NEA Literature Fellowships

Clare Sullivan

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(2011 - Translation)

"Work" by Natalia Toledo

[translated from Spanish/Zapotec]

Red flowers, long and beautiful,
grew from my fingers
as if forgetting the fear that robbed me of certainty.
I walked with my hands
and stuck my body where there was mud.
My eyes filled with fine sand.
They called me the girl of the water lilies
because my root was the water's surface.
But I was also bitten by a snake mating in the marsh
and became blind. I was Tireseus making his way with no staff.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?
Perhaps I am the final branch who will speak Zapotec.
My children, homeless birds in the jungle of forgetfulness,
will have to whistle their language.
During all seasons, I am in the south,
a rusted boat dreamt by my eyes of black coco plum:
I will go to smell my land, to dance a son with no one beneath a bower,
I will go to eat two things.
I will cross the plaza, the North wind will not stop me, I will arrive in time
to embrace my grandma before the last star falls.
I will go back to being the girl who wears a yellow petal on her right eyelid,
the girl who cries flower's milk.
I will go to cure my eyes.

Excerpt in Spanish/Zapotec

About Natalia Toledo

Indigenous poet Natalia Toledo was the first woman poet to write and publish in her native language, Isthmus Zapotec. Her poetry refers to the traditions and mythology of the Oaxacan city of Juchitán, Mexico. Toledo's poetry also recalls the strong influence of music, painting, and poetry in that region. These traditions, however, are in danger of being lost to modernization. According to a linguist from Juchitán, young people less than 20 years of age are no longer very likely to be bilingual. Since Toledo now lives primarily in Spanish in Mexico City, poetry is her way of preserving her origins.

Clare Sullivan received her MA and PhD. from New York University. An Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Louisville, she specializes in contemporary Latin American poetry and teaches courses on literature, language and translation. She published a translation of Argentine Alicia Kozameh's 250 Saltos, uno inmortal in 2007 and Mexican Cecilia Urbina's Un martes como hoy in 2008, both with Wings Press. In 2011 she will direct a new translation certificate program at the University of Louisville.

Photo courtesy of James H. Beatty

Translator's Statement

I base my translations on one of the strengths of Toledo's own writing, her imagery. As a jewelry and textile designer, Toledo is aware of the visual impact of all art. Carlos Montemayor referred to "the plastic character of her work, the search for visual images, and the persistent sensory nuances" (Words 3). For example, in an untitled poem that begins "I wish you could walk with me [ . . .]" she conflates her lover's heart with a wilting flower to create this provocative image:  "Qué hermoso fuera / si aprendieras a amar hasta que tus ojos dolieran / y las penas de tu corazón se deshojaran" ("How beautiful it would have been / if you had learned to love until your eyes ached / and the woes of your heart lost their petals"). Conveying her vivid and often tactile imagery offers a translator the opportunity to explore the landscape of her native Oaxaca and the rhythms of the Zapotec language. When I translate Natalia Toledo's poetry, I lose much of her sound, of course, but my hope is to enter deeply into the originals and to create interest in the language and culture that produced them.