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12 min read

Self-translation as a political activity

The writer and researcher Manuel Bolom Pale belongs to the Tsotsil people, the largest indigenous group in Mexico’s southernmost state Chiapas. “Writing in Tsotsil means reviving and reconnecting with the history of our forefathers as part of a contemporary movement to restore and reaffirm our identity,” tells Manuel Bolom Pale. To write in Tsotsil and to translate one’s own texts to other languages has become a political and cultural act of resistance for him.

Credits Text: Manuel Bolom Pale Translation from Spanish: Rosalind Harvey November 26 2019

Self-translation is an ethical and political activity that we as indigenous writers have assumed as a responsibility. We do this so as to move our written word, indecipherable to those who don’t understand our culture, closer to those who don’t understand the many intricate knots in our speech, to those who don’t understand the testimonies borne by our collective memory, the medium through which our history and our myths pass. In our language we name our foundational culture, in which the rhythms of our present converge as a way to harmonize our identity. None of this will be understood this if we express it only in Tsotsil: hence the importance of self-translation. What is more, our writings deal with the restoration of the sacred, with our fears and with the everyday events of our lives, which, together with our circumstances, are woven into a shared language.

Self-translation has always been seen as quite obvious and, as a result, has not received enough attention. In retrieving our experience through this process, the interplay between the combination and the construction of words has been the skill that has made the greatest contribution in developing a new linguistic repertoire in our language. In my fourteen years of literary practice I have gained experience not just in forging neologisms, but also in the revival of words that have fallen into disuse and that are now employed with the same or a new semantic weight. Of course, poetic creation uses wordplay within its invocations, which serve to attain new levels of language use that as yet remain unexamined, but which have allowed us to keep discovering new ways of building and using our language.

Self-translation, then, requires a kind of epistemological encounter in which two languages, two visions, two realities, ‘both the Tsotsil and the Spanish,’ come together to undergo a dialectic process of literary innovation in the context of the historic revival of the Tsotsil culture.

In order to write in Tsotsil, first we must reengage with the intersubjective thought-feeling in which the core of our memory is anchored, to ensure we do not forget our relationship with Mother Earth. Linguistic loss results in a substantial process of forgetting who we are, what we eat, what we make, our cognitive processes. When our elders shared with us some of the profound expressions that they kept within their hearts, it was not for free: it came at the cost of discrimination, marginalization and death, inflicted simply because they were different or considered to be ignorant Indians bereft of reason.

Therefore, writing in Tsotsil means reviving and reconnecting with the history of our forefathers as part of a contemporary movement to restore and reaffirm our identity. Self-translation allows us to achieve this in a space where the individual acts as a bridge: a person whose body is marked by the tracks left by a life lived in between two cultures and languages in constant conflict. The very act of self-translation is also an act of resistance, a political battle to prevent the death of our language and affirm the possibility of making the ‘other’ known.

Those of us who work in the dual register of Tsotsil-Spanish can incorporate words from the vernacular language into our texts, or write bilingual versions with different paths for each language. Of those of us who create our literary works in this way, the majority are native speakers of Tsotsil, which we learned from our families and communities as children, while others are just starting to learn an indigenous language.

We also need to consider the level of proficiency in the languages we speak. The unique aesthetic, conceptual, ideological and stylistic features of each writer are reflected in various forms in their writing and, up until now, what we have been doing has been published simply as translation,­ and has not been published widely. As this is not merely a linguistic question but also has to do with the functions and use of the language, we could say that it is tied to the question of social or socio-natural language practices. And the challenges we face are not insignificant: we encounter cognitive conflicts with the language in the use of plural forms, gender and articles when translating our thoughts into Spanish. For example, in Tsotsil we have just two articles, TiandLi (and the variation Ni in the Huixtán dialect), and just one preposition, Ta, while Spanish has several of both.

As for the field of semantics in Tsotsil, one example is the word k’anel, which many have translated as ‘love’, although it has more than ten senses, including ‘to ask for’, ‘to require’, and ‘to request,’ to mention but a few. We might roughly express the idea of Tsotsil love using the phrase k’uxot ti ko’nton, or ‘you hurt me in my heart’, which expresses deep regard. However, when translated into Spanish the word often loses its meaning, sometimes being drained of it almost entirely. Every expression is subjected to increased tension due to being pronounced in two languages. For example, a poem that is saturated with imagery in Tsotsil can be hard to render in Spanish: k’alal chkuji sjunlej jbakel ta yut jch’ulel/‘when my skeleton nestles close in the depths of my marrow’ is just an approximation of the translation, because the expression ch’ulel conveys consciousness, the soul and the spirit, and thus the meaning seems to change.

Another example is sna’el, which is often translated as ‘memory’, although sna’el in fact conveys ‘remembering, knowing and memory’. The fragment Te sts’otet k’uchel yat k’ok’ ana’omal ta ko’nton/‘you are entangled with flames in my heart’s memories’ illustrates how translation changes the meaning: sts’otet refers to a form that is different to a vine and represents an important semantic difference from the word ‘memory’, while yat k’ok means ‘penis of fire’ but is here translated as ‘flames’. Nuances of meaning also interact between the two languages in self-translation. For example, ‘to miss someone or something’ is translated as na’el, which literally means ‘to know’ or ‘knowledge’; in the Tsotsil version there is a philosophical sense, while the Spanish has a more emotional connotation. Another example is Sna’ot ti ko’ntone/‘it’s as if my heart is pregnant with knowledge’, a word that refers to all the desire and memories that are created by hope. These examples demonstrate the limit of translation, namely those places where, in the writer’s view, there is no semantic equivalence or approximation between the languages, and which therefore reveal the points of immeasurable distance.

Languages have ways of conveying meaning that are discursively and culturally different and that, as a result, come into conflict with one another and seek to be mutually exclusive. This adversarial aspect is the cultural difference that is revealed every time we admit that there are things that cannot be translated.

In self-translation, as in other more conventional forms of translation, we are constantly reminded of the painful tension between consensus and incommensurability. The words of one language inserted into a text written in another language thus reveal both the limit of translatability and the breaching of this limit: the conflict and the expressive complementarity between languages.

The bilingual writer also invites the reader to make the same crossing that they themselves have made. The ethical and political act inherent in self-translation is modified in the reader: even if they don’t read both versions, they will still be aware of their existence and will have to make an active choice to disregard one of them. If they do not disregard one version, their reading opens up a potential space - a receptiveness, in other words, to the exploration of the liminal space between the opposing and complementary elements that can be found when versions are compared.

Bilingual writing also reflects other kinds of border crossings and transitions; for example, journeys to and from rural and urban environments, where people have different ways of life, different ways of speaking, and different ways of relating to one another. The hallmark of this writing is poetic creation, in the clear and intermediate territory of translation. For example, when writing in Tsotsil, which forms part of my native tongue (although we may learn Spanish, English or some other language as our second language), the translations shift back and forth between the first and second languages, and in this back-and-forth movement the words are polished against one another like stones. We live in both our communities and in the cities, constantly travelling the road between both spaces.

The pendular movement of indigenous writing, which swings between the spaces of the country and the city and is expressed between Spanish and Tsotsil, demonstrates one of the potential ways in which indigenous identity can be built. In recent times, some radical ideas have emerged in indigenous communities, such as the proposals to reclaim our land and to live in accordance with the principles of our ancestors. The idea is to continue on from the point at which our way of life was interrupted, to return to this point and move forward from there. For those interested in this approach, as I am, it seems like a beautiful idea, an achievable utopia. I am conflicted, however, because my plans and my life are already oriented towards the city: I have a university degree and I work as a teacher. As such, living in accordance with the community is complicated. What we are doing is constructing a new identity and although we are, of course, restoring an earlier identity, we are also building a bridge to connect with the paths we are taking in the city.

The Tsotsil education system that is being developed has led us to the conviction that we need to create our own identity, one that will not be imposed upon us, a stance that accepts all that is contradictory and conflicting in the overlap of cultures and languages. With our lives, we embody the space of coexistence and conflict: between tradition and modernity, between the communal and the individual, between the mother tongue and the imposed language. What I am doing is continuing to live in the city while travelling back and forth: returning, drawing strength, connecting with the spirituality of the countryside—with the ceremonies that are still carried out in my community—and being myself, just as I am, in the city, not denying my origins but building a different way of being. City and country will always be woven together in my life, in constant tension with one another.

In conclusion, for me, self-translation is not simply the transposition of words from one place to another on a page; rather, it is linked to my personal experience of living in a place that is both between and across languages. We understand self-translation as a form of cultural translation, because there is writing that raises awareness of the importance of our ancestral heritage, of contemporary issues and of the connection to the expressive figure of a Tsotsil rezandero, to our symbols and our sacred rituals.

As a Tsotsil writer born in a rural community and educated in a Westernising and Spanish-oriented system that, over the course of its development, erased the direct experience of learning our mother tongue because it was that of our ancestors, I believe the case of the Tsotsil language shows us the duplicitious fold in the canvas of our national history. As a member of a community that has been marginalized, stigmatized and decimated first by colonial and later by Mexican politics, I’d like to conclude with a few questions that we should continue to explore as writers in response to these new challenges. What level of proficiency does the writer have in their own language and in the language they translate? How much does the writer know about their world vision and culture and the culture of the ‘other’? How much do they know about the oral tradition they claim to understand? In the Tsotsil language, are we really interested in creation and the level of creation we are embarking on in our language, or are we solely concerned with the aesthetics of the translation in Spanish? Perhaps these questions don’t have an answer right now. But in the future, we will need to work on our answers, or someone else will need to carry out an in-depth study.

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