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The following translator’s note from Wendy Call and poems by Irma Pineda and translated from Zapotec into Spanish and English by Wendy Call come from Michigan Quarterly Review’s The Translation Issue: Within and Beyond the Metropole, Spring 2013. The full text of Wendy Call’s translator’s note and Irma Pineda’s poems may be found in our Archives.

Carrying Words Across Borders: Zapotec Poetry On/In Migration

Late last year, on one of winter’s longest, darkest nights, seventy people jammed a basement recording studio in Seattle to listen to Zapotec poetry. For poet Irma Pineda and for me, the evening marked the realization of a three-year collaboration—one still in progress. In 2008, one of my neighbors here in Seattle gave me two of Irma’s poems, hoping I might render them into English. My neighbor was a Zapotec immigrant from southeastern Oaxaca; for him those poems were voices from home. He gave them to me because I had lived in that part of Mexico and was writing a book about it; he couldn’t imagine anyone better to translate its poetry. 

I wasn’t so sure. I’d published only two poem translations, working from poems originally written in Spanish, not in an indigenous language. I couldn’t quite imagine translating a poem that had been originally written in a language I did not read or understand. My knowledge of Isthmus Zapotec was limited to a couple dozen words for foods, places, and epithets.

Irma Pineda writes poems in Isthmus Zapotec (there are three distinct languages called Zapotec, as different from one another as Italian from Spanish) and then she recreates her work in Spanish. She does not call these Spanish versions translations, but rather parallel poems or mirror poems. She is adamant that the two versions are not equivalent to one another. Irma’s idea of parallel poems gave me the confidence to translate those two poems my neighbor had given me. 

Entranced by her work, I later sent Irma an e-mail asking if she might be interested in having more of her work translated into English. Since we began corresponding, I have translated one book’s worth of Irma Pineda’s poems and I’m halfway through a second collection. We have worked out a three-stage translation (or recreation) process. First, I create a draft translation in English, based on the Spanish version of the poem. Then, I discuss that draft with Irma (who speaks almost no English). She answers any questions I have about the Spanish version and lets me know whether the (occasional) rhyme scheme or metrics of the Zapotec version are essential to the poem. She also gives me a deeper sense of the poem’s meaning and context. Twice I’ve traveled to her hometown of Juchitán, Oaxaca, so that we can review my translations in person. After our discussion, I create a new draft and seek feedback from US poets (who may or may not speak Spanish). Sometimes I ask for a literal Spanish translation of all or part of the Zapotec original—which is often quite different from her published Spanish version. The literal Spanish translation helps me render the poem more richly, or sometimes more precisely, in English. Sometimes I can recreate in English elements of the Zapotec original that she left out of her published Spanish version. In many ways, English and Zapotec come closer than Spanish and Zapotec do. (In fact, there is a growing Mexican-immigrant community in Los Angeles that is bilingual in Zapotec and English, but speaks little or no Spanish.)

Zapotec was a written language long before any other language currently spoken in the Americas was put on paper or carved into stone. Around 600 BCE, long before the Maya began carving words and stories onto stelae and pyramids, the Zapotecs began using a glyph-based system to record their history. This writing system persisted for fourteen hundred years, dying out half a millennium before Europeans arrived in the Americas. After that, Zapotec poetry and prose once again became an oral tradition. Then, 120 years ago, Isthmus Zapotecs began using a transliterated Latinate alphabet to record their poems, jokes, stories, and songs. 

At the time Irma was writing her first poems, twenty years ago, there were five alphabet and syntax systems in use for Isthmus Zapotec. There was no real dictionary. Educated entirely in Spanish, Irma learned to read and write her home language through the few published Zapotec books on her family’s and neighbors’ bookshelves. She composed poems in her head, then hunted word by word through the books to find the words in her poems. Over the last decade, Isthmus Zapotec writers have come closer to settling on a single spelling system, though there is still no school in Juchitán in which all children are taught to read and write in the language they speak at home. For years, Irma has volunteered to teach such classes wherever and whenever local public schools will have her, in addition to her full-time job at a nearby teachers’ university. She is committed to educating teachers about the importance not just of bilingualism, but also of dual literacy…

Read the rest of Wendy Call’s essay here.


Photo Credit: AP



Guluu chahui‘ ni chineu‘ cherica

‘bisaana guirá’ ni nanaa

guirá ni guchenda ñeeu lu ca neza ca

Nasisi bia‘ ti duubi nga cheu‘

ti ganda chu‘bilu‘        ti ganda guipápalu‘ 

Gula‘qui‘ chahui ni chinelu‘ 

bisaana yuuba‘ cheri‘

naa zanda gapa chahue‘ laa

bisaana xilase

qui gunihuará nga lii cherica‘

Huaxa si qui gusiaandu‘ chineu‘

xquenda beedxe‘ti gudxii lulu‘ ca neza ca

xquenda bisiá 

ti qui gutagunacabe lii

Ra ga‘chi‘ xquipilu‘ nga guibiguetu‘


Prepara tu equipaje

deja todo lo que pese

lo que pueda enredar tus pies en los caminos

Ligero como una pluma debes partir

para saltar   para volar

Prepara bien tu equipaje

deja aquí el dolor

que yo bien puedo guardarlo

deja la nostalgia

para que no te enferme allá

Mas no olvidar llevar

el don del tigre

para enfrentar los caminos

el don del águila

para que ninguna mano te detenga

Al lugar que guarda tu ombligo debes volver


Pack your suitcase

leave behind all that weighs on you

that could entangle your legs on your journey

You must leave light as a feather

to leap          to fly

Pack your suitcase well

leave the pain here

I will take good care of it

leave the nostalgia

so it won’t make you sick over there

But don’t forget to take

the gift of the tiger

to face the long journey

the gift of the eagle

so no hands will capture you

To the place that holds your lifeline, you will returnb



Ma ziula nga guca naa ca gubidxa zielu’

ne qui guidxela ni gusianda yuuba

daabi ndaani’ íque’

sicasi ñaca ti gudxiu’ natuumbu’ ruaa

chaahuidugá cuchuugu’ guendaredasilú

cuxuuxe xinaxhi

ne bandá’ ladilu’

ni cá dxiichi’ ru’

cue’ yoo yooxho’ ralidxinu

Xisi gudxiu’ di’ qui zaca

yuuba guuti xquenda ladxidua’


Largos son los soles de tu ausencia

y nada encuentro para remediar este dolor

clavado en mi mente

como un cuchillo de boca torpe

que despacio corta los recuerdos

destroza sus olores

la sombra de tu cuerpo

que permanence adherida

a las paredes de la vieja casa

Mas no será el cuchillo

del dolor que nos asesine la esperanza


So long the many sunsets of your absence

and I’ve found nothing to ease this pain

hatcheted into my brain

like a dull blade

that slowly cleaves my memories

destroys their smells

the shadow of your body

that still clings

to the walls of the old house

But my pain’s blade

won’t kill our hope

Sidi riaba lu gui’chi’

nga dxido’ ni cayuti laadu

Paraa yené ñeeu lii

Xhi guriá guidxilayú cucaadiaga tuuxa

xquendaruxidxilu ya?

Xhi ndaa layú di’ caye’ xquendaruunalu’

Ratiica nuulu

bizeenda neca ti bere stiá

guedané stiidxalu’

zaa nacati’ guedandani rari’

ne nabana’ nisaguié

Una gota de sal sobre el papel

es el silencio que nos mata

¿Adónde te han llevado tus pasos?

¿En qué rincón del mundo

alguien escucha tu risa?

¿Qué pedazo de esta tierra bebe tus lágrimas?

En cualquier lugar en que te encuentres

envía palomas mensajeras

que nos traigan tu voz

sin importar que llegue aquí

con la tristeza de la lluvia


A drop of salt on paper

is silence killing us

Where have your footsteps taken you?

In what corner of the world

do they hear your laughter?

What shard of earth drinks your tears?

Wherever you are

send messenger pigeons

that might bring us your voice

Whether or not it arrives here

with the sadness of the rain

Cayé xquendaruxidxinu

sicasi cayé guendanabani ndaani’ guiigu’

“guiigu’ bi’cu’” biree lá ni

dxi bi’cu’ nisa 

gudxite ndaani’ ni

Ti dxi gúcanu stale

ne zé ca bi’cu’ nisa

sicasi rié yanna ca nguiu

sicasi rié ca badunguiu

Tulaa gudii stipa ti guibani xcú nu ya?

pa ca biidxica cayeca’

Tulaa gusiidinu ca riuunda’ni bisiidi’ binnigula’sa laanu ya?

Ti ná huiini’ yaga ga’chi’ lade guié zadxelanu

zabidxi nisa guiigu’xisi qui zati binnizá

Se va nuestra sonrisa

como la vida en este río

“de las nutrias” le llamaron

cuando perros de agua

jugueteaban en él

Un día fuimos tantos

que las nutrias se marcharon

como se van ahora nuestros hombres

como se van los jóvenes

¿quién dará la fuerza para perpetuar nuestras raíces

si las semillas se van?

¿a quién habremos de enseñar los cantos

que de nuestros abuelos heredamos?

Una rama escondida hallaremos entre las piedras

Se secarán los ríos

más no morirán los binnizá.

Our smile floats away

like the life in this river

“of nutrias” they called it

when the river dogs

played games in it

One day there were so many of us

that the nutrias went away

like our men leave now

like young people leave

who will have the strength to sustain our roots

if the seeds float away?

to whom will we teach the songs 

that we inherited from our grandparents?

We will find a hidden branch among the rocks

The rivers can dry up

but the binnizá will not die

Xilase qui raca nisa xa ñee binni

qui rigui‘ba’ deche mani‘

ni nuxale‘ laa ladxido‘

Riaana rari‘

naaze dxiichi‘

gui‘di‘ lu beela naná

caye‘ nisa ruuna binni

ne rusiayasi rini

Xilase qui rié di‘

sicasi rié nisa guiigu‘

laa raca ti nisado‘

qui ria‘ rixubiyú laanu. 

La nostalgia no se hace agua bajo los pies

no se sube al lomo de ningún caballo

que la lleve lejos del corazón

Se queda aquí


asida a la doliente carne

se bebe las lágrimas

y nos alborota la sangre

La nostalgia no se marcha 

como el agua de los ríos

se vuelve un mar

que nos arrastra implacable


Nostalgia doesn’t melt like water underfoot

doesn’t climb on the back of a horse

to be carried far from our hearts

It stays here


rooted in racked flesh

drinking up tears

and roiling our blood

Nostalgia doesn’t flow away

like riverwater

but becomes a sea

pulling at us relentlessly

Translated from Spanish (and Zapotec)by Wendy Call


  1. From Xilase qui rié di’ sicasi rié nisa guiigu’/la nostalgia no se marcha como el agua de los ríos (Nostalgia Doesn’t Flow Away like Riverwater), Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas (Mexico city, 2007).