Literature from Underrepresented Languages.

An essay by editor Daniel Goulden on rare and underrepresented languages in Asymptote:

[…] In expanding the umbrella of world literature, Asymptote helps shine a light on languages neglected by publishers in New York and London. In our October 2013 issue, for instance, we published a series of poems by Natalia Toledo, the first woman to write in the Isthmus Zapotec, an indigenous American language still spoken by over 750,000 people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. We not only published the original text alongside its translation but also included an audio clip of the author reading her work, which allowed readers to engage with the text on a whole new level by listening to a language they had most likely never heard before.

In our October 2011 issue, we published James Byrne’s and ko ko thett’s translations of various Burmese poets. If you haven’t seen Burmese writing before, you should click over to these poems now and select ‘Read the original in Burmese’ in the right hand column for a special treat—it could be the most beautiful language you have ever seen.

Asymptote has also published languages with very few speakers. In fact, John Smelcer, who gave us three Ahtna poems for our January 2012 issue, is the only living tribal member who can read and write in Ahtna—one of the most endangered languages in the world. By publishing his work we were able to introduce Ahtna literature to readers around the world and help it live longer.

What a great project — may it live long and prosper!


  1. Greg Pandatshang says

    I was a little surprised by how Romance the Isthmus Zapotec passage sounds to my ear (I’m not intimately familiar with any Romance language, but I am American, so I’ve heard plenty of Spanish in the course of things). With all the /ʃ/ sounds, I kept thinking, “this sounds like Portuguese”.

    I wonder if the speaker has a Spanish accent by modern Isthmus Zapotec-speaker standards. By the same token, I wonder to what extent the superstrate effect of Spanish have made Zapotec sound more like a Romance language over the last few hundred years.

  2. Excellent questions, both of them.

  3. The ‘Romance’ effect is from having so many open syllables, with a lengthened stressed syllable, usually penultimate, as in Italian (not so much Mexican Spanish, IMHO). That, and the presence of many sibilants, is not that rare, and I think it’s nothing to do with Spanish. You’d have to have a group of Spanish speakers who shifted from Spanish into IZ and kept their accent, and that’s not what happened. The abundant glottalization is very alien to Romance, too.

  4. tetri_tolia says

    Burmese puts me irretrievably in mind of Georgian with half the letters randomly turned upside-down.

  5. John Smelcer is a scam artist. He’s not a native speaker of Ahtna, and he’s not even Ahtna. He was raised in Ahtna country by an Ahtna family. He made this the basis of his claim to be Ahtna, but was fired from the University of Alaska after it was discovered that he lied about his ethnicity to obtain preferential hiring. He has no training at all in linguistics, coming from an English literature background, and he actually lacks even L2 competence in Ahtna. His “work” on the Ahtna language is all stolen from work by actual linguists with native speaking elders, primarily by Jim Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center. Smelcer has even had the gall to take Kari’s work and publish it as his own. People in the Ahtna community are somewhere on a scale between annoyed and disgusted with regard to Smelcer’s continuing charade. Note that Smelcer specifically targets people who would *not* question his authenticity and would probably have little or no means to verify his background.

  6. Oh dear. Sorry to hear that, and I thank you for spreading the word.

  7. he’s not even Ahtna

    Matters are not so open and shut. Smelcer is the legally adopted child of an undoubted Ahtna, and although he wasn’t raised on the reservation (he was a military brat), nobody would question the ethnicity of a blood-quantum Ahtna raised similarly. Apparently, he is also a shareholder of Ahtna, Inc., which is the Alaska Native equivalent of being an enrolled member of a federally recognized Indian nation.

    I get my facts from this blog post, which is clearly not pro-Smelcer, though not as condemnatory as James C.

    Ethnicity is messy. You’re an X if the Xs accept you as an X, but which Xs have to accept you is vague.

  8. Being a shareholder in an Alaska Native corporation is not the same thing as being an enrolled member of a tribe. Alaska has both federally recognized tribes and Native corporations as distinct entities. The Native corporations were formed for the ANCSA settlement and hold the assets paid by the federal government. This in no way changed the status of the preexisting tribal governments. As such, one can be an enrolled tribal citizen and not a shareholder, or a shareholder and not an enrolled citizen, or both a shareholder and a citizen. Shareholders in Native corporations do not have any across-the-board blood quantum or other ancestry constraints, although generally they are not allowed to pass on shares to other non-Natives. Individual corporations can make further restrictions on who can hold shares. Citizenship in a tribal government is a completely independent status and has nothing to do with the Native corporations, being instead regulated by the federal government and individual tribal laws.

  9. To me, whether he’s “really” Ahtna is irrelevant (though I can see how the Ahtna could feel differently); what bothers me is the idea that his work on the language is “stolen from work by actual linguists with native speaking elders” and that he’s taken Jim Kari’s work and published it as his own. If true, that’s pretty appalling.

  10. Being a shareholder in an Alaska Native corporation is not the same thing as being an enrolled member of a tribe.

    Thanks for the correction.

    If true, that’s pretty appalling.

    I agree entirely.


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