Few and Far Between: Translations of T. S. Eliot’s Drama in Spanish


S. Eliot is recognized in Spain as a referent of modern poetry, but comparatively little known as a dramatist. Translations of his poetry into Spanish and the other languages of Spain have been published since the 1930s up to the present day. Not surprisingly, given the secondary status conferred upon them even in English, there are fewer translations of Eliot’s plays. We propose to examine their history, context, and specificities.
Murder in the Cathedral is exceptional in having been translated into Spanish numerous times, and as recently as 2016. The reputed translator José Méndez Herrera produced a prose version of The Cocktail Party, destined for a 1952 stage production. Rosa Chacel and Carmen Conde, prolific authors associated with the “Generación del 27”, both translated or adapted The Family Reunion, also in the 1950s. They attempted to find equivalents for Eliot’s dramatic verse in the patterns of Spanish contemporary poetry; fascinatingly, their versions involve an unsolved enigma that we will attempt to unravel. The most recent translations of Eliot’s “modern English society” comedies (The Confidential Clerk, The Elder Statesman) appeared in the 1960s. Those produced by the Argentinian translator Miguel Alfredo Olivera deserve special attention because of their quality.
The remoteness from our times of most of these translations, however, seems to call for new Spanish versions, alert to Eliot’s verse cadences and incorporating the latest scholarship. Because of our involvement in such a project (a forthcoming critical edition in Spanish), we will also share our experience as translators of Eliot’s verse drama.

The present text has three main aims: to trace the history of T. S. Eliot’s drama in Spanish translation as an aspect of his general reception, to consider the practical challenges faced by past and present translators, and lastly, to reflect on our own experience as translators and editors of these texts, in the context of a recent translation and research project whose main result has been a comprehensive and critical edition of Eliot’s plays.[1]

T. S. Eliot est reconnu en Espagne comme un référent de la poésie moderne, mais il est relativement peu connu en tant qu’auteur dramatique. Des traductions de sa poésie en espagnol et dans les autres langues d’Espagne—Catalan, Basque, Galicien— ont été publiées depuis les années 1930 jusqu’à aujourd’hui. Il n’est pas surprenant qu’il y ait moins de traductions des pièces de théâtre d’Eliot, étant donné le statut secondaire qui leur est conféré même en anglais. Nous nous proposons d’examiner leur histoire, leur contexte et leurs spécificités.
Meurtre dans la cathédrale a la particularité d’avoir été traduite en espagnol à de nombreuses reprises, et pas plus tard qu’en 2016. Le traducteur réputé José Méndez Herrera a réalisé une version en prose de The Cocktail Party, destinée à une mise en scène en 1952. Rosa Chacel et Carmen Conde, auteurs prolifiques associés à la « Generación del 27 », ont toutes deux traduit ou adapté La réunion de famille, également dans les années 1950. Elles ont tenté de trouver des équivalents au vers dramatique d’Eliot dans les modèles de la poésie espagnole contemporaine ; de manière fascinante, leurs versions impliquent une énigme non résolue que nous tenterons d’élucider. Les traductions les plus récentes des comédies de la « société anglaise moderne » d’Eliot (The Confidential Clerk, The Elder Statesman) sont apparues dans les années 1960. Celles du traducteur argentin Miguel Alfredo Olivera méritent une attention particulière en raison de leur qualité.
L’éloignement de notre époque de la plupart de ces traductions semble toutefois appeler de nouvelles versions espagnoles, attentives aux cadences des vers d’Eliot et intégrant les dernières recherches. En raison de notre implication dans un tel projet (une édition critique en espagnol à paraître), nous partagerons ici notre expérience en tant que traducteurs du drame en vers d’Eliot.



 Translation and Publishing History of Eliot’s Plays in Spanish

Murder in the Cathedral, and the Comedies

About a decade after the first performance of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) in Canterbury, Eliot responded positively to the prospect of a Spanish translation. Arrangements were made with a strong publisher, Editorial E.P.E.S.A., which commissioned Francisco de A. Carreres, a professor at the University of Valencia, to translate the text. As he expressed in a letter to Carreres, Eliot was satisfied with the edition, which eventually appeared in 1949 with an introduction and an author’s prologue. Eliot introduced Asesinato en la Catedral to a Spanish readership and wished for a favourable reception: “I venture to hope that it may receive some commendation in Spain: where, if the subject is unknown, the spirit of the play will seem familiar, and the form, perhaps, may not seem strange” (2018a, 463-64). Although this is not always easy to ascertain by reference to contemporary reviews, we may presume that most of the earliest productions of Eliot’s play in Spain used Carreres’s translation.

A second edition of E.P.E.S.A. and Carreres’s Asesinato en la Catedral appeared in 1961. In 1978, Alianza Editorial published the first edition of Eliot’s Poesías reunidas. 1909-1962, with translations by the poet and academic José María Valverde. It included the experimental, unfinished play Sweeney Agonistes (1926-27), as well as Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934), extracted from a largely unknown pageant that combined verse and prose. With fellow scholar Fernando Gutiérrez, Valverde published a translation of Murder in the Cathedral in 1984, which was subsequently reprinted (in 1985, 1997, and 2009). Completing the task with Eliot’s best-known play seemed only inevitable, thus confirming its special status as a natural dramatic transposition of Eliot’s poetic language and his religious commitment. Apart from such continuity, both in time and poetic vision – best exemplified by Murder in the Cathedral and “Burn Norton” (1936) – Malamud sees in Eliot’s plays of the 1930s a transitional quality between his later poetry and his later drama: they “hover uneasily, interestingly, between pure poetry and drama” (2014, 239).

More recently, in 2016, Lumen included Murder in the Cathedral – as part of its poetry collection – in Cuatro cuartetos, precedido de ‘La roca’ y ‘Asesinato en la catedral’, where Eliot’s early dramatic texts are presented as creative precedents leading to Four Quartets and illuminating the process of their composition. In his introduction, the translator and editor Andreu Jaume convincingly argues for the existence of a productive cross-fertilisation between the poetry of Four Quartets and Eliot’s verse drama up to The Family Reunion (1939): “Dramatic writing had made him cultivate a poetic style made up of various strands. On the one hand, Eliot was already highly experienced and skilled as a poet, . . . but on the other, he was also a poet trying to experiment with another genre as well as trying to find a new metre for it” (2016, 11).[2] The versification patterns and diction of Murder in the Cathedral, reproduced by Jaume in translation, are closely linked to those of Four Quartets – both products of these liminal years.

The second most successful play by Eliot was The Cocktail Party (1949), the first of his drawing-room comedies, unique because of their protagonists’ spiritual aspiration to transcend the natural world. The play was first translated into Spanish in 1950 – only one year after its première in Edinburgh, which suggests that Eliot’s drama did have a contemporary international popularity. The translator was the Argentinian author Miguel Alfredo Olivera, associated with Victoria Ocampo’s renowned literary journal Sur. The publisher was Emecé Editores (based in Buenos Aires), and Cocktail Party – Olivera retained the English title, dropping the article – was included in the collection “Teatro del mundo” (“World Theatre”). To translate Eliot’s lines – originally bearing three or four accents on either side of a caesura – Olivera chose to loosely follow the Spanish tradition of syllabic verse, making most of his lines alejandrinos[3] (i.e., fourteen-syllable lines, easily divisible into two balanced halves) and adjusting the number of syllables by means of dieresis or synaloepha when necessary. The resulting lines are conveniently close to the original in length and rhythm:

It may be that even / Julia is a guardian.
Perhaps she is my Guardian. / Give me the spectacles.
(Eliot 2004, 383)

Puede ser que la misma / Julia sea un guardián.
Tal vez sea mi Guardián. / Dame esos anteojos.
(Olivera 1950, 83)

Olivera’s text was later included in an anthology of British contemporary drama, Teatro inglés contemporáneo (published by Aguilar in 1959, and reedited in 1961 and 1970); the curious selection was made up of recent successful plays by J. B. Priestley, Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, Peter Ustinov and Graham Greene – as well as Eliot.

In 1952, José Méndez Herrera translated The Cocktail Party for an ambitious production at the Teatro María Guerrero (a national theatre) in Madrid. Méndez Herrera was a poet, playwright, scholar, and diplomat, as well as a translator, best known for the formidable task of rendering Dickens’s complete works in Spanish; he also translated Goldoni or Ibsen for the stage (Haro Tecglen 1986). In 1962, he was awarded the Spanish “Premio Nacional de Traducción” for a translation of selected plays by Shakespeare. Surprisingly, despite sharing with Eliot an interest in the revival of verse drama, Méndez Herrera translated The Cocktail Party as prose. In regretting this choice, the critic Alfredo Marqueríe defined the essence of Eliot’s verse drama with precision: “It would have been a wonderful experiment to be able to listen to that poetry, with all the nuances of the original, in scenes of contemporary life” (1952, 9).[4] Even though the translator justified the use of prose “for greater clarity,” one of the actors, Enrique Diosdado, remarked on the difficulty to combine density of language with naturalism: “you must express, without apparent emphasis, very complicated concepts, and manage to ‘convey’ them to the audience” (Marqueríe 1952, 6).[5]

The last two comedies by Eliot, The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958), failed to reach a wide audience. They were traditional drawing-room comedies that seemed anachronistic in the context of theatrical renovation tending to social realism and expressionism. The reception of these plays in Spain mirrors their moderate success in Britain and the U.S.: there are no records of relevant productions; they were translated soon after their publication in English, and then forgotten. Olivera and Méndez Herrera translated The Confidential Clerk as Su hombre de confianza (Emecé Editores, 1959) and as El secretario particular (Norte y Sur, 1963) respectively. After his prose translation of The Cocktail Party a decade earlier, Méndez Herrera imitated Eliot’s basic pattern (cesuras, stresses and number of syllables have been marked or indicated in the quote below), with a tendency to produce eleven and fourteen-syllable lines – the most common verse length in Spanish prosody:

Oh, Sir Claude, / you shouldn’t say that!
Mr. Simpkins is far better / qualified than I was
To be / your confidential clerk.
He was finding his feet, / very quickly,
During the time / we worked together.
All he needs / is confidence. (Eliot 2004, 383)

¡Sir Claudio, por favor, / no diga eso! (11)
Creo / que el señor Simpkins (7)
mejor capacitado / es que yo (11)
para ser secretario / particular de usted. (14)
En estos pocos as / que trabajamos juntos, (14)
Que impuesto / de todo en un instante. (13)
No necesita / más que confianza. (10) (Méndez Herrera 1963, 14)

For the same play, Olivera reconsidered the approach previously adopted for The Cocktail Party. In his prologue (1959, 19), he defends the combination of dactylic and trochaic feet – without mentioning cesura – as being both harmonious and prose-sounding in Spanish; yet the licenses he contemplates (an unstressed initial syllable, or the odd possibilities that a final stressed syllable or two unstressed syllables could count as trochees), as well as the lack of examples illustrating their application, make systematic scansion very difficult. In practice, however, Olivera’s lines can compare to Mendez Herrera’s in their length (8-14 syllables) and number of main stresses (3-4 per line):

¡Oh Sir Claude, / no diga eso! (8)
Mr. Simpkins es / más calificado que yo (14)
Para ser su hombre / de confianza en la casa. (14)
Se estaba dando maña / ya muy pronto (11)
Durante el tiempo / en que trabajamos juntos. (13)
lo [sic] necesita / confianza en mismo. (13) (Olivera 1959, 26)

Olivera is the only translator to have produced Spanish versions of Eliot’s three comedies, including the last one, The Elder Statesman. Although he does not refer to the practicalities of translation in his prologue to El viejo estadista (also published by Emecé Editores as part of “Teatro del mundo,” in 1963), we may assume that he followed the same approach as with Su hombre de confianza.

The Family Reunion, and a Translation Mystery for the Detective

The Family Reunion, the play that followed Murder in the Cathedral, has a special significance. It was the first of Eliot’s dramatic texts to be set in contemporary England while revisiting a classic of Greek drama – in this case, Aeschylus’s The Furies. The professor and linguist Ernesto Carratalá (whose uncle, the poet Luis Cernuda, was strongly influenced by Eliot) translated it (Reunión de familia) in 1949 for a minority production by “Thule, Teatro de Ensayo” in Barcelona; according to the reviews, his translation, never published, was in prose. Rosa Chacel – an author associated, like Cernuda, with the Spanish “Generación del 27” – produced a verse translation of Eliot’s play, with the same title as Carratalá’s, in 1953, during her exile years in Argentina. As Olivera’s translations, Chacel’s appeared in Emecé’s collection “Teatro del mundo”.

“Pequeño Teatro Dido,” another of the small chamber-theatre companies active during the post-war period in Spain, commissioned a translation of The Family Reunion for performance in Madrid in 1956. The translator was Elizabeth Gate, and Carmen Conde – a versatile and prolific writer, also in the sphere of the “Generación del 27” –[6] was in charge of producing a “poetic” adaptation. Unlike Chacel’s, this version of The Family Reunion was meant for performance and not for publication. Conde would translate C. F. Ramuz’s L’histoire du soldat (1917) for a production by Dido, also in 1956; Gate took no other commissions from the company and seems to have done no more relevant work in literary translation. There is no trace of Conde’s adaptation of Reunión de familia among her papers, although we know that she received payment for the task.[7] In a press article (Conde 1956, 8) and a note in the programme, she insightfully refers to thematic and formal aspects of Eliot’s play. The copy preserved as part of the censorship file, however, provides two startling revelations: that “Elizabeth Gate” was a pseudonym for “Elisa Fernández Cancela” (“gate” is the English word for the Spanish “cancela”), and that the text is the same, word per word, as that of Chacel’s previous translation.

As contemporary writers well-known in literary circles, Conde and Chacel certainly knew each other. We cannot say, however, that they ever developed a close friendship. In fact, later in life, in the late 1970s, they competed for membership of the Real Academia Española (RAE). Conde was finally elected in 1978, becoming the first female writer to join the institution in its long history. Her letters of the preceding months reflect annoyance at how the press appeared to take Chacel’s side, presenting her as a true victim of Francoist exile and a representative of the militant left; Conde mischievously pointed out that Chacel had been campaigning for her seat at the RAE for years (Ferris 2007, 188). On the other hand, Fernández Cancela and Chacel had been employed at the same school in 1919, as teachers of modern languages and drawing respectively – Chacel had trained as an artist in the preceding years. Several hypotheses can be put forward to explain why both texts are the same:

-Chacel “lent” her translation to a fellow writer (Conde) and her sometime colleague (Fernández Cancela) as a favour in the oppressive cultural atmosphere of the Spanish post-war. This, however, seems unlikely, since Chacel was painstakingly trying to carve out a career for herself as an intellectual in exile, and jealously guarded her work. Further, as suggested above, we have no evidence of a close personal relationship between the two – indeed the three – women.

-Chacel’s text may have been submitted for practical motives or reasons of urgency, while an original text by Fernández Cancela and Conde was being finalised – so that, in effect, the text performed would have been different from Chacel’s. This is also improbable, because of the administrative and political risks for all involved.

-Although there is no conclusive evidence, it seems more likely that Fernández Cancela and/or Conde decided to pass Chacel’s translation off as their own. Presumably, they would have been prompted to do this by Dido’s management, or had their acquiescence, since there is no evidence of any contact or actual collaboration between translator and adapter. Discretion would be guaranteed by the fact that the playscript was not be published, and only three performances of the play would take place (this was usually the case with chamber-theatre productions). Officially using the translation published four years earlier would be more costly – in terms of copyright – for a small company like Dido and acknowledging its author – a dissident exiled author like Chacel – might complicate the process of obtaining authorization. The division translator-adapter, as well as the translator’s use of a pseudonym, may have been deliberately intended to obfuscate and ultimately avoid direct individual responsibility. The complex structure of the Francoist censorship system – with its multiple departments, committees, and readers – would have made the identification of a non-original translation difficult.

Challenges for Translators of Eliot’s Plays, Then and Now

The Need for new Translations

Almost since the publication of Eliot’s first poems and essays, both Eliot’s poetry and his criticism have been incessantly translated into Spanish. Moreover, Eliot became a decisive influence, as a poet and critic, for the successive Spanish poetic movements throughout the twentieth century. His prevalence in the Spanish poetic scene enabled the transition from a style indebted to sentimentality and rhetoric to impersonality and a conversational tone in poetry. Furthermore, it encouraged leading poets from different generations and aesthetic codes – such as Juan Ramón Jiménez, Luis Cernuda, Jaime Gil de Biedma or José Ángel Valente, to name just a few – to take a fresh philosophical approach on the uses of poetry and criticism.[8]

Eliot’s dramatic works, as explained above, ran a different fate. With the exception of Murder in the Cathedral, a successfully and repeatedly translated and performed play during Franco’s regime due to its religious content, only a few of the remaining plays were occasionally staged in Spain. As for the available translations, these were mostly produced during the 1950s and 1960s, and mostly published by South American editors such as the Argentinian Emecé.

The recent attention lent to Eliot’s drama arises from the conviction about its relevance for a full portrait of his artistic and critical significance in contemporary Western literature. Traditional critical neglect of Eliot’s drama has been partly remedied by the contributions of Carol Smith (2014), Randy Malamud (2014), and David Chinitz (2002), among others. These scholars emphasize the constant and close relationship between the three facets of Eliot as an essayist, a poet, and a playwright. From his early essays, such as “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928) and “The Need for Poetic Drama” (1936) to the later “Poetry and Drama” (1951), Eliot the essayist never ceased to inquire into the connections between poetry and the stage. From his early major poems (The Waste Land, “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock,” “Gerontion”), Eliot the poet introduces dramatic monologue and dialogue that resembles conversation, while he reflects upon these practices in essays such as “The Music of Poetry” (1942) and “The Three Voices of Poetry” (1953). Finally, after a successful career as a poet and a critic, Eliot actually runs the life-long cherished risk of writing and staging a kind of verse drama with commercial aspirations. He undertakes such a self-imposed artistic task in an attempt to connect with large, contemporary audiences in their own terms, instead of trying to take them to the rather minority domain of poetry.

A comprehensive critical approach to Eliot’s drama, devoid of dismissive assumptions while attentive to goals only partly achieved – or missed, and within the wider context of Eliot’s poetry and criticism – has to a great extent shaped our research project. In this, we agree with Chinitz’s views on the fallacy around Eliot’s supposed “cultural divide:”

[Eliot] is understood to have done his utmost to secure the boundaries between “high” and “low” art. . . . however, Eliot’s actual relations with popular culture were far more nuanced and showed a far greater receptivity than either his supporters or his detractors . . . have realized or cared to admit. (2002, 4)

Since the project was also based on the reception of Eliot’s verse drama in Spain, undertaking new translations seemed appropriate, for at least two main reasons. To start with, and as translation theory shows, each literary translation is a product of its time: clearly, the uses of Spanish in the 1950s and the 1960s with regard to “contemporary” settings sound remote to today’s ears. Reflecting upon Eliot’s theatre nowadays consequently required translations that could sound natural to a twenty-first reader and spectator.[9] On another note, it seemed difficult to reflect upon Eliot’s verse technique onstage without attempting to find current equivalences in Spanish poetry. The joint work method of providing updated critical views about Eliot’s plays while producing new versions in Spanish has led to constant feedback between theory and praxis. Indirectly, the publication of new profusely annotated translations may hopefully bring a renewed interest in staging Eliot again in Spanish-speaking countries.

The scheme we have followed for each of the plays responds to a comprehensive critical introduction for each play, followed by an annotated translation. In other words, each introduction offers the readers a refreshed view of the current critical appreciation of Eliot’s plays while relating them with the story of their reception in the Spanish context. In turn, the research-based translations adapt Eliot’s verse drama to contemporary Spanish language. All in all, the project addresses a research area that has been so far only minimally explored, with a view to rendering a fuller understanding of Eliot’s contribution to and influence on twentieth-century literature.

Our reasons for approaching Eliot as a dramatist are equally aligned with Perloff’s claim (2007, 11-34) for a fuller understanding of his artistic significance, beyond facile oppositions between the radical experimenter and the conservative traditionalist. A focus on the “complete” Eliot must not only understand the playwright together with the poet, the critic, and the man; it should also establish the necessary connections among all these facets. In addition to this, the elaboration of an updated critical edition has allowed for the incorporation of the ever-growing bibliography on Eliot since the 1990s. Finally, this critical edition highlights the necessity of dealing with Eliot’s legacy from the historical perspective that a new century favors. All in all, through this – and similar initiatives – we can read and interpret Eliot’s oeuvre as a cohesive, coherent Gesamtkuntswerk, in all its complexity and nuances.

Eliot’s Verse Drama and its Evolution

The translations of Eliot’s drama that our project has provided are based on three previous and complementary lines of research: Eliot’s own evolution as a playwright regarding the use of verse onstage, Eliot’s implementation of a new verse based on a fixed number of stresses and pauses, and the available metrical equivalences to this new verse in Spanish.

The story of Eliot’s verse drama starts with the unfinished fragments of Sweeney Agonistes (1926). Almost a decade later, Eliot writes and stages his two commissioned religious plays, the pageant The Rock (1934), and the successful Murder in the Cathedral (1935). Along the way, Eliot has converted to Anglo-Catholicism and is ready to project his transcendent ideas onstage. More importantly, in 1934 he starts writing the Four Quartets, a poetry work that differs from his earlier, darker views about existence in poetry. Gardner signals the completion of the Four Quartets as a turning point in Eliot’s poetic and dramatic “change of mood,” from “a sense that life is agonizingly trivial and meaningless” towards “acceptance of the conditions of life in this world” (1966, 155). This move has its metric counterpart in the development and refinement of a kind of verse suitable for Eliot’s theatrical purposes, an aspiration that does not take shape until he premieres his “drawing-room” plays in the West End, from 1939 onwards.

Both The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral combine verse with prose, ancient choruses with religious sermons, theatrical effects with the rituals of the doctrine of liturgy. However, in terms of style and versification, Eliot himself admits having reached a dead end after Murder in the Cathedral (2018b, 596). Consequently, and with a view to devising a kind of theatre apt for the contemporary middle class, yet not renouncing the conveyance of spiritual truths on a deeper level, Eliot invents his own version of what can be referred to as a “conversational” line:

a line of varying length and varying number of syllables, with a caesura and three stresses. The caesura and the stresses may come at different places, almost anywhere in the line; the stresses may be close together or well separated by light syllables; the only rule being that there must be one stress on one side of the caesura and two on the other. (2018b, 59)

Eliot’s experimentation with this line from The Family Reunion (1939) to The Elder Statesman (1959) has been analyzed and, sometimes, contested in its effectiveness by different critics, even by Eliot’s close collaborators such as E. Martin Browne, or by contemporary poets like W. H. Auden. Some of them identify four stresses instead of three as the predominant line-pattern. Likewise, some theatre analysts dismiss Eliot’s attempt to create a conversational line as flawed, whereas others hail it as fully convincing.

Critical ambivalence, however, does not alter the fact that Eliot’s evolution in verse drama was thoroughly grounded on his intention to let conversational poetry take the lead. The transitional point is marked by The Family Reunion. This play represents a bridge, in Marjorie Lightfoot’s view (1968, 186), between the older mood – use of stage props and supernatural effects such as the Furies, and variety of meters – and the new mindset with its corresponding metrical strategies. It is, however, in the later plays (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman) where translators must most accurately hone their own technique to remain faithful to Eliot’s purpose. This is the reason why, regarding the translations produced as part of the project, we will focus on the later plays.

New TEATREL-SP Translations (2023)

Our recent translations of Eliot’s “conversational line” from The Family Reunion to The Elder Statesman rotate around three main principles: a choice of verse in Spanish that resembles the average utterance in conversation, the use of stress patterns that focus on the semantic load carried by crucial words and concepts rather than on achieving a specific cadence, and a naturalness of style that must prevail over effects related with the former principles – estimated verse length and accentual predictability. It should also be noted that, since translation is in itself a craft that joins technique with intuition, as we progressed with the work, we became increasingly less preoccupied with formal aspects. Instead, we allowed ourselves to rely on the aural perception of the verses read aloud. To that end, we asked two professional actors to record certain scenes from the four plays in the format of traditional radio drama. These recordings helped us test the effect that the translations could have upon a hypothetical audience and introduce slight modifications.[10]

Regarding the first principle – verse choice –, we carried out double research on Spanish poetic theatre and Spanish poetry contemporary with Eliot. The modernismo and the 1927 Generations in Spain, made up mainly of poets and poet-playwrights, shared their rejection of naturalistic theatre with Eliot (Cuesta Guadaño 2017, 42-46)[11] However, their dramas were either symbolist, based on traditional verse forms and set in rural, remote, or fantastic locations – as in Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s 1919 Divinas palabras (Divine Words) – or undecipherable pieces, even more alien to a drawing-room setting – as in the experimental plays by Federico García Lorca El público (The Public) (1930) or Así que pasen cinco años (When Five Years Pass) (1931). In this regard, the renovation of the Spanish stage through dramatic poetry provides an accurate example of Eliot’s argument in “Poetry and Drama,” where he holds that

verse plays, it has been generally held, should either take their subject matter from some mythology, or else should be about some remote historical period, far enough away from the present for the characters not to need to be recognizable as human beings, and therefore for them to be licensed to talk in verse. (2018b, 596)

In contrast, we found in poets such as Juan Ramón Jiménez, Vicente Aleixandre, and Carlos Bousoño, or in the Latin-American Jorge Luis Borges, Vicente Huidobro, and Pablo Neruda, similar reflections about the new verse they employed, “verso libre”. All these poets observed how free verse – was closer to prose and conversation than any other verse in Spanish poetry. In addition, they confirmed how, in the naturalness of its cadence, free verse usually contains camouflaged instances of the endecasílabo – the 11-syllable line that most resembles, in Spanish, the average utterance (Utrera 2003, 303-333).

Consequently, our translations of the four plays of contemporary life follow the path open for Spanish poetry by the use of free verse, insofar as they also frequently lean on the 11-syllable line, usually hidden behind a loose free-verse pattern. This statement can also be held inversely: any attempt at a conversational verse form in Spanish ends up, quite naturally, landing in the orbit of the hendecasyllable, as the case is with our translations. Such effect is sometimes complemented by resorting to Olivera’s 14-syllable line, mostly for strategic reasons: the alejandrino, itself a double verse, perfectly fits into Eliot’s two-hemistich schema pattern; more importantly, it helps accommodate long words, much more frequent in Spanish than in a language with abundant monosyllabic words like English. This solution is crucial whenever words that carry relevant meanings for the understanding of the play arise. In Part II, Scene II of The Family Reunion, which we have translated as Reunión familiar, Agatha, the most discerning character in the play, provides a good example of this:

                                                So I had supposed. What of it?
What we have written is not / a story of detection,
Of crime and punishment, / but of sin and expiation.
It is possible / that you have not known what sin
You shall expiate, or whose, or why. / It is certain
That the knowledge of it / must precede the expiation.  (Eliot 2004, 333)

To the choice of stresses in this extract, some secondary stresses may be added: for example, in line 4, the stress could fall on the complete succession of monosyllables after the caesura (“that you have not known what sin”). In line 5, “shall” and “is” could also carry the stress, the same as “precede” in line 6. In contrast, the repetition of “expiation,” a key concept in The Family Reunion, offers no doubts about its rhythmic relevance, the same as “sin,” “knowledge,” or the Dostoyevskian “crime and punishment.” Our translation reads as follows:

                                             A lo supuse. ¿Y qué importa? (9)
No hemos escrito / una historia de detectives, (13)
Ni de crimen y castigo, / sino de pecado y expiación. (18)
Es posible / que no supieras qué pecado (13)
Expiabas, de quién o por qué. / Es claro (12)
Que el conocimiento / debe preceder a la expiación. (16)
(Carbajosa 2023, 311-12)[12]

Lines 1, 2, 4 and 5 tend to the hendecasyllable and reproduce, to a certain extent, the stress pattern established in the original version. Lines 3 and 6, with the long final noun “expiation,” appear closer to the 14-syllable Spanish verse. As in the English version, line 4 requires more stresses than the ones indicated by Eliot. Moreover, the choice of monosyllabic words (“que,” “no,” “qué”), combined with the alliteration of /k/ and /p/ sounds, conveys a similar effect of swiftness and agitation to that produced by the final /t/ and /n/ repetition in “that you have not known what sin.” Finally, the same indeterminacy about prose or verse that Eliot wishes for the English-speaking public is kept, however controlled under rhythmic choices.

The predominance of the hendecasyllable in our translations over Olivera’s preference for the alejandrino in Cocktail Party – which we have translated as El cóctel – can be equally detected, mostly in the apparently unimportant conversations that abound in the play. In its opening lines we can read:

ALEX.                        My dear Julia!
It’s perfectly hopeless. You haven’t been listening.
PETER. You’ll have to tell us all over again, Alex.
ALEX. I never tell the same story twice.
JULIA. But I’m still waiting to know what happened.
I know it started as a story about tigers.  (Eliot 2004,

Olivera translates as follows, according to his tendency to the 14-syllable pattern:

ALEX.                                    Pero, querida Julia:
Es inútil que te explique. / No has estado escuchando.
PEDRO. Tendrás que contárnoslo / todo de nuevo, Alex. (15)
ALEX. Nunca vuelvo a contar dos veces / la misma historia (14)
JULIA. Pero yo espero aún / saber qué sucedió. (13)
Sé que empezó / con una historia sobre tigres. (13)
(1950, 19-20)

And in our translation:

ALEX.                                    ¡Mi querida Julia!
No tienes remedio. / No estabas atenta. (12)
PETER. Tendrás que empezar / desde el principio, Alex. (12)
ALEX. Nunca repito / la misma historia. (10)
JULIA. Pero sigo / sin saber qué pasó. (11)
Está claro que empezó / como una historia sobre tigres.
(16) (Llorens-Cubedo 2023, 353)

With the exception of the last line, our translation clearly differs from Olivera’s in its length. More importantly, some syntactical changes are introduced to make these fast-paced exchanges sound as casual as they are meant to be. Thus, “But I’m still waiting to know what happened” is transformed into “Pero sigo sin saber qué pasó” – literally, “I still don’t know what happened.”

Focusing on the stress patterns as the second of our translation principles, we decided to alternate Eliot’s proposal for “one stress on one side of the caesura and two on the other” with the more flexible interpretation held by Lightfoot. She argues that most of Eliot’s lines “fall easily into the 4-stress pattern,” which she actually considers the “pattern of expectation” when hearing the dialogues (1964, 261-262). Our method has therefore been to keep the 3- or 4-stress pattern for the main stresses, combined with a varied number of secondary stresses whenever necessary. Although the main stresses generally fall on lexical words – even if that requires introducing syntactical variations – this is not necessarily a sacred rule. Whenever a certain emphasis is needed in monosyllabic words such as “not” or “him,” the stress may fall on such words too. The following examples from The Elder Statesman (Un politico venerable) show the different stress options:

-A 3-stress line where an alternative intonation stress could fall on “doesn’t”/ “no”:

And besides, / my father doesn’t amble. (Eliot 2004, 525).
Y además / mi padre no merodea
(Soláns García and Llorens-Cubedo 2023, 618)

-A 4-stress line where the stress could fall on the modifier (“several” / “varias”) instead of on the noun (“reasons” / “razones”), for emphasis:

But you spoke of several reasons / for your going with your father (Eliot 2004, 528).
Pero me hablabas de varias razones / para acompañar a tu padre
(Soláns García and Llorens-Cubedo 2023, 622)

From the translation of The Confidential Clerk (El secretario particular), we have chosen examples of 3 or 4-stress lines that, in their more straightforward Spanish translation, would contain only two stresses. In both cases, we have lengthened the line to be consistent with the four-stress pattern:

-“And ways in which / you could reassure him” (Eliot 2004, 448) became “Y maneras de hacerle / ganar confianza,” instead of “Y maneras / de tranquilizarlo” (Ballesteros González 2023, 495)
-In “Teddington. I seem / to have heard of it” (Eliot 2004, 484), the more literal translation (“Teddington. / Me suena”) has been discarded for the longer “Teddington. El nombre / me resulta familiar(Ballesteros González 2023, 546).

In both cases, the longer translation chosen does not add formality to the expression. On the contrary, the expressions “ganar confianza” y “me resulta familiar” belong to the conversational style that we seek to maintain.

The third of our principles, i.e., the naturalness of style, may be simply described as the consequence of the two former principles that have already been approached: verse choice and stress patterns followed. Critics tend to see, as has been highlighted, an evolution in the use of the conversational line from The Family Reunion to The Elder Statesman in terms of progressive simplicity and speech flow. This, however, must be constantly put to the test in the translations, now as before, and against the background of the conversational speech of the era to which such translations are born.


An overview of editions of Eliot’s plays in Spanish such as the one offered above confirms the relevance of translation as a crucial aspect of reception – specifically, Eliot’s reception in the Spanish-speaking world, mostly in the 1940s-60s. Many of the translators whose work we examined were scholars and authors themselves, and some took the opportunity to reflect on the poetic, rhythmic qualities of source and target texts. The decrease in popularity of Eliot’s drama after the 1960s inevitably resulted in the absence of new translations.

Eliot’s theatrical career is not only inextricably linked to his role as a poet, but it also adds necessary insight to his evolution as a critic. Only since recent decades has this comprehensive view of the multifaceted artist been prevalent. Our translation and reception project, discussed above, has aimed to bridge the gap between the poet-critic and the playwright as perceived in the Spanish-speaking world. To that end, we have both traced the history of Eliot’s theatrical translations into Spanish and studied equivalent ways of translating his verse drama afresh. Eliot’s major literary influence beyond his own language throughout the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first justifies this approach to the least appreciated of his creatures. Incidentally, the publication of Eliot’s drama in Spanish decades after the first translations may bring it to the stage again.



[1] The research project “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study, Performance – TEATREL-SP (PGC2018-097143-A-100)”, developed from 2019 to 2022, was funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades. The researchers involved (Antonio Ballesteros González, Natalia Carbajosa Palmero, Teresa Gibert, Dídac Llorens-Cubedo, Viorica Patea, Mariángel Soláns García, and Fabio L. Vericat) worked on the recently published Teatro Completo (Madrid: Visor, 2023), which contains Eliot’s six complete plays – including The Rock, never before translated into Spanish in its entirety.

[2] “La escritura dramática le había despertado un estilo poético que estaba hecho de varios mimbres. Por un lado, Eliot era ya un poeta muy curtido y hábil, . . . pero al mismo tiempo era un poeta que trataba de ensayar otro género para el que buscaba además inventar un metro nuevo.” Unless otherwise specified, translations of quotes from Spanish into English are by the authors of the present chapter.

[3] Not to be confused with alexandrines, made up of six iambic feet, and therefore twelve syllables.

[4] “Hubiese sido un magnífico experimento poder escuchar esa poesía con todos los matices del original en escenas de la vida de hoy.”

[5] “[H]ay que expresar, sin darle importancia aparentemente, conceptos muy complicados y lograr que ‘lleguen’ al público.” UNESCO’s Index Translationum includes yet another translation of The Cocktail Party: El cóctel, by Mario G. Menocal. The year of publication is 1979, but no publisher is given. (https://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsresult.aspx?a=eliot&stxt=cocktail+party&sl=eng&l=spa&c=&pla=&pub=&tr=&e=&udc=&d=&from=&to=&tie=a).

[6] Interestingly, another member of this generation of women (termed in recent years “Las Sinsombrero”), the poet and actress Josefina de la Torre, played Agatha in Dido’s production of Reunion de Familia.

[7] We are indebted to Caridad Fernández, from the “Patronato Carmen Conde-Antonio Oliver,” for this information.

[8] There is ample research on Eliot’s presence in Spanish poetry and criticism, as well as the translations of his poetic and critical works into Spanish. See, among others: Teresa Gibert, “Esta es la tierra baldía, tan rudamente violada. (Sobre las versiones españolas de The Waste Land) (1989); Howard Young, “T. S. Eliot y sus primeros traductores en el mundo hispanohablante” (1993); Emilio Barón, T. S. Eliot en España (1996); Santiago Rodríguez Guerrero-Strachan, “Multiple Voices, Single Identity: T. S. Eliot’s Criticism and Spanish Poetry” (2007); Margarita Garbisu, “T. S.  Eliot y la cultura española” (2017); and Jaime Siles, “Un Eliot para españoles” (2021). Only in the twenty-first century, we find up to fifteen translations and editions of different poems and essays, the most recent being, on the occasion of its centenary, La tierra baldía (2022), with an exhaustive preliminary study by Viorica Patea and translated by Natalia Carbajosa.

[9]An evident example can be observed in the difference between the 1950 translation of The Cocktail Party by Alfredo Olivera and our 2023 translation: in Olivera’s version, all the friends in the play address each other using the polite pronoun “usted”; this use, nowadays obsolete in Spain, has been replaced by the more familiar “tú”.

[10] See the series “El teatro de T. S. Eliot y su traducción,” Canal UNED, https://canal.uned.es/series/633fecf06f3c0026f23ae513.

[11] Spanish Modernismo coincides only to a certain extent with the time and purposes of Anglo-American Modernism. It appeared mainly as a poetry renovation movement by the end of the nineteenth century and took many of its elements from French symbolism. The Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío introduced it in Spain.

[12] All 2023 translations quoted in this section are included in Teatro Completo, edited by Llorens-Cubedo and Gibert.


Works Cited

Chinitz, David. 2002. T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Conde, Carmen. 1956. “Antecrítica de Reunión de familia.” Ya, June 19, 1956, 8.

Cuesta Guadaño, Javier. 2017. El teatro de los poetas: Formas del drama simbolista en España. Madrid: CSIC.

Eliot, T. S. 2004. The Complete Poems and Plays. London: Faber and Faber.

Eliot, T. S. 2018a. “Prefatory Note to the Spanish Edition of Murder in the Cathedral.” In A European Society 1947-1953, edited by Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, 461-63. Vol. 7 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber.

Eliot, T. S. 2018b. “Poetry and Drama.” In A European Society 1947-1953, edited by Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, 589-610. Vol. 7 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber.

Ferris, José Luis. 2007. “Del olvido al fervor popular: una mujer en la academia (1978-1979).” In Carmen Conde: voluntad creadora 1907-1996, edited by Javier Díez de Revenga, 179-95. Madrid: Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales.

Haro Tecglen, Eduardo. 1986. “José Méndez, poeta y autor dramático.” El país, June 18, 1986. https://elpais.com/diario/1986/06/19/agenda/519516001_850215.html.

Jaume, Andreu. 2016. “Introducción. El verano cero.” In Cuatro cuartetos, precedido de ‘La roca’ y ‘Asesinato en la catedral’, edited and translated by Andreu Jaume, 1-23. Barcelona: Lumen.

Lightfoot, Marjorie. 1968. “Charting Eliot’s Course in Drama”. Educational Theatre Journal 20/2: 186-197.

Lightfoot, Marjorie. 1964. “Purgatory and The Family Reunion:” In Pursuit of Prosodic Description.” Modern Drama 7/3: 256-266.

Llorens-Cubedo, Dídac, and Teresa Gibert, eds. 2023. Teatro completo. By T. S. Eliot. Trans.: Antonio Ballesteros González, Natalia Carbajosa Palmero, Dídac Llorens-Cubedo and Mariángel Soláns García. Introds. and notes: Natalia Carbajosa Palmero, Teresa Gibert, Dídac Llorens-Cubedo, Viorica Patea y Fabio Vericat Pérez-Mínguez. Madrid: Visor.

Malamud, Randy. 2014. “Eliot’s 1930s Plays: The Rock, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Family Reunion.” In A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, 238-250. Chichester: Blackwell.

Marqueríe, Alfredo. 1956. “Estreno de Reunión de familia, en ‘Dido.’” ABC, June 20, 1956, 59.

Méndez Herrera, José, trans. 1963. El secretario particular. By T. S. Eliot. Madrid: Norte y Sur.

Olivera, Miguel Alfredo, trans. 1963. El viejo estadista. By T. S. Eliot. Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Olivera, Miguel Alfredo, trans. 1959. Su hombre de confianza. By T. S. Eliot. Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Olivera, Miguel Alfredo, trans. 1950. Cocktail Party. By T. S. Eliot. Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Perloff, Marjorie. 2007. “The Aura of Modernism.” In Modernism Revisited: Transgressing Boundaries and Strategies of Renewal in American Poetry, edited by Viorica Patea and Paul Scott Derrick. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi.

Smith, Carol. 2014. “Eliot’s ‘Divine’ Comedies: The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk, and the Elder Statesman.” In A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, 251-262. Chichester: Blackwell.

Utrera Torremocha, María Victoria. 2003. “Ritmo y sintaxis en el verso libre.” Rhythmica I (1): 303-333.


Natalia Carbajosa Palmero holds a Ph.D. in English Studies by the University of Salamanca and is Associate Professor at the University of Cartagena, where she teaches Professional and Academic English since 1999. She has conducted research in areas like Shakespearean studies, twentieth-century Anglo-American avant-garde poetry, and poetry translation. She has published annotated translations of authors like H.D., Lorine Niedecker and Rae Armantrout, among others, and is the co-author of a 2019 study on female Beat poetry (Female Beatness. Mujeres, género y poesía en la Generación Beat). A poet herself, she has published six poetry collections. More information at: www.nataliacarbajosa.es.

Dídac Llorens-Cubedo currently teaches English and American literature at the Spanish Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED). He has published T. S. Eliot and Salvador Espriu: Converging Poetic Imaginations (Universitat de València, 2013) and co-edited New Literatures of Old: Dialogues of Tradition and Innovation in Anglophone Literatures (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). His research focuses on Modernism, (neo)Victorianism and comparative literature, across languages and the arts. He coordinates the research project “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study, Performance (TEATREL-SP)”, funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades.


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