Translating environments (ecopoetry translation workshop for Being Human Festival)

Artwork by Rhys Trimble: ‘Coed Paill Olrain / Trees Pollen Traces’

Translating environments

What are the environments of translation? That question has been rattling around in my head, in some form or another, at least since reading the poet Cecilia Vicuña’s statement, in an interview with Jonathan Skinner for his journal ecopoetics: ‘poetry is life’s reserve, a forest for the renewal of language, a biodiversity of the soul.’ On 21 November I’ll be leading an online workshop that encourages participants to ask how non-dominant languages preserve ways of seeing and relating to the natural world. Hopefully it will do so by getting them to play and practice at some intersections between poetry, translation, ‘minor’ languages and biodiversity. The workshop is one of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities’ contributions to this year’s fully digital Being Human Festival of the humanities, whose theme is “New Worlds.” Sheffield is one of four ‘Festival Hubs’ this year (the others are Derby, Glasgow, and Swansea). I’m looking forward to collaborating with amazing experts in Welsh (avant-bard(e) Rhys Trimble), Galician (poet, novelist and translator Isaac Xubín), and Nahuatl (Fidel Martínez Bautista, from Raíces: Escuela de Lenguas Maternas de Nuevo Leon, and Emma Freeman, a lecturer at Tec Monterrey in Nuevo León, northern Mexico. Working with Emma and Fidel continues, for me, an international research collaboration begun in 2019, when I was generously hosted at Tec Monterrey for a Worldwide Universities Network Research Mobility. Rhys Trimble has also very kindly allowed us to reproduce his collage work, ‘Coed Paill Olrain / Trees Pollen Traces’, as artwork for the event. The workshop is free and open to the public, although places are limited.

Working with glossaries and notes prepared by the experts in each language, my role will be to get people involved in the nitty gritty play of translating, rewriting, exploding and imploding three selected “ecopoems,” in Nahuatl, Galician, and Welsh. In digital groups, I hope to shape participants’ poem-making so that at the end they’ll have a new language-object – a translated poem – to take away. Below, I want to put some pressure on both the humanistic focus of “the humanities”, and on what exactly is meant by “New Worlds”––which is why I’ve called the workshop ‘New Language Worlds.’ By ‘minor’ languages I mean, taking some liberties with very different sorts of colonial histories, those languages which are not official languages of nation states and/or are in a dominant position either within a country, a region, or are geopolitically powerful more generally.

The idea is partly a response to the poet and multidisciplinary artist Caroline Bergvall’s linked projects Language Stations and Ragadawnwhich propose an alignment between linguistic diversity and biodiversity, both of which are threatened by extinction. These works give prominence to those Bergvall calls ‘language keepers’, speakers of threatened and/or minoritarian languages. We tend to assume that translation preserves diversity, by giving space to non-dominant languages, which in turn preserve ways of seeing and relating to the natural world. Andrew Dalby’s 2002 study, Language in Danger: The Loss of Linguistic Diversity and the Threat to Our Future, argues that languages other than the dominant colonial mono-tongues (e.g. English, Spanish, French) index plural ways of caring for the world, which are locally sensitive to environmental conditions. But we might want to question this assumption, and ask instead what role translation plays in actually erasing manifestations of linguistic and ecological diversity, by making the world more ‘connected’ along a relatively narrow plane of linguistic traffic. Despite seeming to bridge difference and connect cultures, translation’s extension of sameness also has implications for ecological ways of thinking about and in language.

In Language Stations Bergvall assembled a ‘Dawn Chorus of Languages’ in order to raise awareness of the danger language extinction poses for planetary health. Ragadawn ‘started in 2016 with Romanche (Geneva performance) and Punjabi (Southend performance)’, Bergvall explains. ‘As of 2018 some 18 languages/translations have been integrated into the Dawn Chorus of Ragadawn with contributions from approximately 40 poets/academics/translators.’ The dawn-chorus choirs that comprise each Ragadawn performance themselves mimic avian habits, in an echo of the extra-human vocalisations that may appear to be a constant and universal feature of the morning, but which in reality change along with changes to habitat and migration patterns caused by anthropogenic climate change and habitat degradation.

Bergvall’s Ragadawn also addresses the politics of migration opened up by her previous poetic work on migrant-crossings in the Mediterranean, Drift (Nightboat Books, 2014). While the early-bird singers Bergvall assembles take their pointers from ‘old European languages’ and the European lyric tradition of the alba, or dawn-song, they include ‘minoritised languages spoken by recently settled communities’, acknowledging the diasporic legacy of Europe’s colonial histories. This legacy points towards a major limitation with this exercise as I have conceived it. Unavoidably, participants will be translating their poem into a ‘new’ English poem, moving from a ‘minor’ to a ‘major’ language. Part of the problem is indicated by the title, designed to link into and hopefully gently critique Being Human’s 2020 theme, “New Worlds”, whose colonial overtones are inescapable. As an exercise the workshop is caught up, in a self-aware and critical way, in what Kavita Bhanot calls, in a recent essay up at PEN Transmissions, ‘the importance and impossibility of decolonising translation’:

From a place of power, the interaction is inevitably colonial – a form of domination. Is the act of translating from Punjabi or Hindi into English, I have often wondered, exploitative and extractive – does it make me a native informant? In other words, is the idea of decolonising translation a contradiction?

Bhanot critiques translation’s apparent smoothness on a cultural playing field weighted in favour of dominant language cultures, and the over-easiness of the conceit of “crossing borders” as a gesture of inclusion and connection. Of course, the imperial histories contouring the resistance and persistence of Nahuatl, Welsh, and Galician are differently inflected to one another; the terrain is anything but seamless. And the form of the workshop should help to mitigate against these concerns, as it is not geared towards the production of anything other than a provisional version of a poem set in relation to another poem, in a different language, with the emphasis firmly on play and process. I hope the chance to play around with the words and structures of Nahuatl, Welsh and Galician will at least allow English-speakers to get a feel for other “language-worlds”, beyond the dominance of a few world languages and their political, cultural and economic hegemony. Hopefully it will prove valuable and enjoyable for people to experience one of these languages, to get a sense of their texture close-up, and to think about how they express relations to nature, the nonhuman, perhaps different kinds of taxonomy in natural history, and so on. Whatever the poems throw up.

There are big differences between these three kinds of ‘minor’ language selected, although also some commonalities. Welsh and Galician both orientate themselves in reference to, and often against, large European states (Britain and Spain) whose dominant language is also one of the major world-languages, but the majority of whose speakers are located in the Americas, as a result of processes of colonization. In turn, the third, Nahuatl, is the most-spoken of Mexico’s 69 official indigenous languages (according to INALI, Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas) and was itself an imperial language when spoken by the Aztecs, who in turn were only the most recent of the Nahua-speaking civilizations of the Valley of Mexico. But, in common with Mixtec, Zapotec, the many Maya languages of Yucatan and Highland Guatemala, and many, many more Mesoamerican languages that today sustain a vibrant spoken and literary community, the shaping context for Nahuatl since the arrival of Cortés has been its resistance to, or grudging accommodation with, the violent imposition of Spanish.


One of my collaborators, Fidel Martínez Bautista, teaches Nahuatl at Raíces, the first school of ‘lenguas maternas’ (literally ‘mother tongues’, politicized in this context to differentiate indigenous languages from Spanish) in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León. Since 2008, the school has offered language courses to increase the visibility of indigenous groups in the state – especially the Nahua peoples – and to disseminate their culture. Around 150 students have taken courses at Raíces, most of them young, between 18 and 35, including foreign students from Germany, France, Denmark, Spain, Japan and the UK. In the future it plans to offer classes in Otomí, Maya, Catalán, and Ancient Greek. In its own words (in my translation from Spanish),

Raíces’ vision is to be an NGO of reference for the promotion and the integration of indigenous cultures and mother tongues and to become an important interlocutor that leads the recognition, knowledge and development of these cultures in the state [of Nuevo León]. Our mission is to disseminate indigenous languages, defend indigenous communities, and to promote their representation and participation through education in order to create social change.

Here are some images of the school kindly provided by Fidel.

One of the poems I’ve been working on in my own research, ‘The Aztec Priests’ Speech’, dramatizes a 1524 reply from Mexica priests to the Spanish conquistadores following the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. The poem was translated into English by Edward Dorn, Jennifer Dunbar Dorn and the Mesoamerican scholar Gordon Brotherston in the early 1970s. Despite recognizing that they are ‘subjected, / in the mirror of yourselves’, the Aztec priests address the colonizers in their own terms, refuting ‘the logo of the Omneity’, the monotheistic logic of European Christianity. Instead, they describe their relationships with their plural ‘ancestors’, who, they say, ‘spoke quite differently’:

Screenshot 2020-11-09 at 15.41.59

This reciprocal relationship with plural ancestor-deities is described in ways that were incomprehensible to the invading Spaniards: sustenance and refreshment spring from the earth and the sky, an abundance given in exchange for the proper forms of care and respect that add up to an ecological vision of reciprocal totality. Such an understanding of environment continues to be marginalized in mainstream Mexico, where Nahuatl and other indigenous languages, while officially recognized, are promoted largely by activist groups from within those language communities, while the state ideology of mestizaje (mixture), slanted towards whiteness, practically discriminates against indigenous peoples whose communities, especially in the south, are materially poor yet rich in resources, and therefore engaged in struggles to resist state and corporate extractivist and infrastructure projects. The current symbol of this approach and terrain of struggle is the proposed ‘Tren Maya’, a projected 1,500km tourist rail link for the Yucatan peninsula that will connect beach resorts and ruins at the likely cost of ‘unprecedented ecocide’ in the most biodiverse region of the country. There is therefore a hard material reality behind the drive to not only conserve but actively reinforce the cultural and political strength of indigenous communities––beginning with language, which not only names the world, but more importantly names ways of relating to it and with the other beings with which the increasingly tenuous experience of “worldness” is shared.

In this Maya world, which of all the Mesoamerican language-cultures perhaps offers the most coherently ecological cosmovisión (if only because of the complete survival of its central text, the Popol Vuh), poetry and environmental vision are linked in contemporary practice. Humberto Ak’ Abal (1952-2019), a Ki’che’ Maya poet from Guatemala, deploys indigenous and extra-human languages and practices in resistance to the cultural and linguistic imperialisms of Spanish and English in order, as Jonathan Skinner describes it in ecopoetics, to engage the environment in ‘intersubjective, or interlinguistic, participation’. In this way of seeing, Ak’ Abal’s work between Ki’che’ and Spanish makes the taxonomic structure of European natural history into a reciprocal relation with the extra-human world, in which, as Skinner puts it, ‘to name is to “sing with” a bird’.

Skinner’s interest in Maya poetics is influenced by the anthropological work of Dennis Tedlock, co-editor of Alcheringa, the journal that introduced the term “ethnopoetics” to an English-speaking readership in the early 1970s. In 1995 Tedlock delivered a talk on what he called ‘Mayan parallel poetics’ at Naropa, in Boulder Colorado. Tedlock’s argument is in dialogue with contemporaneous work by the Ki’che’ scholar, poet and activist Luis Enrique Sam Colop, who defended his doctoral dissertation at SUNY Buffalo on Maya Poetics in 1994. In the talk, Tedlock very suggestively contends that a Maya poetics based on syntactic parallels and reiterations is fundamentally distinct to the Western poetic emphasis on philology and phonology for connections between depth and surface, and between rhymes of sense and sound. Such a ‘parallel poetics’ isn’t bound by Western linguistic essentialism, and therefore is comfortable with objects, places and actions having more than one (preferably at least three) different but related names or expressions. The Spanish were frustrated in trying to impose Christianity on the Ki’che’ because, he notes, ‘no sooner did these names they invented, such as “maker” and “modeler” for the god as creator, escape among their parishioners, than the parishioners started using plural verbs with them, or sometimes singular, as they pleased.’ It makes the relatively literal, one-to-one Indo-European languages seem dull in comparison. Or perhaps not, but it’s so different that it turns everything on its head. Tedlock says, quite reasonably, that this is an example of a pluralist ‘poetics able to defeat a monist ideology’. In such a poetics,

that always stands ready, once something has been said, to find a second and even a third way to say it, there can be no fetishization of verbatim quotation, which is at the very heart of the commodification of words.

From this standpoint, Tedlock goes on, the cliché that poetry is what is lost in translation looks like an ethnocentric and linguocentric notion of translation as an extremely narrowly restricted process, rather than a contingent process that goes on all the time that language is engaged in relation to the world.

My last example of translating environments in contemporary indigenous poetic practice takes us back to Cecilia Vicuña, whose claim for poetry as ‘life’s reserve, a forest for the renewal of language, a biodiversity of the soul’ set some of these interests in train for me. In her sound work from 2012, Kuntur Ko [Water Condor], Vicuña extends and distends her vocal capacities in ‘poems & chants’ that make play with phonetic and semantic overlays between indigenous languages from Chile, Quechua and Mapuche, as well as Spanish. Like Bergvall’s Ragadawn, Vicuña situates her work at the ‘Alba del Habla’, the Dawn of Speech. The work, which you can listen to here, ultimately passes beyond these linguistic codifications to sing an elegy for the spirit of the water, mourning the loss of the Andean glaciers and therefore the fresh or ‘sweet’ water [‘agua dulce’] they supply to the peoples of the cordillera. I’ll leave this brief piece with Vicuña’s wonderful explanation of this phonic, material, ecological, incantatory, supplicatory vocal performance:

I offer a prayer, a call for us to return to a relationship with water that protects its cycle from ocean to glacier and back. Composed by combining the names for water in Quechua and Mapuche, as seen from the perspective of Spanish and English, and the confluence of the Spanish words for gold (oro) and prayer […] The word “qon”,  (also spelled kon, or con) in Quechua is water / ocean / chaos / the source of life. In Mapuche, “con” or “co” is water and the whole cycle of water from glacier to ocean. I play as well with the Quechua word “kuntur” (“condor”), turning it into the Spanish “cordon” (“thread”). In the Andes, water and thread become the metaphor “thread of life.” Kuntur is the ancestral spirit, the guardian of the glaciers, weaving the waters as they move from glacier to ocean and back. During the ceremonial cleansing of the irrigation canals, people play a flute made from the hollow bone of the condor’s wings. Its eerie sound brings into presence the ancestral world of the true owners of water, the mountain deities.

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