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Rational Animal

By Victoria Livingstone

I did not meet Maya K’iche’ poet Pablo García in person; rather, as with a number of other poets whose work I have translated, my first contact with him was in a bookstore, where I read his poems aloud to myself in Spanish. I had come across his bilingual K’iche’-Spanish book, B’ixonik tzij kech juk’ulaj kaminaqib’/Canto palabra de una pareja de muertos (F&G Editores, 2009) at a conference on Maya literature in Guatemala City to which I had been somewhat unexpectedly invited. The poems, which García wrote first in K’iche’ and then translated into Spanish, narrate the plight of a man and a woman who are trapped in Xibalba, the Maya underworld.  The couple reflect on how they fell “out of harmony / with the heart of sky and the heart of earth” and make repeated pleas for their “creators” to save them, until they finally realize that they must work together for redemption. The rhythm of García’s poetry and the strangeness of his Spanish struck me.  Although I had no direct access to the K’iche’, I could sense that the Spanish versions conserved elements of the original language and I tried to reproduce the effect in my English translation, titled Song from the Underworld.

I had never studied K’iche’, so I was trying to create, in English, echoes of a language to which I did not have direct access.  I read grammar books, looked at Spanish-K’iche’ dictionaries, consulted with scholars, read articles on everything from anthropology to mythology, and asked Pablo as much as I could.  I found that he wrote emails much the same way he writes poetry, creating rhythms through repetitive structures.  In one of his first messages to me, he wrote:

Escribí el poemario por la razón de escribir por escribir.
Escribí el poemario por la razón de escribir en Maya K’iche’.

I wrote the book of poems in order to write for the sake of writing.
I wrote the book of poems in order to write in Maya K’iche’.

Pablo’s book strives to conserve and promote K’iche’ language and culture in Guatemala, a country with a history of great violence against indigenous cultures.  The original publication of the book was in itself a political act.  F&G Editores published B’ixonik tzij kech juk’ulaj kaminaqib’/Canto palabra de una pareja de muertos after García won the 2007 B’atz’ Prize for Indigenous Literature (an honor he shared with Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez).  The B’atz’ Prize was created by writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa in 2004, partly in response to K’iche’ poet Humberto Ak’abal, who had publicly refused the prestigious Miguel Ángel Asturias Prize the year before, arguing that the government should not have a prize named after an author who wrote a master’s thesis titled “The Indian Social Problem.” When Rosa won the Asturias Prize the following year, he asked the government to create an award recognizing works written in any one of the Maya languages spoken in Guatemala. When the government refused, Rosa used his winnings to create the B’atz’ Prize. Because of these political factors and because García’s work relies on a number of poetic devices typical of traditional Maya poetry, it was important for me as a translator to try to reach as much of the K’iche’ as I could.

The poet’s communication with me was at first very reserved.  When I asked for permission to translate, he sent me a long “Agreement for Literary Cooperation”—addressed from “Planet Earth,” a contract that revealed that although he was unsure about legal matters, he was somewhat suspicious of me and wanted to protect himself. He sent me a draft of the contract and then a final version, both of which I signed. With time, however, he began to trust me, and his later emails were bilingual, with greetings first in K’iche’ and then in Spanish, always separated into separate lines, with the usual “Planeta Tierra” and the date as a header:

K'ama' jun rutzil wach la.

Reciba un saludo.

Maltiyox che la     rumal ri tzijonem la.
Gracias a usted   por su comunicación.

He never shared many personal things with me, but he sometimes asked me hesitant questions about my work as a teacher (a profession we share). When I told him about my then newborn niece, he wrote to me that the “Creator of the Universe” was giving me an opportunity to “live, understand, and share the wisdom of childhood once more.” Mostly, though, our dialogue has been about poetry, mythology, and K’iche’ culture.  Pablo always graciously answered all of my questions, explaining, for example, which images were of his personal creation (“black moon”) and which were cultural references (“black rain” is what he calls the rain that falls for days in Totonicapán, Guatemala, where he lives).  When I asked him about the references to the Maya creation myth the Popol Wuj, he told me that his work was not based on that mythology and that he had never read the Popol Wuj.  However, characters from the story such as the underworld lords Jun Kame and Wuqub’ Kame and the hero twins Jun Ajpu and Ixb’alamkej appear as central images in García’s poems, so he must have been intimately familiar with the narrative through oral tradition.  When I asked him questions, trying to interpret the poems, he stressed that he could tell me only his personal opinions, and that he had no way of knowing exactly what the man and the woman—his poetic creations— in the poems think, feel, or believe. 

At times, his responses drew attention to differences in our background and in our approaches to literature in ways that made me uncomfortable. I tended to ask him questions based on research, and he would respond by telling me that he was not a literary scholar, not a “técnico en la literatura,” not a “técnico en la poesía.” He just writes in order to write.  His responses, however, always revealed great insight.  I asked him, for example, about his translations from K’iche’ to Spanish.  He explained that he might write “ri saqa ja” in K’iche’ and “la casa blanca” in Spanish, but that those two phrases would not convey exactly the same image because each language carries its own set of references.  The readers, he added, will also understand the meanings differently than the writer does.  Every phrase, therefore, carries its own unique weight.

I do not think that Pablo realizes how much he has taught me through his correspondence and his poetry.  In his poem “Father, Mother, Forgive Our Sin,” he writes (my translation):

we didn’t feel when
from the blackness of the Black Moon
a rational animal, a thinker
rose galloping and settled in our hearts.

Pablo’s poetry drew me in through its rhythm and unusual imagery before I had much knowledge of Maya literature.  When I began to translate, however, I approached the poems as a scholar, seeking to understand through research.  My dialogue with García always brought me back to the fact that I first connected with him through more universal sentiments.  I returned to those deeper connections as he showed me other ways of seeing the world and reminded me, at times, to suspect my own “rational animal.”

Published Mar 17, 2014   Copyright 2014 Victoria Livingstone

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