Interview / Mexico / Translator

In Conversation with Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, Ayuujk Linguist, Translator and Essayist

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Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil—sometimes known as simply Yásnaya Aguilar—is an essayist, translator, and linguist working primarily with Spanish and Ayuujk (alternatively known as Ayuujk, Ayuuk, or Ayöök), a language spoken predominantly in northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico. (Throughout this interview, I’ll use the Spanish word ‘Mixe’ to refer to her mother tongue.)

Prolific on Twitter, where she tweets regularly about Mexican politics, literature, indigenous languages, and the squirrels that won’t stop devouring her homegrown avocados, Yásnaya is also a court interpreter, member of Colmix (a Mixe Collective), and columnist for Este País—a collection of her writing was published as Ää: manifiestos sobre la diversidad lingüística by Almadía and Bookmate in 2020.

Here, we discuss refusing to self-translate, grammar as poetry, teaching herself Spanish, and just why she has such an issue with squirrels.


Lauren Cocking: What does the act of translation mean to you?

Yásnaya Elena Gil: It depends on whether I’m translating literary texts, didactic texts, poetic texts, or legal texts. What must be shifted to the other language is really different. I always ask myself, what’s the priority? I think translation’s also a political act when I’m working with Mixe [an indigenous language spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico].

LC: Which type of translation do you find the most challenging?

YEG: All of them. Legal translation is very dry and I’m always asking myself if it makes sense. It’s enjoyable but in a practical sense. But what I really enjoy—although I grapple with the complexity—are literary texts.

And right now, I’m translating a 20th century monograph about Mixe people from English to Spanish for the first time. It seems unfair to me that we mixes don’t have access to it.

LC: What do you look for when translating from Spanish to Mixe?

YEG: Sometimes just pure enjoyment. Sometimes I translate just for pleasure—I don’t know if I’m even going to print it out or show it to anybody, I just do it because I like it and I want to.

Other times, when I’m interpreting for legal cases, for example, it’s about basic rights and access to the due legal process. That can’t exist without an interpreter.

[Translating into Mixe is] a vicious cycle—there aren’t people who read Mixe, so there aren’t books in Mixe. Then you write the books, but there’s nobody to read them. So, readers aren’t connected with the titles and we have to shepherd them through the whole process. Every time I publish something in Mixe, I have to put on a workshop to teach people how to read it.

LC: Yeah, you’ve written about how complicated it is to translate from indigenous languages, specifically Mixe, to Spanish, adding that it’s the work of a collective. Who do you speak to when you’re doing translations into Mixe?

YEG: I used to ask my grandma, who’s passed away now, or my mum or my friends or my uncle. My aunt, for example, knows a lot about plants and animals that I don’t, not in the same way. I’m not a specialist. So, I’ll ask her, tía, look, there’s a snake that looks like this… and she’ll tell me about all the snakes and we figure out which one comes closest. But it’s work that requires a lot of talking and every person becomes a dictionary.

I know that someone who lives here in the more urban area of my community might not have the same specific vocabulary as someone who works in the fields. Or there are elders who I seek out to talk to, and I’ll say look, I’m thinking about translating it like this, what do you think? And even though they don’t speak Spanish, I’ll tell them the sentence in Mixe—the way I’m thinking of translating it—and they give me options. It’s all about visiting, talking, letting it sit, coming back to the text.

Sometimes, when it’s something more literary, I listen to really poetic recordings, to sort of switch on that part of [my brain], because I don’t have a dictionary. If I know that there’s another word that’s a synonym and could maybe work better, I can’t open up a thesaurus. I have to rely on my memory or the memory of others.

On the other hand, with legal texts I have to wipe out any ambiguity which is what makes the literary so rich.

LC: You’ve written that translating poetry has given you ‘eureka’ moments. Do you have an example?

YEG: I used to be obsessed with how to translate rhythm and versification and I was fascinated with the structure of Mixe. While the western tradition—in English and Spanish—has rhyme, it’s much more complicated in Mixe because of the syllabic structure. It was really tough to try and make it fit. I could do it sort of intuitively, so it had a more or less similar rhythm and wordplay was replicated.

[But then] one thing I realised was that Mixe differentiates between long and short vowel sounds and that I could study the ancient Greek verses, which also have long and short vowel sounds, in order to see if it were possible to play with the amount of vowels in Mixe. That was a really great eureka moment.

LC: Did you always want to be a linguist, essayist and translator or did you have other ideas?

YEG: Well, I had several other ideas. (Laughs.) As kids, we interpreted and translated a lot. Interpretation above all, because my grandma didn’t speak Spanish. The men did. So, there were times when they’d call for the kids to help.

My grandma was enamoured with language, with the spoken word. She was one of those people who gave these long, beautiful speeches that wove in poetic turns of phrase in Mixe. She used to tell me off because sometimes I’d just say ‘thanks’ to someone who’d done me a favour, instead of saying ‘thanks’ in a poetic way. To her, it was really important to say things complexly, completely. To adorn the phrase.

I have a recording where she’s talking about how you can’t just say, hi, tío but rather hello, tío. What do the sun and moon have to say? How have you been? I think that led me to a love of words.

She also knew how to pray in Latin. She used to sing in Italian and Spanish. Her memory was extraordinary. And my grandad was a scribe. People used to come to the house so he could read their letters, translate it into Mixe, listen to their response, and write it out by hand in Spanish. They’d give him eggs, beans, corn and things like that to say thanks. So I was fascinated by the act of writing, not in a literary sense but the very act of spelling out the words.

When I was little, my mum always says that I wanted to be secretary because I associated them with writing and typewriters fascinated me. I wrote letters on an egg carton and turned it into my typewriter. I used to enjoy the mechanical act of reading too, even if I didn’t understand what it meant. When we went to Mexico City for the first time, I was nine years old and I kept lagging behind because I was reading the posters.

So, I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing but I didn’t know you could study them. The first time I saw a degree called ‘Hispanic Languages and Literature’ me and my family were like, really? You can study that?! (Laughs.) I thought, wow, I can spend the whole time reading, great. It wasn’t until later that I realised there wasn’t anything in Mixe and that’s where my complicated relationship with Spanish began. I love it though.

LC: I wondered how you resolve that conflict between speaking and writing in Mixe as act of love and resistance and communicating more widely in Spanish. Can it be resolved?

YEG: I don’t think so. It used to worry me a lot and I write a lot in Mixe but not publicly. The other day I was looking online, and I found a Wikipedia page called ‘Writers in Indigenous Languages’ and it said Yásnaya, but she writes in Spanish. That hurt me horribly. But then I thought, well, they have no reason to know I write in Mixe because almost everything I publish is in Spanish. I refuse to publish bilingually.

I’m trying to write a piece in Spanish called ‘This is my language too’, about needing to embrace that contradiction, that tension. And from there create something. It’s always going to exist, but I need to remember that it’s not on me.

LC: Why do you refuse to publish bilingually?

YEG: Everything that’s published in Spanish—say, the latest Elena Poniatowska book, right?—isn’t thought of bilingually. We don’t say but there are more languages spoken here, it should be published in Nahautl too. Meanwhile, those of us writing in indigenous languages, if we’re published, are almost obliged to publish bilingually.

Then there’s also the fact that it’s self-translation and no one pays for that. What I would like to do is write a poetry anthology in Mixe and for it to be so successful in the Mixe-speaking region that someone translates it into Spanish. Someone else.

It sometimes feels fetishistic because most readers of bilingual editions are Spanish-speakers and even when I have a bilingual mirror edition book, I end up reading the Spanish because it’s what I’m used to. They end up being read in Spanish and that’s it, while the original language remains as a mere witness to the text.

I want to choose my readership and so I write in Spanish but when I write in Mixe, I don’t want to write for Spanish-speakers. So, I refuse to translate my own words.

One time, I was sort of forced into writing a bilingual piece so what I did was write the text in Mixe and then the Spanish said something totally different, like the text alongside this has a political aim and that’s why you can’t read it. It was bilingual but it wasn’t; it talked about the Mixe text but it wasn’t a translation.

LC: What’s your stance on the bilingual and even trilingual poetry editions that are increasingly being published by indigenous writers right now?

YEG: In hegemonic language culture, a bilingual edition is more expensive. For example, I have a bilingual copy of Paul Celan’s poetry. It’s fetishistic because I can half understand the German and but it’s [more about having the book as object].

But with indigenous languages, it’s not the same. A bilingual edition isn’t a luxury item, it’s something else. When I get books from friends who write in Mixe and Spanish, I try to read the Mixe.

LC: How many languages do you read?

YEG: Mixe and Spanish. Then I took four years of Latin, so I can read that and most other Romance languages with a bit of practice. I’d love to learn Chinanteco and I’m seriously thinking about studying Nahuatl.

[My language learning] has been very self-taught. Learning English is an issue of class in Mexico, unfortunately, as is studying literature. When I started university, my first class was ‘Introduction to Linguistic Theory’ with a wonderful teacher who, right at the end, gave us a book called Linguistics: An Introduction. She said we had to read every chapter and submit a summary of it each week. I told her I couldn’t read English—I’d had English teachers who couldn’t even speak English—and she said she couldn’t make an exception, but that I could submit all my summaries at the end of the year instead.

The next day she gave me a dictionary and an English grammar book, so I went to the library and started translating word-by-word. The first chapter took ages, but the next ones were easier and eventually I could read the whole book. I remember when I finished, I realised that there was a Spanish version in the library. (Laughs.)

But it was a great experience nonetheless, because that’s how I learnt to read English. I can speak but I have to prepare a lot beforehand, and I would love to write essays in English. The only thing is I don’t know my style in English—am I blunt? Dry? Sentimental? I know what I’m saying but I don’t know the texture and tone of how I’m saying it.  

LC: How can linguistic diversity be increased in what we call Mexico? Is it possible?

YEG: By communities, yes. By the state, I don’t see how that would happen. I don’t even think it’s personal anymore. They just don’t have a clue, it’s an inertia.

I think we can reframe [linguistic diversity] as something to do for the joy of it. I really like knowing about the Cherokee alphabet or Japanese writing systems. I love knowing a bit about German syntax. I don’t speak or read it, but I know how it works and I don’t need to speak it to enjoy the fact that it exists. We need to be more open. I wish I had the time to learn Russian. I’d love to read Dostoyevsky in the original but, you know, life is short.

LC: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve come across in your travels through language?

YEG: I really enjoy everything to do with grammatical differences. For me, grammar is close to poetry. I think everyone hates grammar but it’s wonderful, it’s like looking at the x-rays of a language, seeing how they conjugate time and perspective.

Time is such an abstract notion, but there are languages that have time and others that have perspective, other ways of seeing time. Every part of it fascinates me, but one particularly profound moment was when I realised the role of the state. I really hadn’t realised until then that the world is made up of nation-states and the impact they’ve had on linguistic diversity. It’s not something we’re taught and throughout human history there have been empires, there have been wars, conquests, violence. There’s been injustice. But none of that put linguistic diversity at risk. Never. So why now? Realising that it was the nation-state was an important moment for me and also piqued my interest in the state itself.

LC: Do you have a favourite word in any of the languages you understand or speak?

YEG: Yes. In Mixe, I really like the word ‘et’. ‘Et’ is like everything, it’s the verb ‘to be’, but it’s also a noun. And it’s very small. In Spanish, I can never make up my mind and in English, I really like ‘mesmerising’.

LC: I guess ‘ardilla’ isn’t your favourite word in Spanish, right? [Editor’s note: Yásnaya famously despises the squirrels that eat her avocados and there’s even a Twitter account called @ardillasnaya.] What’s your beef with squirrels?

YEG: (Laughs.) Well—I’m gunna be honest with you—it’s a bit of a fictionalisation. I do have real issues with squirrels, but I don’t hate them. I understand them, rationally, but they make me so mad when they steal my food.

One time I went out of the kitchen and there was a squirrel—this is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me—on the tree branch. I saw it had a tiny chayote in its hand and I was like ugh, it’s eating my chayotes. But it was staring at me, I swear. It looked at me, with hatred, and took a bite out of the chayote right where I could see and then threw it at me. They’re peculiar creatures.

LC: What are you reading right now?

YEG: I almost always have two books on the go—one for pleasure and one for study. I finally decided it was time to read this (Yásnaya pulls out a hefty Spanish copy of Das Kapital by Karl Marx). It’s complex, right? I sometime consider [mentioning it] on Twitter but then the anarchists and Marxists start fighting.

I’m also reading El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo by the Peruvian Jóse María Arguedas. It’s a novel based on the Quechua myth, but it starts with his diary, then the novel, then the diary, at the end of which he commits suicide.

So, I’m reading about a suicide and Das Kapital. (Laughs.)

LC: Are there any writers and translators working with indigenous languages that you’d like to recommend?

YEG: There’s Briseida Cuevas Cob, a spectacular Maya poet. Celerina Patricia (Mixteca), Irma Pineda (Zapoteca), Natalia Toledo (Zapoteca), Enriqueta Lunez (Tsotsil), Rubí Huerta (P’urhépecha). Then there’s the new generation, a boom of women writing in indigenous languages like Sasil Sánchez (Maya), Nadia López (Mixteca), Diana Domínguez (Mixe), and Mikeas Sánchez (Zoque).

This interview was translated by me from the Spanish and has been edited for length and clarity.

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