Wendy Call and Shook on the Power of Titles, Decolonization, and Translating Poems in Iterations
The Translators of Mikeas Sánchez's “How to Be a Good Savage” in Conversation with Poets.org
Lit Hub is excited to feature another entry in a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Wendy Call and Shook. Wendy Call is an editor, writer, and translator. She is the author of the award-winning work of nonfiction No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) and the translator of two collections of poetry by the Mexican-Zapotec poet Irma Pineda. Call serves on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Shook (David Shook) is a poet, translator, editor, and the founder of Phoneme Media, an imprint of Deep Vellum Publishing. They are the author of the poetry collection Our Obsidian Tongues (Eyewear Publishing, 2013). Shook has edited and published translations from more than thirty-five languages. They currently direct Kashkul Books, based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as the translation-focused imprint avión, based at Gato Negro Ediciones in Mexico City.
Poets.org: Translator Natasha Lehrer once said, “Translation is not a word-for-word transposition. It’s another iteration of the book.” With How to Be a Good Savage being a collaboration, what are your thoughts on this concept?
Wendy Call: Every translation is most definitely a new iteration of the book. How to Be a Good Savage includes selections from all six of Mikeas’s books, so it’s a book that hasn’t existed before. It was a three-way collaboration—between Mikeas, Shook, and me. Shook had translated many poems from Mikeas Sánchez’s first few books; I began translating her more recent work in 2018.
For this book, we each had our “own” poem translations and we traded many with each other for feedback. Because neither of us reads or speaks Zoque, we relied on Mikeas’s patient guidance to access the Zoque versions of her poems, line by line.
It was a pandemic project: we submitted our proposal to Milkweed on Earth Day 2020, and the final manuscript on New Year’s Day 2023. Once Shook and I had all the poem translations drafted, we were able to meet with Mikeas in Oaxaca, Mexico, for two days in October 2021. Together, the three of us decided on which poems to include and how to express many of the Zoque concepts. Mikeas doesn’t speak or read English, so we retranslated lines from our translations back into Spanish for her.
Over the following year, Shook and I revised our translations, in regular consultation with Mikeas. Six weeks before we delivered the manuscript to Milkweed, I was able to visit Mikeas in her village, Ajway, for the first time. I could see and smell the wewe flower that appears in several poems, walk around the hacienda (turned high school) where Zoque people were once forced into labor, hear Ajway’s soundscape, and meet family members who figure in her poems. That visit was essential to the final revision of our translations.
Shook: I like the idea of translation as iteration. In this instance, Mikeas herself produced the first two iterations, the Zoque and Spanish versions of each poem, which, as we explain in our introduction, typically began in one language or the other, depending on when they were written, but exert bidirectional influence in a way that perhaps only the work of a poet self-translating can. Co-iterations, perhaps.Our work as her translators is an iterative process, of course. I lost count of how many dozens of drafts I have of most of the poems I initially translated, some dating back well over a decade.
And then our work as her translators is an iterative process, of course. I lost count of how many dozens of drafts I have of most of the poems I initially translated, some dating back well over a decade. Working with Wendy was a unique and enlightening process for me, and it made me a better translator. We each translated poems on our own, then exchanged those versions and responded with notes and questions for the other, and often for Mikeas too.
Poets.org: Much of Mikeas Sánchez’s work, especially the poems from her 2012 collection We’re All Maroons / Todos somos cimarrones (the eponymous poem is included in this collection), can be described as resistance to attempts at erasure—the erasure of Zoque language and culture, the erasure of women’s voices in patriarchal systems, the erasure of Mexico’s history of enslaving Africans, and the erasure of undocumented African immigrants in Europe—in order to preserve our collective humanity. In this vein, what is the title of this book prompting the reader to do, and what does “savage” mean to you?
WC: The Spanish word that we have translated as “savage”—salvaje—means both “savage” and “wild,” or since it’s a noun in this case, “wild being.” The Zoque word tzamapänh’ajä is a compound word: tzama is “mountain”” pänh is “man,” and ajä is “being,” to create “human being of the mountains.” (You can listen to Mikeas read the book’s title poem in Zoque and Spanish, and my English translation here.)
Mikeas says of her title choice, ‘In Zoque we use irony a lot, mocking ourselves as a protection strategy, through language, and through spells that are said to take away the power of others’ negative ideas about us. For more than five hundred years we had to adapt language and use it creatively to our advantage: resistance through words.”
Here in the United States, we have the genocidal history of the “bad Indian” trope. A parallel trope exists in Mexico. For me, the use of the word “savage” is a demand that English-speaking people—particularly those who identify as white—reconsider their assumptions about Indigenous / Native / First Nations people and listen carefully to their voices. As many of the poems in How to Be a Good Savage make clear, it is colonial /white/dominant culture that is truly savage.
Mikeas’s work pushes back beautifully against so many erasures. New Spain and Mexico enslaved both African-descended and Indigenous peoples. As we mention in our translators’ note, Sánchez’s own ancestors were forced into labor on a hacienda in Ajway.
In an inspiring reversal, one of the hacienda buildings is now the high school that her daughter, Matsa, attends. Mikeas had to leave her community to attend high school because one did not yet exist in Ajway. Matsa is receiving an education far more easily than her mother did because of the activism of women like Mikeas.
S: I don’t think I could put things more beautifully than Wendy has. I believe that the book’s title is a call to resist and renounce dehumanization—in general, certainly, but expressly the dehumanization of the Zoque and their Indigenous peers across the Americas and around the world; to subvert the pejorative historical uses and implications of the term “savage,” which has been used in Spanish as much as in English since the arrival of European colonizers to the Americas, with their allegedly civilized practices whose savagery cannot be denied.
I think it’s a call to take pride in both speaking and writing in “the gods’ language,” as Mikeas describes the Zoque spoken by her grandfather, “a poet / who healed with words,” in Wendy’s translation of the collection’s titular poem.
Poets.org: In the translator’s note, you concur with Sánchez’s statement: “I think this poetry is also a type of spell. It is a way to invoke our ancestors and be born again with them.” This comment also relates to Sánchez’s belief that her poetry comes “from the Zoque community as a whole.” What are your thoughts about the role of poetry in fostering and preserving community?
WC: Before I began working as a writer, editor, and educator, I devoted a decade to working full-time as a grassroots organizer. Most of the poetry—indeed, most of the art—that interests me springs from, connects to, and builds community.
I came to know Mikeas’s poetry through community. In 2011, with Irma Pineda, another Indigenous Mexican poet whose work I translated to English, I organized a retreat for Indigenous women writers. The gathering was sponsored by the Macondo Foundation, which supports socially engaged writers. Each of the twelve women who attended, including Mikeas, was (and is) deeply engaged in her community.From speaking with Mikeas, I know that we share the hope that this volume will inspire pride in Zoques, both in their home villages and in the diaspora, no matter how fluently they speak or understand the Zoque language.
Coming to know Mikeas and her work since that three-day gathering has been an enormous gift in my life. When we met, Mikeas was the single mother of a toddler. She woke up at 4:30 every morning to write poetry before her daughter awakened. This month, Mikeas, Matsa (now a teen), and I are going on an eight-city book tour in Mexico, with Irma Pineda, whose second book of poetry that I’ve translated into English, Nostalgia Doesn’t Flow Away Like Riverwater, is coming out in the same week as How to Be a Good Savage.
S: I’ve talked a lot about this with the Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán, not only in regard to preserving community but also preserving language and culture. Víctor speaks very eloquently about how important it has been for the young people of his community to see Isthmus Zapotec culture recognized and appreciated abroad, beyond the confines of a Spanish-dominant Mexican culture that tends to denigrate these vast and rich ancient languages as mere dialectos, a term that suggests their inferiority to the Spanish language both for self-expression and creating art.
From speaking with Mikeas, I know that we share the hope that this volume will inspire pride in Zoques, both in their home villages and in the diaspora, no matter how fluently they speak or understand the Zoque language.
I am looking forward to engaging with the many communities I know we will encounter as this book makes its way further into the world, taking on a life of its own. How to Be a Good Savage is very much a book that gestated in the community, more so than many of the other translations I’ve worked on as a translator or editor, and I do think that that community-mindedness is a part of its Zoque character and of Mikeas’s lifework, both in poetry and beyond.
Poets.org: Were there any linguistic challenges that appeared during the translation process—words or lines from the Zoque that showcased a depth of meaning too difficult to convey in either English or Spanish, or with no equivalents in either language?
WC: Linguistic challenges are a fundamental part of the translation process; they are what makes translation so much fun. Shook and I created a large spreadsheet to keep track of the names of places, deities, and figures from Zoque history and cosmology, as well as other words and concepts that didn’t transfer easily into English (or Spanish), with our ideas for how to express them in the English poems. The “Notes on the Poems” at the end of How to Be a Good Savage is a narrative expression of that spreadsheet. There is no word for “silence” in Zoque and there is no word for sankä in either Spanish or English.
Sometimes, it takes a paragraph to translate a word—something that can’t be done in a poem. As we wrote in those notes: Sanhkä, the Zoque word that Sánchez translates as resplandor in the Spanish version of the poem, and that we render in English as “radiance,” is a complex, multidimensional word. In addition to “radiance” it means “enlightened time” and also “understanding,” but is distinct from knowledge. Sanhkä refers to both the cycle of life and how knowledge is assimilated into a person’s life—but it does not refer to the knowledge itself.
S: The challenges are, I think, the attraction when it comes to translating poetry. I hope that part of what the unique trilingual format of How to Be a Good Savage provides the reader is a sense of the rich spaces between these languages, which have their own distinct, complex sociocultural and historical relationships, too.
I don’t know if there is a “depth of meaning” that is impossible to convey, but if you track the various line lengths across languages, you will definitely encounter instances in which equal conciseness seems impossible! While we firmly believe that the English-language iterations of Mikeas’s poems can stand entirely on their own, Wendy and I provided more information for those interested in learning more about Zoque cosmology and culture because there are so few resources available in English.
Poets.org: What are you reading now?
WC: I just finished an excellent anthology that I began reading with my grad students in the University of Iowa’s literary translation program this fall: Violent Phenomena: 21 Essays on Translation, edited by Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang. I am on an anthology kick right now, reading both Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry, edited by Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman, and Derek Sheffield (which every resident and fan of the Pacific Northwest should read) and Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems That Matter Most, edited by Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips.
I just started Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men, which was recommended to me by a stranger at the Getty Villa near Los Angeles, when I visited in June. I’m also reading the wonderful poetry and short prose that have been submitted for the 2025 edition of Best Literary Translations.
S: I’m reading both Sarah Blakley-Cartwright’s Alice Sadie Celine and Douglas Kearney’s Optic Subwoof. I’m also really enjoying Heather Cleary’s translation of Luis Felipe Fabre’s Recital of the Dark Verses, a sort of madcap adventure about transferring the very fleshly remains of Saint John of the Cross to his final resting place.I hope that part of what the unique trilingual format of How to Be a Good Savage provides the reader is a sense of the rich spaces between these languages, which have their own distinct, complex sociocultural and historical relationships, too.
For the last couple months, I’ve kept returning to Yasmine Seale’s translation of the Sudanese poet and activist Rania Mamoun’s collection Something Evergreen Called Life.
I also just reread Wendy’s other translation to be published this month, Nostalgia Doesn’t Flow Away Like Riverwater, which I edited for the Phoneme imprint of Deep Vellum. It’s a remarkable companion book to this collection, and I highly recommend it.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
WC: Oh, I love so many of them. But I will cast my vote for one that I adore and have enjoyed teaching to students in many different writing and literature classes, in both the United States and Colombia: Allison Hedge Coke’s “America, I Sing Back.”
S: Off the top of my head, I think immediately of Rachel Levitsky’s poem “Audience’ and of Attila József’s “The Seventh (A hetedik),” translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki. I deeply admire Fady Joudah’s translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems, and lately I have also returned to Darwish’s poem “I Belong There,” translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. It ends:
To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a
single word: Home.
“enjambments,” a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.