To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Osiris Ánibal Gómez: The Ghost Poet: Writing and Translating Indigenous Poetry in XXI Century Mexico

Osiris Anibal Gómez, right, with Mazatec poet Juan Gregorio Regino, director of Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI),

For the past ten years there’s been an ongoing discussion among writers and critics
concerning the conditions and the transcendence of translation in contemporary Indigenous
literary production. On the one hand, there are those who express that the birth of bilingual
literature in Mexico has been shaped by federal writing grants offered mainly to writers who
agree to self-translate their work to the Spanish language for publishing. On the other hand, there
are writers who take on the double artistic responsibility as a necessity for greater dissemination.
These writers have even gone beyond self-translation and are producing trilingual co-translated

Both views help us understand how the continuous rise of Indigenous literatures is
bringing to light the need to attend to the political needs and intellectual endeavors of indigenous
peoples. My objective here is to offer a brief reflection on the intellectual transcendence of a
bilingual literature, particularly understanding the act of writing and self-translation as an
inseparable and powerful strategy to creating a new wave of indigenous thought truly
representative of Indigenous peoples’ views. I am fully aware of the challenges Indigenous
writers face as members of disenfranchised groups, and I understand that in a way artistic
expression is validated by means of the dominant language. However, I seek to situate my
discussion in this source of tension by: examining how the bilingual dilemma is also a source of
literary and political mobility. This undetermined state allows me to reflect on other challenges
adhered to the Indigenous writer through the metaphoric figure of the ghost. There are two
keywords to understanding this idea: biculturality and bi-dimensionality. When I say that the
indigenous poet is much like the ghost, I’m alluding to the way both entities have the capacity to
inhabit two dimensions, that being the community and the public spheres and also the Spanish
and the Indigenous language dimensions. This mobility is bestowed upon subjects who capitalize
their bicultural and bilingual abilities, whose views are influenced by the two realities they
transgress daily.

Before moving forward, it is useful to understand Indigenous literature as part of a growing compendium of minor literatures. Indeed, minor literature is invasive literature. Allow
me to explain this following some the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. To write from a
state-less language is a political gesture, but a true minor literature has to move beyond that and
code hidden realities and fictions resisting in an invisibilized context or under oppression. This
means that a writer must look into the most profound sociocultural fibers in search of the
aesthetic values that will allow for the dissemination of other perceptions, different from those
widely spread in national literature. In the eyes of the French philosophers, this is the true
political potentiality of writing, because it is from these particular spaces that writing can be
subversive and defiant (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, 1986).

That being said, I say that minor literature is invasive because its very existence and
essence prevails within the highest level of tension, mostly composed of three factors that I will
explain briefly. Rethinking the inception of these three factors will help us understand how
Indigenous writers, in this particular case, inure to adverse conditions, while setting the
foundations for a new intellectuality, which is the product of a socially and politically influential

The first producing factor of tension begins with the poet’s search for a mode of poetics
within multiple community realities, where verbal arts have existed for millennia, expressions
that to the external eye might seem fully artistic, but for an Indigenous group, a poetic-like
language, perhaps belongs to a sacred, medicinal or ceremonial realm, therefore making it an
exclusive knowledge component. From the moment the poet emulates collective knowledges or
practices outside the community, it violates religious and ethical codes. The resignification of
these practices place the now literary production in a state of taboo, which only grows stronger
when the poet trespasses the oral dimensions into the space of writing where, at the same time,
the poet has to adopt the figure of the writer, an individualist entity who performs in a public
space, where sociolinguistic and editorial forces foment the birth of a bilingual literature, as I
mentioned before.

Bilingual production changes the literary panorama of the official language, literary
theory becomes insufficient to learning a literature that requires understanding of verbal formulas
connected to epistemic processes, the discernment of hybrid genres, specialized language
intertwined with aesthetic models of the West. This is the second factor of tension, the encounter
between the national literature and dozens of emergent poetics in Indigenous languages, a
literary effervescence that problematizes the idea of Mexico’s mestizo-only national identity.
Furthermore, defying the literary parameters is a sane process of potential renovation that all
literatures go through not only to generate aesthetic transformations. This process also forces
critics and historians to take on questions such as who are the readers of this literature? What do
we know about the reception of this literature through the scope of translation?

The third factor derives precisely from the responsibilities tied to a bilingual literature. In
principle, we are made to believe that the Spanish version loses some of the meaning or beauty. I
do not follow this idea, because it ignores the agency of the poet-translator who, in this case, is
able to reach out to multiple groups of readers. Yet, we must ask the uncomfortable question:
what would be the real advantages of publishing only in the indigenous language? Perhaps, the
poet would lose much of the control over the proliferation of his work. For one, it will take many
years until the major publishers who are not specialized in this kind of work to take on these
translation projects. This, of course, is assuming there’s an important number of translators who
specialize in Indigenous languages, which at the moment Mexico does not have. At the same
time, we cannot ignore the risks of dividing the market for this literature in Mexico where in
principle we have a low number of readers in Spanish to begin with.

The poet-translator has a pivotal role in the context of the 500 years of Indigenous
Resistance Movement, continuing a dual function as an intellectual and a political activist.
Managing to penetrate a homogenizing State like never before. Let us examine the sources of
tension through the metaphor of the ghost, albeit understanding them paradoxically as scopes.
The bi-dimensionality of the ghost poet allows him it to invigorate thinking in his mother tongue,
where he convenes in his linguistic community to reimagine indigenous realities and the
signification of their fictions. Naturally, the creative act for any indigenous group is a
revindicative and revitalizing linguistic practice, nonetheless, perhaps the most transcendent
effect comes from the act of reading. The virtuality put forth by literary production is in a way
the creation of an intangible space for the experimentation of various belief systems, which also
foment the deciphering of philosophical codes imbedded in a language.

Now, if we look to the right, where most publishers insert the Spanish version, we
encounter a whole other dimension where the dominant language is an accomplice-adversary.
There too the presence of the ghost poet is as important as in the Indigenous version of the text,
where the poet also practices his potential in a space symbolic of the nation. As we stated before,
many believe that much is lost in translation, making it seem as if the poet-translator does not
possess the same creative rigor. We cannot accept this as a whole truth. It is through the Spanish
version that the ghost poet permeates homogenous thought. This is why this version is as
important as the other, so that the monolingual reader can experience other perceptions and know
about the knowledge systems external to his own realities.

The tension, the taboo, brought on by the use of the sacred and the collective in poetry is
the channeling of realities and fictions long unvalidated by society, which now disqualify
erroneous notions of Indigenous imagery and construct new real and fictional spaces truly
representative of Indigenous peoples’ views. Literature has the capacity to shape the perception
of the physical and immaterial entities to which it alludes. Let us not forget how Romanticism resignified nature, nor what the modernist made of Paris or what the Avant-Gard did for
technology. Today, Indigenous literatures are bringing forth different perspectives of communal
practices, alternative ontological relations, redefining epistemological practices, among other
questionings. Therefore, it is not entirely true to say that Indigenous writers only write for an
indigenous reader. The ghost poet also lives the public reality, navigating and conditioning his
own experience in the very language that, for many centuries, has been used to invalidate
Indigenous existence and rationality.

Now, we have to continue the conversation around re-contextualizing specialized
Indigenous knowledge, a question rather problematic given that it’s considered by many as
profiting from the sacred. However, there is far more at stake. The creative process allows the
writer to inhabit two places at the same time. By using communal elements/ practices in his
works, the poet is able to speak intimately to his linguistic community, but simultaneously inciting a dialectic process, an epistemological reencounter through the dominant language. Translation makes this possible, but this not just translation between two languages. There are two stages to translating Indigenous literatures. The first one starts with the writing of the first version, the Indigenous language, that is. It is a transfer of an oral language—with all its performative elements—to a writing system. In this sense, the poetic act, in the simplest form, is also a translation of an oral ceremonial component. This takes as back to Octavio Paz’s essay
“Traducción: literatura y literalidad”, in which the Nobel Laureate asserts that our very existence
is a translation of the multiple realities that we live every day (1971). The second stage involves
two micro processes when the poet translates to the Spanish, and could be, in fact, the most
difficult one. The first micro process is a grammatically functional transfer, for example,
languages like Zapotec don’t make a distinction of gender in objects or adjectives. So, this is a
challenge when the poet has to make a decision when it comes to maintaining cohesion in the
poetic subject or topic. The other micro-process pertains to cultural resignification, meaning that
the poet must effectively make new meanings through the use of concepts of a different
linguistic system. Having done this, networks of ontological, religious and ethical values imbued
in the Indigenous language will now infiltrate the translated piece. This is important because it
promotes the continuity and renovation of thinking in one’s mother tongue but also being able to
meditate outside of it. In this sense, translation in a fruitful intellectual exercise that can help
with language renovation.

It must be noted that Spanish, English and French function as bridge-languages among
the 20 plus Indigenous groups producing literature in Mexico. Overall, Spanish is the language
that bridges the Indigenous social and literary movement of Latin America. Therefore,
translation is also a strong factor in reading, academic dialogue and intercultural exchange. If we
truly believe that Indigenous literary production in the Americas carries out a dialogue with each
other that is able to permeate political taught, we have to trust the versatility and functionalities
of the poet-translator. We particularly have to believe in the poets who make possible this type of
intellectual exchange with Indigenous peoples of the world and other minority cultures that don’t
self-identify as Indigenous.

To conclude, the contemporary poet-translator is breaking away from the image of the
Indigenous intellectual of Colonial times by proving that one does not have to be of noble
descent to reclaim the past and have a saying in the present. However, now more than ever, the
intellectual is working to dismantle the discourses that still to this day condition the polarization
of identities and philosophical views installed through the hegemonic language. The poet-translator is bringing to light that there’s more beyond a mestizo only society. For when we confront all the realities of such a diverse country, we can perhaps negotiate Otherness in more critical and functional ways in the XXI century.

      University of California, Santa Barbara