Perhaps it goes without saying, but in 2018 translating Indigenous literatures in the Américas from Indigenous languages and/or Spanish is a political act. Even prior to now, at dinner parties and other settings for droll conversation in the United States, people have often perked up when I mention that I study Mesoamerican languages and cultures. With an interest typically grounded in lost civilizations, ancient mysteries, and, occasionally, UFOs, they usually then follow up with an inquiry as to why, if I study dead languages, I didn’t opt to study Latin, ancient Greek, or Biblical Hebrew instead. When I assert that no, Maya languages such as Yucatec and Tsotsil are far from dead, many people refuse to believe it and are more than happy to contest the point.
The translator bears a particular kind of ethical responsibility towards the text, the poet, and poet’s community.
"I suspect many casual bookstore readers might not know how many languages are still spoken in Mexico. The sheer diversity is astounding."
David Shook is a poet, translator, and filmmaker in Los Angeles, where he serves as Editorial Director of Phoneme Media, a non-profit publishing house that exclusively publishes literature in translation. Their newest book is Like a New Sun, a collection of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry, which Shook co-edited along with Víctor Terán.
Seven translators in total—Shook, Adam W. Coon, Jonathan Harrington, Jerome Rothenberg, Clare Sullivan, Jacob Surpin, and Eliot Weinberger—translated poets from six different languages: Juan Gregorio Regino (from the Mazatec), Mikeas Sánchez (Zoque), Juan Hernández Ramírez (Huasteca Nahuatl), Enriqueta Lunez (Tsotsil), Víctor Terán (Isthmus Zapotec), and Briceida Cuevas Cob (Yucatec Maya). I corresponded with Shook over gchat to speak with him about the project.
Today is Columbus Day, a controversial holiday in the United States. Several cities have recently adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day, clearly a victory for recognizing indigenous cultures in the United States. Which leaves me wondering: how are the indigenous Mexican writers recognized today in the Mexican literary landscape?
As someone who regularly visits Mexican literary festivals and also translates from the Spanish, I’ve observed the under-appreciation of indigenous writers firsthand. Mexico’s indigenous communities make up 10 to 14% of its total population, and you certainly don’t find anywhere near that percentage of literature being published in Mexico today. READ MORE…