Translator’s Note

Wendy Call

These two poems are from Irma Pineda’s fifth collection of poetry, Doo yoo ne ga’ bia’ / De la casa del ombligo a las nueve cuartas (From the Cord-House to the Nine Handspans). Published in Mexico City in 2008, this collection traces indigenous Isthmus Zapotec traditions, from origin stories to birth and death rituals. Like all of her published collections, Doo yoo ne ga’ bia’ is bilingual: in Spanish and in Isthmus Zapotec, the native language of about 100,000 people from the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

“Doo yoo” translates literally into Spanish as “cordon-casa,” into Mexican Spanish as “mecate-casa,” and into English as “cord-house.” As Irma Pineda explains, “If I write ‘cordon-casa,’ no one is going to understand. But if I write ‘casa del ombligo,’ everyone in Mexico will know what I’m talking about.” But “house of the umbilical” or “belly button house” don’t work in English — particularly in a poem. In the poem included here, “Cord-House IX,” I have broken one old “rule” of translation, expressing the same term in two different ways in the same text. I translate the title of this poem — as I have the title of the book — as “Cord-House.” Within the poem, I have translated it as “lifeline.”

“Casa del ombligo” refers to the indigenous custom in Mexico and elsewhere (familiar to many mestizo Mexicans) of burying a baby’s umbilical cord on the family’s land. This “cord” is a life-long, metaphorical connection to one’s birthplace. To capture a bit of that metaphor in English, to maintain the doubled single-syllable simplicity of doo yoo, and to replace Zapotec rhyme with English alliteration, I translated it as “lifeline.” But for the collection and poem titles, I used the more literal, and less abstract, “cord-house.”

The multilayered meaning of doo yoo merges mind and body, spiritual and physical. Irma Pineda says her two deepest motivations as a poet are to keep her community’s cultural and social history alive and to celebrate the traditional Zapotec connection to the earth. These two motivations come together in the two poems included here. Zapotec belief systems make a strong distinction between wild (mountains, forests, sea, and their flora and fauna) and tame (cultivated fields, urban settlement, turkeys, dogs, and other farm animals). In “Village Images,” she offers readers an image of community life, including creatures both tame and not-quite-tame. In contrast to Euro-American tradition, Zapotec cosmology perceives humans as outside the domestic realm, existing between wild and tame, negotiating that liminal space throughout their lives.


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