Untranslatable Words: Duende

By Andrea Wells

Linguists are always very enthusiastic about “untranslatable” words. Theory says that a word without a one-to-one equivalent in another language is considered a lacuna; a lexical gap between the meanings of the word, expression, or turn of phrase in the source and the target languages. However, whether a word is truly translatable or untranslatable is debatable, because usually these difficult terms are in fact obscure expressions with a local flavor that cannot be precisely or concisely defined. One of the most challenging words I have come across in my ten years as a translator and editor that has this essence of untranslatability is the Spanish word duende (doo-EN-day).

What does the word duende mean and why is it so difficult to translate into English? The Spanish word itself has actually entered the English language; a straightforward definition being “ghost, imp, or elf.” The Random House Dictionary defines duende as a “goblin, demon, or spirit.” In Ireland, a leprechaun could be considered a duende. Irish folklore says that such duendes possess a treasure, usually a pot of gold, which a human may take when the duende is not looking. The word duende, however, has a deeper and more interesting meaning. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, duende is “the power to attract through personal magnetism and charm.” Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, adds that duende is a rarely explained concept in Spanish art, related to emotion, expression, and authenticity.

It is in this context that I would like to share with you how researching this word has brought back some vivid memories of my childhood in Salta, Argentina. As I was growing up, my grandmother used to tell me stories of a duende that she described as a playful goblin who was always being noisy and making a general nuisance of himself. This duende was locally referred to as Coquena. This tiny goblin, said to wear a coat, shorts, and sandals, is believed to protect the llamas and other animals in the desert area of La Puna in the north of Argentina. But I also remember my grandmother using the word duende in an emotional context. When I used to dance, she would clap with excitement and great emotion and shout “you have duende.”Only now do I understand what she was trying to say.

In Spain, people use the word duende when they go to corridas to see their favorite toreros and flamenco dancers. The Spaniards claim that the gypsies are responsible for the creation of the word duende. When gypsies entered Spain from France in the mid-1400s, they faced brutality and persecution. But after years of being targets of this cruelty, the gypsies found a way to express their anguish through a particular kind of dance – flamenco. The flamenco dancer is said to have duende.

Others have used the word duende to capture the mood of emotion and passion. Many Spanish poets use it to refer to an inspiration and even something magical. For example, the poet Garcia Lorca wrote in an essay exploring the complex and inspirational flavor of the word’s meaning, “the duende is a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive, all that the performer is creating at a certain moment.” And, “The magical property of a poem is to remain possessed by duende … for with duende it is easier to love and understand, and one can be sure of being loved and understood.”

As language professionals, we all need that inner strength that inspires us to properly communicate through words the emotions and feeling of the writer or speaker. In this state, it might fairly be said that we have achieved duende.