. popi -  March 21, 2011 - 3:19 pm

    one thing we spanish speakers have in common is the language and its grammar,but our usage has evolved distinctly in all our spanish speaking republics…as an example,eliminating the accent,one can usually tell where people come from by the words they use in speech…puerto ricans,cubans,mexican,argentinians,colombians,venezuelans,as an example use different words to explain an act or action,or event…

    Reply
  22. CARIES | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  March 14, 2011 - 8:41 am

    [...] This here is one of those antiquated cross-references of ‘duende’ and squishy happy state of minds. — ‘Caries’ could actually kill you and eat your brain away — Just ask Frank [...]

    Reply
  23. elske -  March 10, 2011 - 10:23 am

    Hi
    Maybe a nice input
    My Daughter ;s name is Duende
    first time I heard the word was in theatreclass , where we studied on Lorca.
    ALso it is used in Flamingo dance,
    next to that, and the elfes,to me, It is about : “”a state of divine inspiration”"
    its all in a gasp, a flash of :life, inspiration, breath , creation, emotion, anger, passion
    Also Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes about Duende,she talks about Duende , and how difficult to catch the meaning of it.ust like the word: its a moment that flashes by
    well, All I can say:She is..a beautiful Duende

    Reply
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