Interpreting Mayan Languages.

Rachel Nolan has a New Yorker piece (Jan. 6 issue) about the translation crisis for migrants who speak Mayan languages and the interpreters who are helping them in court; much of it makes for depressing reading, but it handles language unusually well for a general-interest publication, so I’ll quote some of those bits here:

Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam. […]

One morning in early December, Martín was interpreting for a criminal case in Dublin, east of Oakland. A clerk signed him in—“Buenos días,” she greeted him—and then he met the people he’d be translating for, a Mam husband and wife who had been the victims of an attempted home burglary. […] Martín accompanied the husband to the witness box, while the wife waited in a nearby room. Watching a skilled simultaneous interpreter is a bit like watching someone speaking in tongues. As soon as the judge starts talking, the interpreter mutters along, not waiting for the sentence to be over before beginning to translate. Martín relayed the witness’s answers in a low, steady voice, in American-accented English.

The testimony turned on the layout of the kitchen. There are twenty-two officially recognized Mayan languages in Guatemala; all of them use relational nouns instead of prepositions—Mam uses “head” to say “on top of”—and they have complex grammatical rules to describe bodies in space. The witness pinched his fingers and dropped them down to imitate his wife putting cash in her purse. He worked his eyebrows. He didn’t look up when the prosecutor asked a question. He was telling his story to Martín, the only person in the room who understood. […]

Mayan Guatemalans have a persistent problem: explaining to people that they still exist. The ancient Mayan cities collapsed in the eighth or ninth century, but the Mayan people remained, farming corn in small towns. One archeologist compared it to the fall of the Soviet Union: the structure of life has changed, but the people are still there. All the Mayan languages share a common root, but most of them are mutually unintelligible. Yucatec Mayan is tonal, like Cantonese. K’iche’, the language of the “Popol Vuh,” has six or ten vowels, depending on the dialect. Mam is produced far back in the mouth and comes out softly raspy. The variations are not a mark of being cut off from external influences, the linguist William Hanks told me, but, rather, a sign of development. Mayan languages have had four thousand years to ramify. “Mayans have never been isolated,” Hanks said. In 1990, the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala was formed, and a branching linguistics tree, showing the common origin of all Mayan languages, became a symbol of the Pan-Mayan movement. (Mam emerged from the trunk about two thousand years ago.) There is still debate about which subdivisions should be counted as dialects. […]

“I grew up my entire life speaking Mam, and there is no word for asylum,” Henry Sales, a twenty-seven-year-old immigrant from San Juan Atitán, told me. Sales and Oswaldo Martín were at the César E. Chávez branch of the public library, in downtown Fruitvale, where they met with other Mam speakers to work on a Mam-English legal dictionary. […] Martín had the idea for the legal dictionary when he came across a Mayan health handbook, which listed ailments in English, Spanish, K’iche’, and Mam. […]

Sales and Martín speak different dialects of Mam. Though they understand each other, Martín said that Sales’s Mam sounds more like French—airy, with swallowed consonants—while his is more like Portuguese—choppy and guttural. Even I can hear the difference. […] “What we’ve been doing is try to come up with a definition of ‘asylum’ and translate that to Mam,” Sales said.

Their shorthand translation is “To be held and looked after by the law.” “Qlet tun ley.” A longer, more complete definition that Sales teaches in Mam class is “Jun u’j tun tkleti tij qa xjal aj kyaj tun tkub’ tb’yon ay bix qa tk’awali tu’x txuli / tchmili.” “A paper that saves / protects you from people who are harming / attempting to kill you and your children, your wife / husband.”

I asked Sales and Martín if Mam speakers generally understood their explanation of asylum, and Martín said yes, but he mentioned another problem cited by nearly everyone I interviewed. “A tendency for a lot of indigenous people is to agree to everything being asked of them in Spanish,” he said, even if it’s incorrect and self-incriminating. […]

One Saturday, I attended a Mam class that Henry Sales teaches at Laney College, in downtown Oakland. It was Labor Day weekend, but thirty people showed up, a mixture of social workers and public-school teachers. Dave Rose, a teacher at Fremont High School, said that he has a total of a hundred and forty students. “Sixty of them speak Mam,” he said. The other teachers gasped.

Soon Sales was running us through the alphabet. The letters were familiar but the sounds were not. There were glottal stops (as in “uh-oh”), and apostrophes that made a little popping noise out of the preceding consonant. We could barely get out chjonte, “thank you.” […] Rose wanted to know how to say “You’re late.” Yaj matzuli. “I’m going to use that a lot,” he said.

Nolan not only talked to a linguist, she took a class in the language. More reporters should have that kind of dedication! (We’ve discussed Mayan languages previously at LH, e.g. 2006, 2015.)

It won’t make a post on its own, so I’ll just tack this quote (from the Times obituary of Maurice Platnauer, via Laudator Temporis Acti) on here: “A keen student of language and especially of grammar and syntax, he was one of those rare men who enjoy reading voluminous grammars from beginning to end.”


  1. No word for asylum yet, but “ley” for law did make it in from Spanish? So maybe a few English borrowings are to be expected…

  2. I expect so.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    There’s a very competent and (relatively) accessible grammar of Mam by Nora Englund. Most of the loanwords in the language seem to be from Nahuatl: empires come and empires go …

    Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert.

    One day, English will be a niche subject of interest mainly to academic historians …

  4. Dmitry, David Eddyshaw: I would expect that a number of hispanisms (perhaps including “ley”) entered Mam (and various other indigenous languages of the region) via Nahuatl rather than directly from Spanish, so that I suspect that the impact of Nahuatl upon Mam and neighboring languages is probably more pronounced than what a simple listing of Mam word etymologies might lead us to believe.

    And I think “share a common root” in the article is journalism dialect for “have a common ancestral language”.

  5. Conquest of Guatemala was a joint affair – the Spanish conquered it with the help of their Nahuatl-speaking allies from Mexico. There is a book about them titled “Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica”.

    After participating in the conquest of Guatemala these Indian conquistadors settled there as part of the conquering elite land-owning class.

    No wonder Nahuatl (and it’s local variant Pipil) became source of many loanwords into local Mayan languages.

  6. There is a word for “law” in Mam: “kawb’il”. But like other Mayan languages, it is more of a term used for a general authority. For example, the K’iche’ word “q’atoj tzij” is used for both law and justice (from q’at, to cut something, e.g “q’atoj triko” cutting of the wheat and “tzij”, language.). Indeed, the ALMG dictionary gives “kawb’il” for both “law” and “authority”.

    My guess is rather that “ley” is being used to indicate that this is the law of the Other, the law of the colonizer, rather than a cultural law. That said, “ley” was borrowed into Q’eqchi’ directly from Spanish (the only definitive example I could find), so I could be totally off base!


    If you’re interested in the idea of signing anything that is given to you, if it’s in Spanish, I highly recommend watching “Ixcanul” (volcano in Kaqchikel). It’s a beautiful, yet sad, movie.

  7. Thanks for the info and the recommendation!

  8. Anonymous Coward says

    SFReader: Based on five minutes of internet browsing, I think that the Pipil arrived earlier as refugees and became quite Maya-ized, and seem to be quite a different group of people for the Nahua allies of the Spanish and the native conquistadors.

  9. Unrelated, but about an endangered language:

    There are just 700 Seke speakers left in the world, and 100 live in New York — half of them in one building.


  10. David Marjanović says

    The Iranists, at least the Soviet and post-Soviet ones, have been all over Wakhi.

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