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Translator's Note: The north wind whips

BY DAVID SHOOK

 

Isthmus Zapotec is a dialect of Zapotec spoken in a wide area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca, Mexico. According to the 2000 government census, there are between seventy-five and one hundred thousand speakers, many monolingual. The language is tonal, with significant variations between more than fifty different dialects. In many of the villages of Oaxaca, Spanish has already displaced Zapotec as the language of the family; others have cloistered the language in their homes.

Of the Zapotec poets writing today, Vctor Terán is the most lyrical, the most assaultingly imagistic. His best poems toy with bathos without succumbing to it, an unusual funambulism at this stage of language attrition, when much indigenous poetry writhes in overt politics and its own romanticized demise. When translating Terán's poems, it is difficult to approach the edge of sentimentality without crossing it, and it is equally difficult to get as close to that edge as Terán has managed in his native language.

In Isthmus Zapotec there is a special expression reserved for missing an appointment, cuxhidxi tobi zinnña, which literally means that someone is rustling the leaves of the palm tree. Caxidxi zinña means "palm leaves rustle" and is commonly used to express the grumbling frustration of the person who waited in vain for the no-show and who, according to Zapotec tradition, has been mocked by their non-appearance. In the poem I've translated here, the shame caused by that missed appointment is the reason why the north wind, which usually assaults the isthmus between October and February, beats so ruthlessly on the village.

Though I have spent a significant amount of time in Zapotec villages throughout Oaxaca, I am by no means a fluent speaker of Isthmus Zapotec. Throughout this process I have been guided by Terán himself, who has provided me with Spanish cribs of his poems. Working together, I hope that we have managed to reflect the balance of contemporary pastoral imagism, underlying lyricism, and linguistic idiosyncrasy characteristic of Isthmus Zapotec poetry today.—DS

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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