If you are going to build a homemade hand grenade, you’d better do everything exactly right. Better not to do it all than to do it imperfectly. Most things aren’t like that, though. Good translation necessitates a compromise between the demands of the original poem, and the demands of its new language. There are always changes, losses, compromises. But just because there’s no such thing as a perfect translation doesn’t make the efforts of translators pointless. On the contrary, the effort to bring a poem into a new language can add to the readership of a fine poet, but also create something entirely original in its new linguistic home. Frost once quipped, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but that may just be because he didn’t do much translating himself. He certainly read his fair share of translations, with pretty decent results.
Natalia Toledo is a well-known Mexican poet who writes in Zapotec, a language spoken by roughly half a million people, mostly in southwestern Mexico. There are plenty of resources online to learn about the history and grammar of Zapotec, as well as some of the efforts attempting to preserve it. But if you just want a quick taste of what it sounds like, you can hear some here, including two poems in the voice of Toledo herself.
Toledo translates the poems into Spanish, and in 2015 Phoneme Media published a book of Clare Sullivan’s translations into English which includes Toledo’s original Zapotec as well as the Spanish versions. (It’s a beautifully made book, by the way — read it one way to see the Zapotec and English, then turn it upside down to see the Zapotec against the Spanish.) Sullivan has the good fortune to be able to consult with Toledo herself about the poems, but they are still translations of translations, and so we are always seeing them through an opaque gauze, trying to fathom the nuances we are missing. For those of us who can’t read or speak Zapotec, we must ultimately approach the poems as poems in English, echoing or reflecting Toledo’s intentions rather than mirroring them exactly. The reflection will be warped, but if our translator does well, then the warped reflection will have its own beauty, intention, and meaning. So let’s have a look:
Flower that Drops Its Petals
I will not die from absence.
A hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower
my heart mourns and shivers
and does not breathe.
My wings tremble like the long-billed curlew
when he foretells the sun and the rain.
I will not die from absence, I tell myself.
A melody bows down upon the throne of my sadness,
an ocean springs from my stone of origin.
I write in Zapotec to ignore the syntax of pain,
ask the sky and its fire
to give me back my happiness.
Paper butterfly that sustains me:
why did you turn your back upon the star
that knotted your navel?
— from The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems (Phoneme Media 2015), used by permission of the publisher
One of the things I love about this poem is the mix of the strange and the familiar, and how Toledo brings us along from one to the other. The lyrical tone of the speaker at the beginning (“I will not die from absence”) is firmly in the romantic tradition – my first reading assumed the “absence” that she refuses to die from is the absence of a lover, and I don’t think that reading is ever fully dispelled, although other more complicated readings are added to it. So as a reader I begin with recognition.
The other familiar tactic in the opening lines is the reliance on the natural world to illustrate the speaker’s distress – “a hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower” is not an image I’ve encountered before, but the precision of the description, wild as it is, makes a kind of poetic sense to me. I’m not exactly sure what “the eye of my flower” is either, but with “my heart” in the next line, I can make an educated guess. Or to be more exact, I’m comfortable being in the vicinity of knowing what she means.
But things gradually get stranger as we move through the poem. I know what a curlew is (think of a sandpiper, with a long, curved, thin bill), but the idea that curlews somehow foretell sun and rain is new and odd, and I’m beginning to wonder if the speaker’s “wings tremble[ing]” is such a bad thing. The references to the creatures in the speaker’s home landscape are not only illustrating her distress, they seem to be providing her with the tools to resist it. So, after the repetition of “I will not die from absence,” my sense is that “a melody bows down upon my throne of sadness” seems to be a positive development, as does “an ocean springs from my stone of origin.” The way I read it, the power and fecundity of the ocean is going to help her fight off that potentially lethal absence.
By the way, here’s something I often catch in English translations of Romantic languages – the frequent use of the construction “the XX of XX.” In the tiny bit of Spanish I know, and a bit more in French, the words del, de, de la, du are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, the way we don’t notice if the word “the” occurs a lot in an English sentence. In English we tend to notice that construction after a few instances, so that “eye of my flower,” “throne of sadness,” “stone of origin,” and “syntax of pain” call attention to themselves a bit as Toledo’s imagistic technique. I sympathize with Sullivan’s challenges as a translator here, tbough, because if you replaced those phrases with “flower eye,” “sadness throne,” or “origin stone,” it would sound a bit too clipped, brutal, abrupt or for the lyric tone of the poem. But I thought I’d point it out as an interesting way that bringing a language into English presents the translator with unique difficulties. I suspect this wouldn’t be true with, say, a translation from Spanish to French.
Meanwhile I want to know more about this “stone of origin.” Because if an ocean springs from it, it’s clearly a source of bounty and assurance for our speaker. The mention of Zapotec in the next line supports the growing sense I have that this poem isn’t really about romantic heartbreak, but rather about cultural alienation. Why is writing in Zapotec a way “to ignore the syntax of pain”? Knowing that Toledo also speaks and writes in Spanish, we can deduce that Spanish has a painful syntax for her, no doubt partly because of the history of oppression and violence that speakers of Zapotec faced (and continue to face) in the language, laws, and sentences of Spanish. But the idea that the very syntax of Spanish is painful is more profound, because we ourselves are reading the poem via a Spanish translation that Toledo herself wrote. And we can imagine that Spanish syntax has infiltrated into her own mind and mouth. She is a contorted person, in pain in the syntax of Spanish, which nevertheless she must use in order for us to understand her.
But Toledo’s speaker refuses to perish under this, and because she has access to her native language, her declaration (in Spanish, and then in English) that she writes in Zapotec seems to be a way of explaining herself to outsiders like us, but also a way to work her way back to a language in which she can pray to “the sky and its fire” for happiness. Even through the double-gauze of two translations, we sense that the phrase that Sullivan has interpreted as “the sky and its fire” is likely a traditional one in Zapotec, perhaps with religious connotations. If her life in the broader world has forced her into a syntax of pain, this poem – and the others written in her first language – are her way back to the spiritual sources of her power and happiness.
The last sentence is mystifying in a way that delights me. The poem addresses some version of what we might call the speaker’s soul, metaphorized as a “paper butterfly.” But what is this paper butterfly? Is it a species of insect familiar to the region, or a reference to origami, a practice that must have been imported? And while the admonishment that she should not have turned her back on her star/heritage is one I’ve seen in other contexts, the image that illustrates it is again deceptively cross-cultural. “The star / that knotted your navel” seems to refer to both pre-Christian religious beliefs but also to more recent scientific discoveries about our origins in stardust. By reclaiming Zapotec, Toledo seems better able to live in and understand both the ancient and modern worlds.
Here I also want to give credit to Clare Sullivan for summoning the wonderful phrase “knotted your navel,” which feels like a new way to illustrate a birth metaphor that is cultural more than it is biological. It also has a wonderful bit of alliterative music that is not in the Spanish (“que anudaba tu ombligo”) but which I sense is there in the original: “beleguí biliibine xquípilu’.” You don’t have to be able to know how to pronounce that phrase to see all of the b’s, l’s and i’s playing off each other. So we have Clare Sullivan to thank for giving us a sense in English of what it might sound like for a Zapotec speaker to return to her language and culture in a way that will in turn help her face the rest of the world. It’s a gift that is only possible in translation.