Translating Indigenous Mexican Writers.

Ryan Mihaly interviews translator David Shook about Like a New Sun, a collection of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry which Shook coedited with Víctor Terán; it’s full of interesting observations about discrimination (“often more the result of ignorance than any ill intention”), the oral tradition, a grandmother’s prayers (“It’s not until she curses in her native Zoque—jukis’tyt and patsoke—that anything happens”), the saint Santiago Negro (Black James), and syncretism. I’m particularly interested, of course, in the linguistic aspect:

Like a New Sun is bilingual, which allows the untrained eye to make connections between languages. What is particularly noticeable in this book is the different sizes and shapes some of the English translations take from the originals. Of course, there are six languages represented in the book, all unique. But what were some of the difficulties in the poems you translated?

For Víctor’s work, replicating the sonic texture of a tonal language like Isthmus Zapotec (which employs the frequent alliteration of glottal stops) is impossible. I benefited from a reading tour we did for the Poetry Translation Centre, an early champion of his work in English. We spent three weeks on the road in the United Kingdom, and I listened to him read his poems every night.

Depending on the pairing, many of our translators used Spanish intermediaries, proceeding in collaboration with the poets themselves, who translate their own work into Spanish by necessity. So as an editor I’m on the lookout for poems that cling too tightly to their intermediaries, especially in regards, for example, to the nesting of prepositions, which doesn’t happen in an agglutinative language.

In my own experience as a translator, Juan Herández Ramírez’ poems were a challenge. He writes in Nahuatl, but a different dialect from the one I studied. Still, he writes his poems in Spanish, almost concurrently. He says that the two languages work like mirrors of each other. I collaborated with Adam W. Coon, an incredibly talented Nahuatl translator, to do those translations. They’re all based on traditional Nahuatl corn myths.

One of the things Juan told Adam, in an almost lamenting tone, was that he doubted that English had enough corn-specific language to do the poems justice. So that was our challenge. […]

Speaking of linguistics: the book clearly serves as both a book of poetry on its own right, but also as a learning tool. Each introduction features a brief introduction to the language, including its linguistic qualities; there is even an online study guide for the book. Phoneme Media itself, of course, borrows a linguistic term for its title.

Though most readers won’t be able to engage much with the original languages, we wanted to pay them their due as a symbol of respect and admiration. Víctor has done a lot to promote the book’s publication in Juchitán. For him, it’s a part of his language activism.

He has campaigned to revitalize the Isthmus Zapotec language by encouraging and inspiring the youth to use it in everyday life as well as in the arts. To him, it’s an important sign of prestige for the community, to show that their language is appreciated outside of their own region. And that the everyday linguistic oppression they might feel from the Spanish language can be circumvented and challenged.

I suspect many casual bookstore readers might not know how many languages are still spoken in Mexico. The sheer diversity is astounding.

I like Shook’s statement “I think we can all say just about anything in any language. The challenge and the fun of it is to do so as poetically as possible.” You can read a piece by Eliot Weinberger about the anthology here, along with poems in Isthmus Zapotec and Yucatec Maya, with translations.

Comments

  1. One of the things Juan told Adam, in an almost lamenting tone, was that he doubted that English had enough corn-specific language to do the poems justice.

    They say that each year towards the end of autumn the legendary 100 Words leave the Arctic Circle and fly south to winter among the corn vocabulary where it is warmer.

    Seriously, this book sounds great! Thanks for the link.

  2. Ken Miner says:

    poems that cling too tightly to their intermediaries

    Some well-known writers have “written for translation”. Borges and (I. B.) SInger come to mind. Is that what is meant here?

  3. Ken Miner says:

    That should be ‘Singer’. (There is a tendency for this interface to change ‘i’ to ‘l’, especially between angled brackets)

  4. “He writes in Nahuatl, but a different dialect from the one I studied. Still, he writes his poems in Spanish, almost concurrently”

    Seamus Heaney does the same. I once heard him reciting one of his poems alternating languages. I suppose there is the same tradition of inter-lingual punning in Mexico as there is in Ireland.

  5. In Ireland, the English and Irish lines often belong to two separate poems almost, with opposing points of view. In the old days it was not uncommon for the English text to be loyalist, the Irish text separatist.

  6. Thanks — I’m glad to know this book exists and look forward to reading it.

  7. Beth! Great to see you around the Hattery again; belated congratulations on the results of your recent election, and I’m enjoying the Iceland images.

  8. poems that cling too tightly to their intermediaries

    Some well-known writers have “written for translation”. Borges and (I. B.) SInger come to mind. Is that what is meant here?

    I think what he meant by “poems that cling too tightly to their intermediaries” is (English) translations that contain too much of the Spanish (intermediary) version. The full paragraph:

    Depending on the pairing, many of our translators used Spanish intermediaries, proceeding in collaboration with the poets themselves, who translate their own work into Spanish by necessity. So as an editor I’m on the lookout for poems that cling too tightly to their intermediaries, especially in regards, for example, to the nesting of prepositions, which doesn’t happen in an agglutinative language.

    So, if the English translation has nested prepositions, he’s immediately suspicious that this might be a structural feature that was in the Spanish version but not in the original Nahuatl. His response would presumably be to ask the translator to talk to the poet again about how the original worked, and if possible come up with something in English that’s closer to that.

    For poets who translate their work to Spanish themselves you could question whether those nested prepositions mightn’t actually be the best representation of the poet’s thought in an Indo-European language, but even if so, it’s not necessarily the best representation in an Indo-European language of the poet’s thought in Nahuatl, if you see the distinction I’m trying to draw there.

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