It’s the most famous poem by Spain’s most famous poet. Published in 1928, “La casada infiel” became so well known during Federico García Lorca’s short life that, egged on by his avant-garde friends Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, he disparaged it as “pure Andalusian anecdote” and refused to read it in public. But to Leonard Cohen, a Lorca devotee who named his daughter for the poet, it remained a source of inspiration and he translated it — twice. One version, “The Faithless Wife,” appeared in his 2006 poetry collection, Book of Longing. The second, “The Night of Santiago,” is on his posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, released last November.
“Traduttore, traditore,” the Italians say — to translate is to betray. Cohen fans know what an excellent betrayer our foremost love poet was. In “Take This Waltz,” from 1998, he fashioned a compelling, suggestive song out of a little-known lyric, “Little Viennese Waltz,” from Lorca’s book Poet in New York. (Most daringly, he reduced the Spanish “I love you”—“Te quiero”— to its blunt and desperate root, “I want you.”) Thirteen years later, with “Alexandra Leaving,” he perversely transformed the last line of Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony” from a lament for a lost city into his own goodbye to a woman.
In “The Faithless Wife,” Cohen does something more. He takes an iconic poem, one that has defeated scores of translators, from Stephen Spender to Robert Bly, and brilliantly conveys its tone and music. One reason for his success is that, like Lorca, he was a performer and understood intimately — even physically — that words, like music, are only a means to an end. He was willing to change them to be true to a character’s voice, or to adapt to a new audience’s sensibilities.
This is probably why the new song, “The Night of Santiago,” omits and alters some of the best lines from “The Faithless Wife,” forgoing much of its eroticism and power. In fact, the only full recording is the version set to music by Philip Glass and sung by mezzo-soprano Tara Hugo, in 2012, which puts the story in the wife’s voice. Did Cohen come to feel that Lorca’s original couldn’t now be sung in a man’s voice? Or just his own aging baritone? It’s too bad, because this misunderstands the 1928 poem.
At first glance, “La casada infiel” appears to be pure male braggadocio, a gypsy’s account of his illicit tryst with a young, married woman irresistibly attracted to him. But the closer one looks, the clearer it seems that it’s actually the story of an inexperienced man’s encounter with overwhelming female desire. Sure, the tone is boastful — I wasn’t born a gypsy / to make a woman sad — but the images reveal just how new and shocking the experience is to him.
With a songwriter’s deft phrasing and sense of timing, Cohen reproduces Lorca’s concision and clean, modern diction in an English ballad metre that contains none of the forced rhymes and faux archaisms that have dogged other versions. His greatest feat is capturing the gypsy’s swagger and vulnerability, which he does right off the bat in the 2006 version:
She said she was a virgin
That wasn’t what I’d heard
But I’m not the Inquisition
I took her at her word.
In the new recording, however, this becomes:
She said she was a maiden
That wasn’t what I’d heard
For the sake of conversation
I took her at her word.
The problem with this change is that the Spanish word “mozuela” has two meanings: “girl” in a colloquial sense, but also “virgin,” as the narrator obviously intends. “Maiden” sounds creaky and coy, just the kind of antiquated phrase Lorca sought to avoid in his ballads. The whole point of the story is that, although she may have pretended otherwise, the woman knows exactly what she’s doing, particularly in the more explicit and imagistic stanzas the new version omits. In fact, “The Faithless Wife” takes the encounter a step further than Lorca’s original and has the narrator submit fully to the woman:
That night I ran the best of roads
Upon a mighty charger
But very soon I’m overthrown
And she’s become the rider.
In her recording, Tara Hugo has the woman take charge not just of the encounter but of narrating the whole story. It is wonderfully operatic. But switching the pronouns around, which may seem like good feminism, paradoxically weakens the woman’s position and the poem’s logic. As the narrator, she is forced to tell us how beautiful she is, and what the young gypsy feels, and we wonder why. Venus never deigns to describe herself. She lets her disciples, the poets, do that. That’s exactly what the poor, bewildered gypsy boy is doing there. It is as Lorca said: I love the human voice alone, impoverished by love.
All this means there is not — and will never be — a definitive recording. A ballad, as the Spanish scholar Ramón Menéndez Pidal said, is “poesía que vive en variantes”— poetry that lives in (and through) its variants. But these are small quibbles. Most of all, it’s Lorca’s extraordinary images that Cohen brings deftly and musically into English. In their strangeness, they suggest just how new this experience is to the narrator. The woman’s thighs slip away like “schools of startled fish.” Instead of Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn, the night surrenders to a daffodil machete. But perhaps most surprising of all:
Behind a fine embroidery
Her nipples rose like bread.
It’s the perfect Lorca image — something glimpsed at a village bakery made into a simile that shocks, then convinces. And it’s not in the original.