Osiris Ánibal Gómez: The ghost poet

Writing and translating indigenous poetry in twenty-first century Mexico

Osiris Anibal Gómez, right, with Mazatec poet Juan Gregorio Regino
Osiris Anibal Gómez, right, with Mazatec poet Juan Gregorio Regino, director of Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI).

For the past ten years there’s been an ongoing discussion among writers and critics concerning the conditions and the transcendence of translation in contemporary Indigenous literary production. On the one hand, there are those who express that the birth of bilingual literature in Mexico has been shaped by federal writing grants offered mainly to writers who agree to self-translate their work to the Spanish language for publishing. On the other hand, there are writers who take on the double artistic responsibility as a necessity for greater dissemination. These writers have even gone beyond self-translation and are producing trilingual cotranslated books. 

Both views help us understand how the continuous rise of Indigenous literatures is bringing to light the need to attend to the political needs and intellectual endeavors of Indigenous peoples. My objective here is to offer a brief reflection on the intellectual transcendence of a bilingual literature, particularly by understanding the act of writing and self-translation as an inseparable and powerful strategy to creating a new wave of Indigenous thought truly representative of Indigenous peoples’ views. I am fully aware of the challenges Indigenous writers face as members of disenfranchised groups, and I understand that in a way artistic expression is validated by means of the dominant language. However, I seek to situate my discussion in this source of tension by examining how the bilingual dilemma is also a source of literary and political mobility. This undetermined state allows me to reflect on other challenges adhered to the Indigenous writer through the metaphoric figure of the ghost. There are two keywords to understanding this idea: biculturality and bidimensionality. When I say that the Indigenous poet is much like the ghost, I’m alluding to the way both entities have the capacity to inhabit two dimensions, those being the community and the public spheres and also the Spanish and the Indigenous language dimensions. This mobility is bestowed upon subjects who capitalize their bicultural and bilingual abilities, whose views are influenced by the two realities they transgress daily.


Before moving forward, it is useful to understand Indigenous literature as part of a growing compendium of minor literatures. Indeed, minor literature is invasive literature. Allow me to explain this following some the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. To write from a stateless language is a political gesture, but a true minor literature has to move beyond that and code hidden realities and fictions resisting in an invisibilized context or under oppression. This means that a writer must look into the most profound sociocultural fibers in search of the aesthetic values that will allow for the dissemination of other perceptions, different from those widely spread in national literature. In the eyes of the French philosophers, this is the true political potentiality of writing, because it is from these particular spaces that writing can be subversive and defiant (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, 1986).


That being said, I say that minor literature is invasive because its very existence and essence prevails within the highest level of tension, mostly composed of three factors that I will explain briefly. Rethinking the inception of these three factors will help us understand how Indigenous writers, in this particular case, inure to adverse conditions, while setting the foundations for a new intellectuality, which is the product of a socially and politically influential literature.


The first producing factor of tension begins with the poet’s search for a mode of poetics within multiple community realities, where verbal arts have existed for millennia, expressions that to the external eye might seem fully artistic, but for an Indigenous group, a poetic-like language, perhaps belonging to a sacred, medicinal or ceremonial realm, therefore making it an exclusive knowledge component. From the moment the poet emulates collective knowledges or practices outside the community, they violate religious and ethical codes. The resignification of these practices places the now literary production in a state of taboo, which only grows stronger when the poet trespasses the oral dimensions into the space of writing where, at the same time, the poet has to adopt the figure of the writer, an individualist entity who performs in a public space, where sociolinguistic and editorial forces foment the birth of a bilingual literature, as I mentioned before.


Bilingual production changes the literary panorama of the official language, literary theory becomes insufficient to learning a literature that requires understanding of verbal formulas connected to epistemic processes, the discernment of hybrid genres, and specialized language intertwined with aesthetic models of the West. This is the second factor of tension, the encounter between the national literature and dozens of emergent poetics in Indigenous languages, a literary effervescence that problematizes the idea of Mexico’s mestizo-only national identity. Furthermore, defying the literary parameters is a sane process of potential renovation that all literatures go through not only to generate aesthetic transformations. This process also forces critics and historians to take on questions such as who are the readers of this literature? What do we know about the reception of this literature through the scope of translation?


The third factor derives precisely from the responsibilities tied to a bilingual literature. In principle, we are made to believe that the Spanish version loses some of the meaning or beauty. I do not follow this idea, because it ignores the agency of the poet-translator who, in this case, is able to reach out to multiple groups of readers. Yet, we must ask the uncomfortable question: what would be the real advantages of publishing only in the Indigenous language? Perhaps, the poet would lose much of the control over the proliferation of his work. For one, it will take many years until the major publishers who are not specialized in this kind of work to take on these translation projects. This, of course, is assuming there’s an important number of translators who specialize in Indigenous languages, which at the moment Mexico does not have. At the same time, we cannot ignore the risks of dividing the market for this literature in Mexico where in principle we have a low number of readers in Spanish to begin with.


The poet-translator has a pivotal role in the context of the five hundred years of Indigenous Resistance Movement, continuing a dual function as an intellectual and a political activist. Managing to penetrate a homogenizing State like never before. Let us examine the sources of tension through the metaphor of the ghost, albeit understanding them paradoxically as scopes. The bidimensionality of the ghost poet allows him it to invigorate thinking in his mother tongue, where he convenes in his linguistic community to reimagine Indigenous realities and the signification of their fictions. Naturally, the creative act for any Indigenous group is a revindicative and revitalizing linguistic practice, nonetheless, perhaps the most transcendent effect comes from the act of reading. The virtuality put forth by literary production is in a way the creation of an intangible space for the experimentation of various belief systems, which also foment the deciphering of philosophical codes embedded in a language.


Now, if we look to the right, where most publishers insert the Spanish version, we encounter a whole other dimension where the dominant language is an accomplice-adversary. There too the presence of the ghost poet is as important as in the Indigenous version of the text, where the poet also practices his potential in a space symbolic of the nation. As we stated before, many believe that much is lost in translation, making it seem as if the poet-translator does not possess the same creative rigor. We cannot accept this as a whole truth. It is through the Spanish version that the ghost poet permeates homogenous thought. This is why this version is as important as the other, so that the monolingual reader can experience other perceptions and know about the knowledge systems external to his own realities.


The tension, the taboo, brought on by the use of the sacred and the collective in poetry is the channeling of realities and fictions long unvalidated by society, which now disqualify erroneous notions of Indigenous imagery and construct new real and fictional spaces truly representative of Indigenous peoples’ views. Literature has the capacity to shape the perception of the physical and immaterial entities to which it alludes. Let us not forget how Romanticism resignified nature, nor what the modernist made of Paris or what the avant-garde did for technology. Today, Indigenous literatures are bringing forth different perspectives of communal practices, alternative ontological relations, redefining epistemological practices, among other questionings. Therefore, it is not entirely true to say that Indigenous writers only write for an Indigenous reader. The ghost poet also lives the public reality, navigating and conditioning his own experience in the very language that, for many centuries, has been used to invalidate Indigenous existence and rationality.


Now, we have to continue the conversation around recontextualizing specialized Indigenous knowledge, a question rather problematic given that it’s considered by many as profiting from the sacred. However, there is far more at stake. The creative process allows the writer to inhabit two places at the same time. By using communal elements/practices in his works, the poet is able to speak intimately to his linguistic community, but simultaneously inciting a dialectic process, an epistemological reencounter through the dominant language. Translation makes this possible, but this is not just translation between two languages. There are two stages to translating Indigenous literatures. The first one starts with the writing of the first version, the Indigenous language, that is. It is a transfer of an oral language — with all its performative elements — to a writing system. In this sense, the poetic act, in the simplest form, is also a translation of an oral ceremonial component. This takes as back to Octavio Paz’s essay “Traducción: literatura y literalidad,” in which the Nobel Laureate asserts that our very existence is a translation of the multiple realities that we live every day (1971). The second stage involves two micro processes when the poet translates to the Spanish, and could be, in fact, the most difficult one. The first micro process is a grammatically functional transfer, for example, languages like Zapotec don’t make a distinction of gender in objects or adjectives. So, this is a challenge when the poet has to make a decision when it comes to maintaining cohesion in the poetic subject or topic. The other micro-process pertains to cultural resignification, meaning that the poet must effectively make new meanings through the use of concepts of a different linguistic system. Having done this, networks of ontological, religious, and ethical values imbued in the Indigenous language will now infiltrate the translated piece. This is important because it promotes the continuity and renovation of thinking in one’s mother tongue but also being able to meditate outside of it. In this sense, translation in a fruitful intellectual exercise that can help with language renovation.


It must be noted that Spanish, English, and French function as bridge-languages among the twenty-plus Indigenous groups producing literature in Mexico. Overall, Spanish is the language that bridges the Indigenous social and literary movement of Latin America. Therefore, translation is also a strong factor in reading, academic dialogue, and intercultural exchange. If we truly believe that Indigenous literary production in the Americas carries out a dialogue with each other that is able to permeate political taught, we have to trust the versatility and functionalities of the poet-translator. We particularly have to believe in the poets who make possible this type of intellectual exchange with Indigenous peoples of the world and other minority cultures that don’t self-identify as Indigenous.


To conclude, the contemporary poet-translator is breaking away from the image of the Indigenous intellectual of Colonial times by proving that one does not have to be of noble descent to reclaim the past and have a saying in the present. However, now more than ever, the intellectual is working to dismantle the discourses that still to this day condition the polarization of identities and philosophical views installed through the hegemonic language. The poet-translator is bringing to light that there’s more beyond a mestizo only society. For when we confront all the realities of such a diverse country, we can perhaps negotiate Otherness in more critical and functional ways in the twenty-first century.

                                                                                    University of California, Santa Barbara