Words Without Borders: Paraguay’s Indigenous Guaraní-Language Poetry

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An Indigenous language used not only in Paraguay but also in Argentina and Brazil yields poetic musings steeped in tactile resonance from a tongue in which ‘word’ and ‘soul’ are the same.

Image: Artwork of Osvaldo Piteo, courtesy of the artist and provided by Words Without Borders

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

A New Indigenous Writing Project
One of the most widely spoken languages of the Americas, Guaraní is heard not only in Paraguay but also in Argentina, and in parts of Brazil and Bolivia.

And the late summer edition of Words Without Borders magazine is a first in its concentration on Guarani writings.

Editor Eric MB Becker has begun a series of focal editions in a new Indigenous Writing Project, working in this first installment with guest editor Elisa Taber, who is an anthropologist and writer doing PhD studies at Montreal’s McGill University, familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers as the home of the Cundill History Prize. Taber divides her time between Montreal and Buenos Aires.

Writing about the new project in Indigenous languages, Becker says, “Though we have published Indigenous literature throughout our 17-year history, the Indigenous Writing Project marks a sustained effort by the magazine to increase recognition of Indigenous writers in the Anglophone world.

“In this effort, we have engaged experts and informants to ensure that literatures that live beyond the confines of Western culture are not unduly rendered through its prism or subjected to colonialist and nationalist discourses that seek to evaluate a literature’s worth in juxtaposition to writing expressed in the dominant language of the country or region from which it comes.”

Elisa Taber

And in her introductory article, Taber illustrates that in working with Indigenous languages, you quickly encounter variants and influences that bring both texture and complexity to the task.

“Paraguay is a bilingual country,” she writes. “Most of the population speaks Spanish and Guaraní.

“However–paraphrasing Paraguayan-Spanish linguist Bartomeu Melià–the Guaraní spoken and written by the majority, although subaltern, is in many ways a colonial, Spanish language.

“He adds that there are 17 ethnic groups that correspond to five linguistic families. Within the Tupí-Guaraní family there are six dialects: Mbyá, Avá-Guaraní, Pãi Tavyterã, Guarayo, Guaraní-Ñandéva, and Aché-Guayakí. In addition, there is Jopara, a neo-language that merges Spanish and Guaraní.”

And while such a technical level of linguistic analysis may not be what draws you to want to read this poetic writings in their first English translations, the “linguistic, cosmologic, and poetic diversity” Taber appreciates here comes across easily in the work.

In “Dawn” by Miguelángel Meza, translated by the poet and Tracy K. Lewis, we read, in part:

“Heavy my forehead. I part thickets of prone branches,
fall, rise again, tread onward.
My road, level now: it bursts, opens,
water boils up from grouped stones, grips me.
I fall free as dawn breaks
white.”

“In Guaraní,” Taber writes, “word and soul are one word: ñe’ ẽ.”

In the July-August ‘Words Without Borders’ Edition
  • My Fire” is a poem by Alba Eiragi Duarte, translated from Guaraní into English by Tracy K. Lewis and into Spanish by the author. In this piece, we hear from the only well known contemporary Mbayi Guaraní poet. She is an Aché descendant, raised in an Ava Guaraní community in Colonia Fortuna, Canindeyú Department. Her first poetry collection, Ñe’ẽ yvoty: Ñe’ẽ poty, was published in 2016, and a second book is in preparation.
  • Serpent” is a poem about personal spirituality by Alberto Luna, translated from Jopará Guaraní into English by Susan Smith Nash and into Spanish by Susy Delgado. In 1990, Luna was ordained as a priest in San Ignacio, Misiones. In 1996, he earned a BA in media and communication studies from the Catholic University. Since 2011, he has been the provincial superior of the Society of Jesus and has worked as a pastor in various countries.
  • Our Father is Tired” is a poem by Susy Delgado, translated from Jopará Guaraní into English by Susan Smith Nash and into Spanish by the author. The piece looks at an exhausted god “who lets Earth descend into darkness and death,” a fearful concept. “The most coveted flower / of the divine orchard /  has already wilted / and its fragile stem / is skin cracked / dry.” Susy Delgado is said to have published 30 books.
  • An excerpt from Xiru, a lyric novel, is by Damián Cabrera, translated from Portunhol Selvagem—a language combining elements of Spanish, Portuguese, and Jopará Guaraní—into English, Spanish, and Portuguese by Taber. Set in the Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil shared border region, the book is titled for a Portuguese word of Guaraní origin that, when used by Brazilians to refer to Paraguayans at the border, “shifts from meaning friend to invader or fool.
  • Dawn” is a short poem by Miguelangel Meza, translated from the Mbyá Guaraní into English by Tracy K. Lewis and by the author into Spanish. Working as Taber does in anthropology, Meza has contributed to numerous anthropological and linguistic research studies, as well as translations. He’s the founder of the cartonera press Mburukujarami Kartonéra, with which he has published numerous titles authored by himself and others.
Jaggi on Vargas Llosa

In addition in the July-August edition, Maya Jaggi writes extensively about visiting the colonial “White City” of Arequipa in Peru. She has been in touch with writers there both before the onset of the pandemic and during mitigation measures.

Maya Jaggi

The city is the home of the late Mario Vargas Llosa and his birthplace is now a museum—all of which gives rise to many intriguing references to her interviews with the writer for various media.

“His fiction ranges across Peru’s three climate zones,” she writes, “the Pacific coast, the Andean sierra (mountains), and the Amazon jungle. Yet Arequipa’s conservatism, as a colonial city built on social as well as geological fault lines, marked his life and foreshadowed his fiction.

“And beyond the oeuvre of its most famous writer, these social, cultural, and geographical fissures run deep throughout the literature of Peru.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here. More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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