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What Language Do You Think In When You Write?

Víctor Terán

Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán, from Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, gave the following speech at a recent gathering of indigenous writers in that state of Southern Mexico. Terán’s work has appeared widely in English, including work in Poetry, World Literature Today, Agenda, and on the Poetry Translation Centre website.


Víctor Terán with translator David Shook


Makers of literature generally make it in the language they most dominate, generally the language in which they breastfed, their mother tongue; that’s why the question What language do you think in when you write? would be facetious if it weren’t the case that a numberless quantity of writers in “indigenous languages” pretend to write in their mother tongues to win fellowships and prizes. Does this dishonest practice, belonging to opportunists, help or hurt indigenous languages? At first I thought that if this perverse practice didn’t help indigenous languages, neither did it damage them, given that they’ve managed to survive—for more than five hundred years—the national politics of destruction & discrimination that our governments have used to “incorporate” us into a monocultural system they call “civilization” or “modernity.”

Still, today I note with some preoccupation how indigenous languages experience an accelerated process of degeneration & extinction because of the lack of policy that encourages their permanence and development, & because of the exclusive use of Spanish in schools (those called bilingual aren’t as they should be) & in means of communication. The phenomena of homogenization between Spanish & the indigenous languages that make us talk & think according to the logic of the Spanish language & not that of our indigenous tongues (in addition to corrupt practices), like the soapbox discourse of evangelical pastors, the orators of community radio stations, and the literary output of these dishonest writers, leads me to affirm that those in this last group are indeed agents of destruction of our languages.

When, in 1990, the few professionals that wrote in our indigenous languages began a process of empowerment with the support of intellectuals from the left, like the late writer Carlos  Montemayor, we never imagined this perverse practice would so surge. The efforts of the Encuentros Nacionales (in Ciudad Victoria, San Cristobal de las Casas, Ixmiquilpan, Texcoco, and Mexico), begun in 1992, & the establishment of the Association of Writers from Indigenous Languages in 1993, lead to the development of literature grants for indigenous languages from FONCA, the establishment of the House of the Writers from Indigenous Languages, & prizes like the Nezahualcoyotl and the continental Song of America. These achievements now benefit opportunists more than those who actually write in indigenous languages.

Who are these opportunist writers? Those that write their literature in Spanish & then translate (with or without help) the original into the indigenous language they speak. What’s the problem with that? some will ask, acknowledging that translation is a universal practice, both valid & necessary. I respond that there would be no problem if the translation were based on the grammatical structure of the indigenous language, but this, unfortunately, is not the case. How can they translate correctly without mastering the syntax of their indigenous language? If they had mastered it, they wouldn’t write in Spanish in the first case, but in their own language. So the upheaval is severe, as the writers collaborate in the degradation & destruction of the language of their ancestors.

Do these writers understand the destructive role they play for indigenous languages? I’d like to think that they don’t, I suppose it’s because of the dearth of opportunities for personal development within our nation, people are bewildered, then forced to get what they can by whatever means possible, in this case the literary grants  & prizes that do exist; & to guarantee receipt of said stimuli, they pervert their work by writing as clearly & finely as they can in Spanish, to the pleasure of the assessors of our cultural institutions, who are frequently disconnected from the realities of indigenous literature, & whose jaws drop upon reading the incredible Spanish versions, thinking the indigenous language originals say the same thing in the same manner.

What happens when these works make their way back to speakers of their respective indigenous languages? I have seen how they ignore the work with a smile on their lips, after reading the first few pages, & how they quickly forget the act, without comment or discussion, I suppose because these works represent nothing of life in the villages. What they don’t see is the prejudice of the next generations, who, noting how such prize-winning writers write, attempt to write similarly, disgracing their literary careers & the language of their ancestors.

Without fear of mistake I can say that over fifty percent of those who call themselves indigenous writers are fakers. How can this infamous practice be stopped when we live in a degraded national culture of competitions & corruption? I suppose there’s no way, but what is possible is that those who continue creating indigenous literature as an effective instrument of fortification & renovation of our languages invest in the discovery, formation, & expression of new writers in indigenous lamguages, & fight to make effective the laws that dictate “including within educational planning & programs” assignments like the reading & writing of our languages, our history, & the culture of the original nations of our country. It’s urgent that we bring this teaching to the curriculum of our public schools, with school programs at every level of basic education.

Indigenous languages represent the same life as the Mexican culture, to corrupt them because of vanity & materialism is to play irresponsibly with our destruction. The future of indigenous languages will depend on the conscienceness & love that we all have to preserve them, we must lift them up & not rest, we must appeal to the highest—& not the lowest—levels of indigenous literatures.

In spite of the adversarial conditions we face, our languages will find the way forward in this chaotic & changing world. We indigenous writers have much to do to ensure this happens: we place at the forefront honesty, creativity, quality, & innovation in the literary genres we develop, & everything else will come. Without honest literature & without education there’s no future for our languages.

Encuentro de escritores zapotecos, 15 – 18 July 2010
Centro de Artes de San Agustin, Etla, Oaxaca

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

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