In the dictionary, the word is listed as “elf” or “magic.” However, in actual practice, when the word shows up in text, it is rarely in the context of a woodland spirit, although that is where the word’s etymology begins.
In 1933 Spanish poet and theater director Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires titled “Play and Theory of the Duende” in which he addressed the fiery spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions:
“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.”
So, could this quality be translated via the use of a calque as “black sounds?” That doesn’t quite work, although Lorca does use that term in describing the qualities of duende. A meaning for the untranslatable usually ends up being borrowed from the original language and becoming a loan word.
The word “duende” often represents an emotion or response to a selected piece of art. Perhaps this is exactly what makes it so difficult to translate; can you ever really translate a feeling? How would you translate this beautiful, if difficult concept into English?