Zapotec Zeitgeist


Natalia Toledo’s poetry in one of Mexico’s important indigenous languages articulates a potent
longing for traditional links
with the natural world


Some Kind of Beautiful Signal: Two Lines World Writing in Translation XVII
Edited by Natasha Wimmer and Jeffrey Yang
2010, Center for the Art of Translation
314 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

HOW refreshing it is to read Natalia Toledo’s poetry in Zapotec, a language fashioned for the incantation of tones and clicks that remind us at every turn of the intimate relationship between those who speak it and the natural world.

The rare appearance of this poetry is a reminder in itself of how marginal the writing of the indigenous nations throughout Latin America remains in the world of publishing, but also of one practical reason that may be: the sheer difficulty of translation. It is particularly enlightening to find something published and celebrated in this way that originated as neither Spanish nor English and hence unrelated to either.

It has to be admitted that the work here by the daughter of the Oaxacan painter Francisco Toledo, in the 17th version of the Two Lines anthology, only found its way into English at all and hence to a wider readership through double translation (from Zapotec to Spanish and thence to English). In some cases, this can be fatal for poetry – but fortunately not in this instance, for it is the poet herself who translated the work into Spanish and so what we are reading is, in fact, largely a straightforward trajectory rendered just once from Spanish to English that loses less along the way for being so.

Potent longing

Nonetheless, Claire Sullivan has done a fine job of translating from Spanish the two poems by Toledo contained in this anthology, “Cayache batee ladxidó’ guidxilayú…/Se reproduce el fuego en la tierra del mundo” (“Fire is reborn on the soil of the earth”) and “Gurié xa’na’ ti ba’canda’…/Sentado bajo una sombra…” (“Seated in the shadows…”).

Both were originally published in Guie’ yaase’ (Olivo negro, 2004, Conaculta) and, richly evocative in their imagery of flora and fauna, articulate a potent longing for the traditional links with the natural world of the Zapotec culture. Toledo writes:

“My shadow walks the four paths
content, my skin shivers with ants.” (from “Fire is reborn…”)


“Sadness opens furrows
like the land that we sow.” (from “Seated in the shadows…”)

The connection with nature is important in a world of shifting sands and meanings, for it was the knowledge of the natural world that provided Zapotecs with symbols, resources and the ability to survive. That anchor in a country that has endured endless waves of unforgiving modernisation is both attractive as a source of identity, but also increasingly necessary as we begin to understand the full meaning of sustainability and the full implications of ecological vulnerability in Latin America.

Toledo has published at least five poetry collections and contributed to a large number of anthologies. She has made a significant contribution within Mexico to the recognition of indigenous tongues, and hence to their wider appreciation as literary languages. Official indigenismo in the country following the Mexican Revolution was assimilationist and corrosive of indigenous languages, and it is only recent, global appreciation of them as part of a broader post-Cold War embrace of environmentalism that has fostered more serious recognition.

Toledo’s verses are short and, as with much translated poetry in which the original language will forever remain a mystery to the reader and a native speaker’s recital cannot be heard, require a leap of the imagination to fully appreciate. But their universal integrity bursts through regardless, confirming again the value of world poetry and the great significance of those small acts of solidarity among poetry lovers that this anthology represents.

As the introduction to Toledo’s work makes clear, Zapotec is a language threatened like so many others by the wild disregard for authenticity of consumer culture. In Juchitán, for example, children no longer play the language games of their forebears, preferring instead to retreat into the hyper-individual gratification of their Gameboys and similar entertainment hardware. Dilution of this kind, and dispersion, are the main threats to any language: although half a million people speak this group of languages, mostly in Oaxaca, there are also Zapotec-speaking communities in Puebla, Guerrero and, by dint of emigration, in the US.

Given this, it becomes more imperative at every turn to make speakers themselves and others aware of the literary treasures that are to be found in such tongues, and to use and publish these languages whenever and wherever possible. The Two Lines World Writing in Translation anthology is a laudable effort in this endeavour, as Natasha Wimmer, one of the translator’s of Roberto Bolaño, makes clear in her introduction. She writes:

“I’ve been in the fortunate position of witnessing how one writer can change global perceptions of the literature and culture of an entire region. Writers and translators – and readers – should remind themselves once again of the power of fiction in translation.”

Two Lines has been publishing translations of international writing annually for 17 years, and offers a showcase both of works that may not otherwise be accessible to readers in English, but also of the creative art of translation. The initiative – a programme of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco – is a powerful tool for the promotion of cultural dialogue and understanding at the heart of the centre’s mission.

This edition, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, contains the work of 30 international writers, and also casts a fascinating spotlight on the poetry of the Uyghur ethnic minority in China, another gentle voice given a global platform by this worthy initiative.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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