Better a Live Sparrow than a Stuffed Eagle: Calderón de la Barca in Translation

The dramatic works of Pedro Calderón de la Barca reveal both the art and the heart of 17th century Spanish theater. Refining the dramatic structures forged by Lope de Vega, Calderón succinctly recorded the passions, pretensions and preoccupations of the society in which he lived. Lope and Calderón shared a remarkable talent for pleasing both the royal court and the public.  Thanks to the marvelous productions of the Compañia Nacional de Teatro Clásico (National Classical Theatre Company), they both still play to packed houses in Madrid’s Teatro Pavón. Translator Adrian Mitchell has described Lope as “a mixture of earth and fire” and Calderón as “air and water, a most beautiful fountain. And often, a fiery fountain.”

I recently saw The National Classical Theatre Company’s brilliant production of The Mayor of Zalamea, directed by Eduardo Vasco and I heartily agree with Mitchell’s assessment of Calderón’s drama as a fiery but sparkling expression of the human condition. Although the period Spanish and some references now require footnotes, the plot and arguments of The Mayor of Zalamea remain surprisingly fresh more than three centuries after the playwright penned them.

The Mayor of Zalamea is one of the most enduring of Calderón’s dramatic works. Its original title, The Best Garroting Ever Done, goes straight to heart of the matter at hand: the punishment meted out to an army captain for the abduction and rape of a village girl. Although the subject matter might not be a modern public’s idea of comic material, the work was conceived as a comedy and the play abounds in comic characters, jokes and burlesques of figures  representing the various ranks of Spanish society of the period.

I decided to study up before seeing the Madrid production by rereading Catedra’s Spanish language version, edited by Ángel Valbuena Brione, and comparing it line by line to Edward FitzGerald’s classic translation and a more recent adaptation of the play by Adrian Mitchell and John Barton based on a literal translation by Gwenda Pandolfi that was undertaken for the British National Shakespeare Company.

At times the English translators take such great license with the original Spanish verse that a line-by-line comparison of the texts is practically impossible.  In the opening scene, soldiers of Philip II on the march to Portugal weigh the possibility of their being billeted in the nearby town of Zalamea. They reflect upon a soldier’s lot: “Mate moros quien quisere, que a mí no me han hecho mal…” which FitzGerald translates as “Fighting the Moors column and line, Poor fellows, they never hurt me and mine” as opposed to Mitchell and Barton’s  somewhat less poetic “Generals slaughtering all over Europe, Admirals battling on every sea, Somebody else go kill the Moroccans, They never did any harm to me”.

Among the troops to be billeted in Zalamea, there is a libertine captain who will violate the daughter of the family obliged to lodge him, setting the stage for Calderón’s exploration of power, privilege, duty and honor. Pedro Crespo, the soon-to-be dishonored host, is described by a sergeant as “un villano, que el hombre más rico es del lugar, de quien después he oído, que es el más vano hombre del mundo, y que tiene más pompa y más presunción que un infante de León.”  FitzGerald renders this as “the richest man in Zalamea, a farmer, as proud as Lucifer’s heir apparent” whereas Mitchell and Barton opt for “a peasant farmer, but they say the proudest man in Zalamea, an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, born in a barn, but got such side you’d think he traced his lineage back to the Mesolithic age…” Pedro Crespo may be proud, but his pretensions are not typical of a wealthy farmer of his time. When his son suggests that the family could escape the obligation of lodging troops by buying a patent of gentility, he compares the idea to a bald man buying a wig and tells him, “Que soy noble por cinco o seis reales; y esto es dinero y no es honra; que honra no la compra nadie”, a key concept that FitzGerald loses by referring to royal blood instead of honor: “What’s the use of my buying a patent of Gentility, if I can’t buy the gentle blood along with it!”

The abduction and rape of Crespo’s daughter Isabel will provoke a battle of wits between him and Commander-in-chief of the troops Don Lope de Figueroa concerning who will have jurisdiction over the crime. When Don Lope urges Crespo to show his allegiance to the crown and leave such matters in the hands of a military court (¿Sabéis, que estáis obligado a sufrir, por ser quien sois, estas cargas?) the latter replies:

Con mi hacienda, pero con mi fama no.
Al Rey la hacienda y la vida
Se ha de dar; pero el honor
Es patrimonio del alma,
Y el alma sólo es de Dios.


To all cost of property, yes; but of honor, no, no, no!
My goods and chattels, ay, and my life―are the king’s;
but my honor is my own soul’s, and that is―God Almighty’s!

While these two gentlemen ponder honor and the duties of each class of society, an array of ruffian soldiers and a morally and financially bankrupt petty nobleman provide comic relief and a vivid picture of the main preoccupation of Spaniards of Calderón’s time―getting enough to eat.  The playwright seems to infer that moral discourse is the privilege of those with a well-stocked larder and t a luxury beyond the reach of the rest of humanity. The famished squire Nuño mocks the pretensions his titled but penniless master Don Mendo  and la Chispa, mistress of the soldier Rebolledo, has no qualms about assisting in the abduction of Isabel when she is offered the possibility being in charge of the regiment’s gambling operations in return.

I must admit that I gave short shrift to the soldier’s songs when I read the play both in Spanish and in translation. Once in the theater, I quickly realized that what had appeared to me to be extraneous outbursts of music in the written text provided a perfect counterbalance to the play’s more serious dialogues in performance. The versification of the dialogues particularly helped in developing the character of la Chispa, marvelously interpreted by Pepa Pedroche in the Madrid production. The musical segments (known as “jácara”) may well be the most difficult element of the play to translate linguistically and culturally. Roving street musicians were a common fixture of Calderón’s time and present-day university “tunas” are testimony to the enduring Spanish predilection for spontaneous public outbursts of song. In the very first scene, the amorality of La Chispa is clearly revealed when she trills “Yo soy tiritiritaina, flor de la jacarandana.”  FitzGerald either did not understand this line or decided not to make dramatic use of it.  Mitchell and Barton did pick up on the meaning of the word and  translated the verse as “I am diddle, diddle dylans, Queen of all the bloody villains.”

Edward FitzGerald made no secret that in the 1853 edition of Six Dramas of Calderón “he had ‘sunk, reduced, altered and replaced’ much of what he deemed not suited to English tastes.”  He described his attempt to render Calderón’s plays into English as a “recasting”, a term he borrowed from the Spanish “refundición.” It was an approach that Calderón himself had utilized in his work, borrowing from Lope de Vega in much the same way that Shakespeare drew formulas and ideas from Marlowe.  Like Shakespeare, Calderón understood what made his public tick and engaged his audiences through characterizations they recognized, storylines they identified with, and verses that entertained them. FitzGerald sought to present British audiences with a Calderón tempered by Elizabethan traditions and tailored to Victorian tastes, just as Mitchell and Barton more than a century later strove to give a hipper version to theater-goers accustomed to the sparseness and grittiness of Berthold Brecht and Samuel Beckett.  Justifying the liberties he had taken in his translations, FitzGerald wrote to a friend, “Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.”

Calderón’s handling of the issue of rape and family honor reflects the beginning of a slow but sure evolution of Spanish society’s attitudes concerning  women’s rights. The violated Isabel fully expects her father to kill her for bringing shame upon the family, a practice still legal in Calderón’s time, but he refuses to do so and prevents his overly zealous son from carrying out this senseless “defense” of the family’s honor. The emboldened daughter then begs her father not to make her sign the statement that will make her disgrace public, but if Crespo has been moved as a father to spare her life, he nevertheless places more traditional conceptions of family honor above the girl’s future happiness. He first begs the heartless captain Don Alvaro de Ataide to marry her, but when the man haughtily refuses to marry below his class, Crespo uses his new authority as mayor to have him arrested and executed. Calderón concludes The Mayor of Zalamea with a touch of Grand Guignol worthy of Brecht―the newly-elected mayor Pedro Crespo displaying the corpse of executed captain to the astonished Commander-in-chief Don Lope and King Philip II. When Don Lope de Figueroa asks Crespo if would not have been better to let him force the wayward captain to marry the girl, the proud farmer informs him “Un convent tiene ya elegido, y tiene esposo que no mira en calidad.” As the bride of Christ, poor Isabel will have a spiritual husband “who is no respecter of Hidalgos.”  If the fate of Isabel is a disappointment to modern theater-goers, the playwright concludes his piece reminding the audience of the historical basis for his tale:

Con que fin el autor da
A esta historia verdadera.
Los defectos perdonad.

With which now this true story ends―
Pardon its many errors, friends.

Spanish excerpts of the play and historical references taken from:

El Alcalde de Zalamea Edición Ángel Valbuena Briones Catedra Letras Hispánicas 2000


Translations and additional references taken from:

El alcalde de Zalamea (The Mayor of Zalamea) Tr. and adapted by Adrian Mitchell. Bath: Absolute Classics. 1990. Also published by the Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1981. (Performed at the Royal National Theatre, London, in 1981-82.

Eight Dramas of Calderón Tr. Edward FitzGerald. University of Illinois Press 2000.