Elicura Chihuailaf: The Task of the Mapuche Translator


Elicura Chihuailaf with Jorge Riechmann, Pedro Yac Noj, and Christopher Travis at the "El poema más allá del poema" [The poem beyond the poem] International Conference. Facultad de Letras-Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile y CIIR (2015). Photo: Emilia Ahumada.

At the end of the 1970s, the name Elicura Chihuailaf began to be heard in Chilean literary circles. His first publications were written not in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche nation, but in Spanish. Therefore, the first translations of his poems into the language of his ancestors were undertaken by other authors, as is indicated in the introduction to ÜL: Four Mapuche Poets (1998). I make this observation because Chihuailaf’s poetic career has displayed an intense mobility between cultures and languages, to such an extent that his poems can be read as translations of affects, worlds, existences that circulate with fluidity between the Mapuche world and its Chilean readers/allies. A key example in order to understand this intercultural task of translation is his rereading of Pablo Neruda, published in 1996. The texts by Neruda were selected and translated to Mapudungun by Chihuailaf himself. The collection’s title, Todos los cantos / Ti kom vl [All the songs], alludes to the point of contact between this Nobel Prize winner and the Mapuche poetic tradition: sound and the sensitive, spoken word. Here, we can appreciate a gesture that is at once political and literary. The translator restores a Neruda adjacent to the cosmovisions and struggles of his own people. Reading Chihuailaf’s selection, I perceived another Neruda, far from the grandiloquence and outmoded metaphors with which he is often associated. This Neruda, seen from the Mapuche perspective, is a light gust of wind; he seems to write under the guidance of a calm, transparent breath of fresh air.

Introducing us to a Neruda who writes and speaks Mapudungun implies a symbolic operation: appropriating an icon of the Chilean lettered city in order to demonstrate the possibility of building bridges, contacts, approximations. Chihuailaf explains it in these terms: “I believe, for this reason, that the work of Pablo Neruda is one of the possibilities for dialogue between Mapuches and Chileans; to begin coming together with each other, little by little, in our differences.” Here, the translator edits, manipulates, and recreates in order to allow for this coming-together. For example, the inclusion of a poem like “Ode to Air” invites us to think about—and feel—the land theft that the Mapuche nation has suffered since the nineteenth century. We listen:

No, aire,
No te vendas,
Que no te canalicen,
Que no te entuben,
Que no te encajen
Ni te compriman

[No, air,
Don’t sell yourself,
Don’t be channeled,
Don’t be entubed,
Don’t be boxed,
Compressed] (tr. Andrew Haley)

We might make a comparison to John Felstiner, who translated Neruda to English. Reading his book Translating Neruda (1990), we might conclude that, for Felstiner, translating “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” was an aesthetic pursuit, an unfurling of formal aspects. Chihuailaf has another agenda. His interests are not only technical. First and foremost for him is the matter of converting Neruda’s poems into a cultural experience originating in Mapuche ways of being. We can appreciate this in the text “Hace tiempo…” [A long time ago…]. Neruda would say birth is distance, an almost abstract memory. Chihuailaf says birth is now; a fluid, incessant motion in the present. On the one hand, we hear these verses:

Alguna vez y hace tiempo
yo vi, toque y oí
lo que nacía: un latido, un sonido entre las piedras
era lo que nacía

[At times and long ago
I saw, touched, and heard
that which was being born:
a heartbeat, a sound among the stones
was that which was being born] (tr. William O’Daly)

On the other hand, in Mapudungun, the last lines come across thusly:

Ti petu lleqvlu; kvñe witan, kvñe vl pu kura mew
Fey vrke ti petu lleqvlu

We could also rewrite the ending this way: “eso era lo que estaba nacía” [that was what was, being born] or “eso era lo que estaba naciendo” [that was what was being born]. We are faced not with longing, but with the bedazzlement of a fluctuating forever-today. Chihuailaf’s aesthetic and cultural challenge as a translator is how to transfer rhythms and ways of being, how to translate the movement of feeling. But weaving approximations does not mean falling into syntheses or amalgamations. Chihuailaf recognizes his indigenous identity, and he sometimes corrects stereotypes repeated by Neruda. In the poem “Todos los cantos” [All songs] we read, “listen to the Araucanian tree”: a clear evocation of the epithet that, since Ercilla, has been used to classify Mapuche subjects in Chile. In the translation to Mapudungun, we appreciate an important change: “allkvtufe mapu aliwen,” or “listen to the tree of the earth.” And, appealing to synecdoche, it is plausible to say: listen not only to this tree, but also to the land it inhabits and all that exists within it: Wallmapu.

Chihuailaf translates multiplicities of memories and existences. In another text, he tells us himself: “From what, from how many waters, the / water I drink?” But his translations not only seek to bring us closer to ancestral knowledge; they also aspire to serve as tools of political negotiation. Translation as diplomacy. In Recado confidencial a los chilenos [Confidential message to the Chileans] (1999), he details the intention behind his writing as a dialogue between the Mapuche world and the Chilean world. This text—soaked through with plants and winds, with just demands—can be read as a theory of intercultural translation. In order to translate his own culture, Chihuailaf speaks to us of the paths that have been lost and must be rediscovered. To translate oneself is to seek oneself, and for this purpose one must take pause. Trying to guide himself through his memories, sitting at his desk, writing-translating, he permits himself a caesura: “I paused from time to time to observe the movement of the branches of Foye Canelo (...) and the branches of the hualle.” After this scene, he tells us that he writes/translates for the audience of a deadlocked city. It is interesting to note that here, in spite of telling us “I paused,” nothing really pauses, and the reading continues. In this translation, calm and noise are dynamically juxtaposed. The task of the Mapuche translator is to exit for a moment from this natural space, such that his work might ride horseback over urban landscapes. And here, once again, the interest is political. Chihuailaf reminds us: “The waria—city—now a path that we must consider so as not to be forever defeated as a culture.”

Recado confidencial a los chilenos advises us that to translate is also to clarify the “euphemisms,” to lend visibility to “a hidden story,” to “the concealed.” This can be appreciated when the translator expounds upon and explains words that have enshrouded Chilean history: “reduction,” “pacification.” Because projecting a coming-together is not the same as forgetting. We translate to send a message, to introduce discourses in other spaces, but this back-and-forth does not imply accepting the Chileanization of the Mapuche nation. A passage from the text reveals this position: “to establish common points of conversation, in the duality of agreement and dissent.” As is demonstrated by the transition from “árbol araucano” to “mapu aliwen” mentioned above, translation also serves to voice dissent, to correct the colonizer’s ink.

The fluctuation between agreements and dissents characterizes this translation, directed toward Chileans. Translating the complexities of identity among Mapuche subjects themselves, the notes of distinction are different. The gaze turns toward family, toward community, toward confidence. Here, the translator’s process is to preserve his Mapuche being while recognizing the transfer of intercultural contacts. One poem in particular is a succinct demonstration of this process:

Kallfv me decía mi abuela
y me trae flores de manzanos
Kallfú me decía mi abuelo y me regala su voz y su trompe
Azul me dijeron mis padres
Kallful les digo a mis hijas
Azul en el Azul es el que rige el Alma de mi Pueblo

[Kallfv, my grandmother would say to me
and she brings me flowers from the apple trees
Kallfú, my grandmother would say to me,
and he gives me his voice and his trompe
Blue, my parents said to me
Kallful, I say to my daughters
Blue in the Blue that rules over the Soul of my People]

The indigenous word walks its own path, down generations of family. It could be said that the original meaning of “Kallfv” is lost in translation, that it is not the same as saying “blue.” But Chihuailaf’s poem challenges the precepts of Walter Benjamin. When the grandmother speaks, there is no clear separation between the words and the flowers themselves: what is spoken is the upspringing seed itself. Speech has the scent and the colors of the apple tree. The grandfather, for his part, has a different pronunciation; the word has begun to be Hispanized. Chihuailaf has commented on this verse: “he makes me glimpse the necessity of Spanish, but making use of an instrument (...) Since the trompe is an instrument of love, it invites us to a very intimate process.” Translating/writing in Spanish implies a cautious learning process. The passage about his parents situates us in the history of forced Hispanization. The poet recalls how his parents were forced to speak Spanish in order to survive in the city. After the expressions “she brings me” or “he gives me” appears the imperative tone of “they told me.” This testimony of family history becomes a new experience with the poet’s daughters, with whom he uses the word “kallful,” an expression that seeks to thread together the flowers, the trompe, and the Spanish language. Finally, the author offers a translation to help us draw closer to his world: “Azul en el Azul” [Blue in the Blue]. The kallfv of the ancestors survives in the present—its seeds now germinate in another language. That which is translated into Spanish is permeated with Mapuche history.

Before concluding, it is only right to highlight other names of Mapuche literature: Daniela Catrileo, Roxana Miranda Rupailaf, Adriana Paredes Pinda, Graciela Huinao, and Leonel Lienlaf. Their poems can also be read as intercultural translations, because translation must be understood not only through a linguistic focus. To translate is also to move between cultural, political, ontological systems. Writing in Spanish, in and of itself, is a way to translate memories, affects, territorial struggles. Chihuailaf puts forth a challenge for translators in two senses: we do not speak of translation only when we move meanings from one language to another; words are not the only things we translate. When he tells us, “I believe poetry is simply taking a breath in peace” or “this writing—this breathing in its divergent intensity,” he draws the line of another horizon: translating breaths, that is , explaining to foreign readers the history, the aesthetics, and the politics of a people they either don’t know or have misunderstood. Chihuailaf’s task as a translator is to propose and help us answer these questions with respect and responsibility: “How much more do you think you know of the Mapuche People, of our culture? How much do you think you know of the Chilean People, of their culture?”

Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon


Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism





Brazilian Literature


Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Nota Bene