Antonio Machado: Songs and Proverbs

I decided to try my hand at translating a few verses from “Proverbios y cantares” (Campos de Castilla, 1912) by Antonio Machado. I welcome any corrections or suggestions for improvement.

Nunca perseguí la gloria
ni dejar en la memoria
de los hombres mi canción;
yo amo los mundos sutiles,
ingrávidos y gentiles
como pompas de jabón.
Me gusta verlos pintarse
de sol y grana, volar
bajo el cielo azul, temblar
súbitamente y quebrarse.

My song never strove
for glory, nor to linger
in the minds of men; I love
worlds of understatement,
weightless & delicate
as soap bubbles. I like
watching them paint themselves
with sun & grain, float
beneath the blue sky, quiver
suddenly & break.

* * *

¿Para qué llamar caminos
a los surcos del azar?…
Todo el que camina anda,
como Jesús, sobre el mar.

Why give the name roads
to the ruts of fate?
All who travel tred
like Jesus on the sea.

* * *

Cantad conmigo a coro: Saber, nada sabemos,
de arcano mar venimos, a ignota mar iremos…
Y entre los dos misterios está el enigma grave;
tres arcas cierra una desconocida llave.
La luz nada ilumina y el sabio nada enseña.
¿Qué dice la palabra? ¿Qué el agua de la peña?

Sing along with me: We know nothing,
we come from an esoteric sea, we’re headed for an uncharted sea…
And between these two mysteries there’s a great enigma:
three arks locked with an unknown key.
The light makes nothing clearer, the wise teach nothing.
What does the word have to say? Or water from the rock?

* * *

Ayer soñé que veía
a Dios y que a Dios hablaba;
y soñé que Dios me oía…
Después soñé que soñaba.

Yesterday I dreamed I saw God
& was talking to God,
& I dreamed that God heard me…
And then I dreamed I was dreaming.

* * *

¡Oh fe del meditabundo!
¡Oh fe después del pensar!
Sólo si viene un corazón al mundo
rebosa el vaso humano y se hincha el mar.

Oh, faith that comes from contemplation!
Oh, faith that follows thought!
Only when a heart approaches the world
does the human cup run over & swell the sea.

* * *

Yo amo a Jesús, que nos dijo:
Cielo y tierra pasarán.
Cuando cielo y tierra pasen
mi palabra quedará.
¿Cuál fue, Jesús, tu palabra?
¿Amor? ¿Perdón? ¿Caridad?
Todas tus palabras fueron
una palabra: Velad.

I love Jesus for telling us:
Heaven & earth will pass away.
When heaven & earth pass,
my word will remain.
Your word, Jesus — which one?
Love? Forgiveness? Generosity?
All your words were really
one word: Attention Vigilance.

16 Replies to “Antonio Machado: Songs and Proverbs”

  1. Lovely. Did you pull sections from longer poems, or are each of these translations found in the same way–as short poems–in the original?

    I liked the first and last of these best. The first for its images, the last for its power.

    (I also liked the serendipity of another “great enigma”–weren’t you reading Transtromer not too long ago?)

    1. Hi! Yes, these are all complete verses from the long work, “Proverbios y cantares,” where they are numbered — 53 in all. I grabbed the text from here.

      I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right — that’s more than serendipity because Fulton’s translation is in fact right here at my elbow! That’s probably the reason I didn’t translate grave as “deep” or “weighty,” for example.

    2. Thanks for your help starting translation of these lines. This is what I came up with this, perhaps you might like to read it:

      I love
 subtle worlds,
      weightless and gentle
      as soap bubbles.
      I enjoy watching them paint
      with sun and grain, fly
      beneath the blue sky, quiver
      suddenly and break.

  2. Well, I don’t know about the translations, of course, but these are as lovely as the other translations of Machado I have read.

  3. Sorry…my reply got cut off somehow before I was finished, and then I was too lazy and sleepy to complete it. I wanted to say that I love the first one also, especially the quivering and breaking worlds of understatement. And like Seon Joon, I also love the last one very much: one word, attention. Yeah.

    1. Thanks. That last word presented a bit of difficulty, because it’s a command, and therefore a strict translation would yield two English words rather than one: something along the lines of be vigilant, keep watch, look out, pay attention. I decided that since Attention! is also a military parade command, it would come the closest to conveying that hortatory sense in one word. But now I’m wondering whether maybe it would be better to move closer to the verb form, and go with attend?

  4. Velar, as I’ve seen it defined, encompasses to sit up with, to watch over, to stay awake, to hold a wake for. Which suggests a connotation of responsibility or care more than of simply paying attention. Interesting translation challenge; no easy solution that I see. Perhaps in modern American colloquial it would be, “Be there”?

    Thank you for these.

  5. Beautiful translation, Dave.
    A few phrases I would have interpreted differently:

    “yo amo los mundos sutiles,”
    I love the subtle worlds

    “Todo el que camina anda,
    como Jesús, sobre el mar.”
    He who walks
    walks like Jesus, on the water.

    “Y entre los dos misterios está el enigma grave;
    tres arcas cierra una desconocida llave.”
    And between the two mysteries is the grave enigma;
    three arcs enclose an unknown key.


    1. Natalie – thanks for the suggestions. I may well adopt one or two of them if/when I revise. My own thinking here, for what it’s worth: In the case of sutiles, I thought that “subtle worlds” had a slight whiff of woo, though “understated worlds” perhaps narrows the meaning too much. My choice of “travel treds” was obviously influenced by a desire to inject some word music. In that poem, as in some others in this series which I did not translate, English does a poor job of capturing the echo between camino and caminar. I think you’re wrong about arcas being arcs — aren’t they rather chests or coffers here – and given the biblical reference of water from the rock, shouldn’t we go with the cognate ark, as in Ark of the Covenent? (Maybe not. “Chests” might be better.) Caridad does usually get translated as charity, but that’s one of those words, like pride, where the common usage and Biblical usuage have diverged. I went with “generosity” instead because I think it still possesses wholly positive connotations in our culture, unlike charity.

  6. Dave,

    for me, attention, though I like it, rings too Buddhist – Given what I read above on the definition of “velad” he is talking of one word, one command of Jesus, as in Mark chapter 13:35-7 “Therefore keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come . . . And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake (NRSV)

    So to keep the Biblical link, “all your words were really one statement: Keep awake” although that is horribly clumsy poetically compared to what you have. Translation is hard game, and yours are beautiful.

    I just discovered Machado on @poetrychaikhana and I look forward to reading as much as has been translated.

    1. Yes, I do think that’s the command he was referring to, and your proposed solution — changing “word” to something else — is quite attractive. Thanks!

      If you’ve never read Machado before, you’re in for quite a treat. Check out his contemporary Juan Ramon Jimenez, too — a lot of really deep philisophico-religious content in his poetry, too.

  7. very nicely done … translation is as personal as poetry… and as i do both badly i love seeing this.
    i came to your site because i am searching for a phrase from machado:
    el destino del cuerpo es otro cuerpo….
    can’t find the poem and the meaning of the bit was under discussion as i believe the allure of all word use can be the hidden multiplicity of meaning all at once.
    if you can tell me the rest of the verse … plz help

    1. Glad you liked the translations. I’m sorry I can’t help you with your query — it doesn’t ring a bell, though I like it! But I am by no means familiar with all of Machado’s work. I’m no scholar, just an enthusiast. Have you looking in the sayings of Juan de Mareina, Machado’s apocryphal professor?

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