Today, please welcome Wendy Call, an author and translator, a colleague and my co-mentor. Wendy is currently touring the U.S., from west to east, to promote her book, No Word for Welcome, which she introduces here from a fascinating perspective. I do hope you’ll be able to catch one of her many readings!
“All nonfiction writers, whether they like it or not, are translators. For me, the translator is the perfect journalist. The best journalism endeavors to convey one essential idea or story to an audience that knows very little about it. That requires translation. To do this successfully, the writer must filter the idea through the prism of his eye, his mind, his writing style.”
– Ilan Stavans, speaking at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, Cambridge, MA
For more than a decade, I worked on a book about the intersection of globalization and village life in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. I lived and traveled in the isthmus region for three years, visiting dozens of villages and speaking with hundreds of farmers, fisherfolk, elders, teachers, children, curanderos, storytellers, and laborers about their lives, their communities, and their thoughts on globalization.
We spoke in Spanish, of course, but the conversations were, in fact, often trilingual. As we spoke, my mind constantly flipped phrases from English to Spanish and then back again. Perhaps half the time, the person I was interviewing (or simply following around as s/he went about daily life) practiced the same mental gymnastics, shuttling words and emotions and ideas between Spanish and Zapotec, Mixe, Chinantec, or Ombeayiüts. That is to say, many of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish words captured in my notebook or mini-recorder were already translations.
Then, I went back to my desk and translated those words and stories again, into English. And again, as I winnowed snippets of dialogue from long transcriptions. And once again, as I decided on the order, shape, and context for that dialogue in my narrative.
Like the translator, the nonfiction writer bears an enormous responsibility: to represent the original as fairly as possible. Literary translators often speak about a central dilemma of translation: Do you bring the reader to the text or do you bring the text to the reader? In writing No Word for Welcome, I experienced a similar dilemma: to what extent should I make this Mexican story into a North American story – or to put it a different way, make a Mexican story understandable to North Americans?
I chose to focus on a small number of individuals in my book, leaving out many who played key roles in the story. But I stopped short of focusing my book on one person in a single village. My writing mentors in the U.S. thought I was making a mistake, minimizing the appeal of my book in a culture that is accustomed to stories of individual struggle and triumph. Perhaps. But doing so would mean ignoring one of the core values of isthmus communities: the collective is far more important than the individual.
Unlike most contemporary literary nonfiction, my first-person narrator in No Word for Welcome is minimally present; the reader learns little about her. Through the (many) years that I worked on it, many suggested that I make the book into a travel memoir. Nonetheless, I chose to write myself out of most of the story. I wanted readers to focus on the experiences and opinions of isthmus residents, not on my misadventures as I bumbled along, out of my element, in their homeplace.
Some of the most important lessons I learned about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and its people came from lessons in translation. I’ll give just one example, from a chapter in No Word for Welcome called “A Village of Sand.” This chapter focuses on Maritza Ochoa, who teaches four-year-olds in a bilingual Ombeayiüts-Spanish classroom in her village, San Mateo del Mar. Ombeayiüts is spoken only in her village of 10,000 residents, which is to say that it’s a language in danger of extinction.
Each Ombeayiüts word I learned (to recognize and spell, if not pronounce) opened a window onto another world. The word iüm, for example, translates most easily as “house” or “home.” Iüm also means “the place where we live” in a more general sense, and “the unity, or trinity, of people, the natural world, and God.” If Maritza’s students don’t speak Ombeayiüts to their future children, will this concept be lost?
At the time I visited Maritza’s classroom, there were only three published books in San Mateo’s language: an Ombeayiüts-Spanish dictionary, the Bible, and a first-grade reader. The Ombeayiüts-Spanish dictionary, compiled and published by North American missionaries, defines iüm as simply, “la casa (edificio)” – “the house (building).” In an oral language, what repository of knowledge is there but the language itself? With no written texts, history is housed in the language; each phrase its own small story.
(No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, University of Nebraska Press, 2011)
Wendy Call is the 2011 Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell College of Iowa and Writer in Residence at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. She co-edited Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide. Her current writing project is supported by 4Culture and the K2 Family Foundation and her current poetry translation project is supported by Jack Straw Productions. Read more at her website and blog.
Are all writers in essence translators – of ideas, information, images and stories? What is translated, beyond words themselves? And what might be lost if stories never come to light?