A Better Cyber Monday: A Dossier of Open Access Tsotsil Maya Poetry

It is our great pleasure to present Paul M. Worley’s translations of a collection of Tstotsil Maya poetry titled Snichimal Vayuchil. This digital chapbook features over 40 pages of poems that manage to be unfamiliar, while at the same time evocative of a distinct set of times, places, and experiences. Our digital cover embraces the libro cartonero tradition of independent publishing in Mexico.

Worley_Maya_Cover.jpgWe released these poems today as both a bit of a respite from the orgy consumerism that surrounds the holiday season and as a indication of some new directions from North Dakota Quarterly.

When we asked Paul to introduce this collection to us, he emphasized the translational nature of the work that extends from its digital character (in this iteration) to the the work of translation in the volume itself.

Download the volume here.


Paul describes the work as follows:

One of the first things you’ll notice when you scroll through this selection of Snichimal Vayuchil’s work is the fact that your experience reading this digital version is radically different from that of your fellow readers and listeners in southern Mexico. You are not holding a cardboard-bound book (libro cartonero in Spanish), nor are you listening to one of their poetic interventions at places as diverse as caves, church steps, or an archeological site.

At the same time, this open, digital version does embrace the collective’s attitude toward publishing as the collective makes full use of independent publishing to circumvent both censorship and Mexico’s systems of government patronage. This foray into digital publication moves their work onto a digital platform so that English-language readers around the world can access it is simply another aspect of the translation process.

Of course, not all the work of the collective is in this collection, but it still represents one of the very first (if not THE first) Tsotsil Maya collections in English to be readily available online (thereby circumventing both censorship and traditional English language literary markets). Not all works are or should be translated. Take, for instance, Manu Pukuj’s poem “Vovijel.” The original poem is in bilingual Tsotsil-Spanish, so the translation you’ll find here is appropriately enough Tsotsil-English. If you find that off putting, you should ask yourself why that is the case, particularly given that, as in the US with Native Americans and English, speakers of Mexico’s indigenous languages are expected to know Spanish. Recall Junot Díaz’s famous quote about English-only readers’ reactions to seeing things in Spanish.

At the very least we hope that this serves as an invitation, or perhaps an excuse to wade into the realm of online dictionaries. But even then, there are the cultural aspects of these poems requiring translation such as the pox and copal that appear in ritual contexts through the collection. When you enter a poem like Susi  Bentzulul’s “Sk’in Ch’ulelal,” you are not simply reading about a ceremony as an outside observer. Reading the poem is to participate in the ceremony itself. Through the medium of the work you cross the threshold of San Juan Chamula, as the poet situates you in the 5th cardinal direction (the center) in a town grounded by “The four crosses” (representing the other four directions) “that mark the four corners of the universe.” Entering into this space, you are, as with the rest of the collection, an active participant in this ceremony, the poem, and the creation of their meaning.

And if you’ve never heard about the massive resistance to fracking in Chiapas in Zoque ancestral land, readers of North Dakota Quarterly are surely familiar with #NoDaPL (see for example Sharon Carson’s coverage of the #NoDaPL camp here and here). You are a participant, but make no doubt that, and with any resistance movement, you may be invited TO the center but you ARE NOT the center. The interplay between translation and non-translation emphasizes this invitation while reminding you of what you must learn to participate fully. With the coming of the 14th baktun, native peoples throughout the hemisphere are reclaiming their rights to language, culture, and land in the territories of Abya Yala. We may be invited to dance, but they are calling the tune.


Paul Worley is Associate Professor of Global Literature at Western Carolina University, and Editor-at-Large for Mexico at the journal of world literature in translation, Asymptote. He has forthcoming translations of the award winning indigenous poets Hubert Malina (Mé’pháá) and Martín Tonalmeyotl (Nahuátl). He published Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya, in 2013, and has recently published articles in A contracorriente, Studies in American Indian Literatures, and Latin American Caribbean Ethnic Studies. Stories recorded as part of his research on Maya literatures are available at tsikbalichmaya.org.


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