Friday, February 25, 2011

The Light of Translation

“You can’t think of it as a transfer from one language to another, because we would be left with something horrible in Spanish. You must think of them as parallel poems, a poem created in our language and another poem in Spanish. Both versions uphold their respective literary traditions.”

And so poet / educator / activist / translator Irma Pineda explains the difference between the Zapotec and Spanish “versions” of her poems.
Poet Irma Pineda, photo courtesy of the poet.

Born and raised in the city of Juchitán, where she still lives, Irma Pineda has been writing poems since childhood. She now has five published collections of poems, one of which had a print run of more than ninety thousand copies.

Juchitán is the only city in Mexico in which an indigenous language dominates – not just on the streets and in homes, but in the mayor’s office. Like eighty-five percent of Juchitán’s residents, Irma’s first language is Zapotec – a language whose literary history reaches back two thousand years. The Zapotecs were probably the first society to invent writing in the Americas -- long before the Maya.

February 21 marked the UN's International Native / Mother Language Day. Linguists estimate that half of the languages currently spoken in the world will have fallen silent by 2100. It's a fact that fills me with panic, grief, and a urgent desire to spread Zapotec poetry far and wide.

Irma Pineda creates her poems in Zapotec, then recreates “parallel poems" in Spanish.And then, I create a “parallel poem” in English. Learning that Irma considers the Spanish and Zapotec versions of her poems to be parallels, not translations, freed me as a translator. I’d made hesitant attempts at translating the work of Zapotec poets in years past, but stopped because I don’t know Zapotec and couldn’t read the original poem. Pineda’s process allows me to think of the Spanish version as a new original that stands on its own.

My office in Oaxaca, December 2010.
I spent the month of December 2010 in Oaxaca, completing first-draft translations of forty of Irma’s poems. After I completed the translations, I spent four days with Irma in her home, reviewing my drafts.

Here is one of Irma’s poems in all three languages. “Light / Biaani’ / La Luz” appeared in the Sarasota, Florida literary journal
New CollAge
in 2010.


Light allows the vocation of looking at walls,
discerning colors that fill faces.
Light floods bodies,
draws silhouettes,
phantom shadows
that taunt the nighttime solitude
of one fragile figure
held on the wall of fear.


Ne biaani’ zanda gu’yu xi cá cué’ yoo,
zanda gannu’ xhi dié’ lú binni.
Biaani’ riguiñená ni nexhe guidxi layú,
rutie’láadi binni,
rutie’ bandá’ dxaba’
cuxidxi ti nuu xtubi lu gueela’
ti miati da
sucá cué’ yoo cadxibi.

La luz

La luz permite el oficio de mirar paredes,
adivinar colores que llenan rostros.
La luz inunda las formas,
dibuja siluetas,
sombras fantasmales
que se burlan de la soledad nocturna
de una figura frágil
sostenida en la pared del miedo.

This is the first poem that appears in Irma Pineda’s first collection of poetry, Ndaani’ Gueela’ (En el Vientre de La Noche), published by Casa de la Cultura de Juchitán, Mexico, in 2005. The poems in this collection were written by the poet with the support of a grant for indigenous writers from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (Mexico’s National Endowment for the Arts). They appear here with the persmission of the author.

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