Writers' Corner

Wendy Call

2015 Translation Projects

Translator’s Statement

By century’s end, we will lose half the languages currently spoken on the planet. I remember distinctly the moment I learned that fact: rain drummed the sheet-metal roof of my cinderblock house in southern Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The century had just dawned. I delighted in the rich tones of Chinantec, Chontal, Mixe, Ombeayiüts, and Zapotec that surrounded me, marveled at people’s efforts to sustain their local languages, and worried about their odds of success. Then I learned that those endangered languages shared their fate with approximately 3,500 others: half our human ability to convey emotion and experience, name our world, and locate ourselves in the cosmos.

I began reading all the indigenous Mexican literature I could find, discovering that within 100 miles of my cinderblock house, writers were publishing stories and poetry in at least ten languages. Knowing nothing of those Native Mexican languages beyond a few words for greetings and foods, I relied on bilingual writers who rendered their work in Spanish, as well. Eventually, I dared to translate some of that literature into English—yes, the lingua franca largely responsible for global language loss. Unavoidable irony aside, I translate with joy, hoping that increased awareness might foster support for linguistic conservation, for cultural survival.

I encountered Irma Pineda’s poems in a Mexico City literary journal in 2005, long after I’d moved back to the United States. She and I corresponded via email for five years before I returned to the isthmus and visited her hometown of Juchitán, Oaxaca. I translated a first collection of her poetry in small snatches of time over years. Thanks to the NEA’s generous fellowship, I’ll translate Nostalgia Doesn’t Flow Away Like Riverwater during stretches of uninterrupted time at my desk in Seattle and with the poet in Juchitán—an enormous gift.

"You will not see me die" by Irma Pineda

[translated from Spanish and Zapotec]

You will not see me die
              you won’t forget me
I am your mother
your father
your grandfather’s old stories
age-old traditions
the tear welling from an old willow
the saddest branch
              lost among the leaves
You will not see me die
because I am
a reed-woven basket
              where the old spiny lobster
              still waves his pincers
the fish eaten by God
the snake that gulped a rabbit
the rabbit that always teased the coyote
the coyote that swallowed a wasps’ nest
the honey that wells from my breasts
I am your lifeline
              and you will not see me die
You may think everyone has gone away but
you will not see me die
There will be a seed
              hidden in the scrub by the path
that must return to this land
and seed the future
and feed our souls
and our stories will be reborn
and you will not see me die
because we will stay strong
we will always survive
our song will live forever
we will be ourselves and you
and our children’s children
and the earth’s quaking
              that will shake the sea
and we will be many hearts
              anchored to the core of the binnizá
and you will not see me die
              you will never see me die
                            you will never
                                          see me die

Original in Spanish and Zapotec

About Irma Pineda

Irma Pineda (born 1974) has published six bilingual (Isthmus Zapotec – Spanish) poetry collections. She is the only woman to have been president of Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas, Mexico’s national association for indigenous-language authors, and the fourth indigenous woman writer to be selected for the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte, Mexico’s national academy of writers and artists. According to UNAM’s journal Periódico de Poesía, Pineda is “one of the strongest poets working in Zapotec, the [Mexican] Native language with the largest literary production.”  She works as a writer, editor, translator, and educator in her hometown of Juchitán, Oaxaca.

Wendy Call

Wendy Call is a writer, editor, translator, and educator in Seattle. She has served as Writer in Residence at twenty institutions, including universities, national parks, high schools, visual art centers, a historical archive and a public hospital. She co-edited Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide (Penguin, 2007). Her book No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy (Nebraska, 2011) won Grub Street’s National Book Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays about indigenous Mexican literature and her translations have appeared recently in Diálogo, Kenyon Review online, Michigan Quarterly Review, Orion, and World Literature Today online. Her current writing projects have been supported by 4Culture, Artist Trust, Jack Straw Cultural Center, K2 Foundation, and Seattle’s CityArtist Program. She teaches creative writing, editing, and world literature at Goddard College.