Premio «Linda Gaboriau», por el Banff International Translation Center Canada-2014

¿Qué es?

El premio Linda Gaboriau, otorgado por el Banff International Translation Center, busca celebrar y reconocer el trabajo de traductores que realizan aportaciones significativas al mundo de la traducción literaria a nivel mundial. Es un premio que se otorga cada dos años y cuya convocatoria está abierta a personas de origen canadiense, mexicano y estadounidense que ya sea traducen de manera cotidiana autores conemporáneos nacionales e internacionales, o que han realizado aportaciones significativas y de calidad al arte de la traducción literaria y a la literatura misma en Norteamerica.

¿Cómo se selecciona al ganador?

El ganador del premio es elegido por los miembros del Consejo Asesor del Banff International Literary Translation Centre, conformado por gente de Canadá, Estados Unidos y México, y la decisión se basa en la importancia de la cantidad y calidad de las contribuciones de los candidatos al mundo de la traducción literaria en Norteamerica.

¿Quién es Linda Gaboriau?

Es una dramaturga y traductora literaria canadiense que ha sido reconocida internacionalmente por su excepcional labor como traductora de novelas y obras de teatro. Estas traducciones le han valido multiplicidad de premios a lo largo del mundo, e incluso le fue otorgado en 2015 el título de Miembro de la Orden de Canadá, por el gobierno canadiense:

«Premiada por su habilidad para traducir el significado y el espíritu de la lengua francesa, Linda Gaboriau ha traído el teatro francófono canadiense a una audiencia inglesa. Durante las últimas tres décadas, Linda ha traducido más de 100 textos, que incluyen obras quebequenses contemporáneas como Les Feluettes e Incendies, las cuales fueron ampliamente aceptadas en el Canadá anglófono y en los Estados Unidos. Linda también ha ayudado a construir puentes entre las culturas francófona y anglófona como directora del Banff International Literary Translation Centre, la primera institución de este tipo en Norteamerica»

Oficina de la Gobernadora General, Gobierno de Canadá

Enrique Servín, ganador del premio en 2014

Dos días antes de la Navidad de 2013, el Centro Internacional de Traducción Literaria de Banff informó a Enrique Servín que había sido elegido ganador del Premio Linda Gaboriau; esta decisión se apoyó en el impresionante currículum que Enrique Servín había acumulado hasta ese entonces, por lo que el Banff Centre realizó los procesos necesarios ante autoridades canadienses y mexicanas para asegurar la presencia de Servín en junio de 2014.

Durante su tiempo en Banff, Enrique Servín trabajaría en el programa de residentes del Banff Centre con quince traductores literarios de nueve diferentes países, así como tres estudiantes en traducción, lo cual resultaría en una experiencia enriquecedora tanto para él como para sus colegas traductores. A cambio de recibir el premio, el Banff Centre pidió a Enrique participar como artista/escritor y trabajar en sus propias obras en el Centro, a la vez que sería asesor de otros traductores invitados durante dos semanas, para luego dedicar una semana a dar conferencias magistrales.

Discurso de aceptación de Enrique Servín

June 2014

Representatives of the  

Banff International Translation Center, 

Katherine Silver, Susan Ouriou and  

my Fellow Banffites: 

When I think of the hundreds and even thousands of people who, from many different perspectives, strive day to day for the preservation and enrichment of the indigenous languages of the Americas, I often feel that my own work pales in comparison.  Most of these activists are, of course, the native speakers themselves who work in the impoverished communities where they live and face incredible pressure of a political, economic and cultural nature. Despite their almost total lack of recognition, they still dare to challenge the overwhelming tide of modernization and national language assimilation.  Their strategies include, of course, creating a written literature by promoting both writing and the equally complicated art of literary translation.  I´m sure that many of them are more deserving of the honor I am about to receive.   

I am very pleased to accept the Linda Gaboriau Award for two reasons. First, because it ties our efforts to the remarkable figure of Linda Gaboriau, an amazing woman who was the founding director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and to the solid prestige of the Banff Center itself.  (By the way, when I say “our efforts” I am referring to the diverse and committed team of storytellers, community social workers, translators and indigenous writers from Northern Mexico, on which my program depends.) The other reason is that this prestigious award will certainly help us (and, believe it or not, it already has) in the always aggravating task of convincing politicians and raising the funds necessary for a complex series of activities that are totally unrelated to economic production, market integration and the accumulation of monetary wealth. 

As we swim upstream we realize that almost everything related to language preservation moves against the flow of the world socio-economic ethos because it implies the recognition of non-market-oriented societies and economies, the symbolic empowerment of the dispossessed and the exploration of remote and sometimes dying languages.  For this reason, I want to express here my deepest gratitude to the Banff Centre and to each and every person who made all of this possible, especially to Katherine Silver, Susan Ouriou and Hugh Hazelton, who, unfortunately is not present at this moment.  Beyond our friendship, that began several years ago in this incredible geographical and intellectual milieu, I must say objectively that they are sensitive, intelligent and dedicated people who truly understand the meaning of language diversity. I also want to express here my most sincere admiration for Susan Ouriou, who had the vision of including indigenous languages as an integral part of the Banff International Translation program. 


As is the case in so many other regions and countries around the world, including, of course, Canada and the United States, for centuries, Mexico has been characterized by a great linguistic diversity. In the past some of what are now called Mexican Languages (or Mexican Indigenous Languages) thrived as imperial or at least as regional languages, which became the vehicle for important works of oral and even written literature. These poems, chants and narratives, sometimes preserved in ancient indigenous codices —as seems to be the case with the Mayan Popol Vuh—, miraculously survived the cataclysm of the Spanish conquest in early Sixteenth century and were soon after transliterated into the Latin alphabet. This is a rather uncommon feature within the much broader context of the Americas, because the corpus of documents written in Nahuatl or Maya during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries can actually fill whole libraries, although only a small portion of the texts can be considered literary in nature.  

Immediately following the conquest, the first setback to language diversity was the dramatic fall in population caused by European-borne epidemics, as well as the wars themselves. One interesting fact is that at least one of these languages, Nahuatl (or Aztec), managed to keep expanding during the first century after the Spaniards arrived, primarily due to practical, rather than ideological reasons: the Catholic Church used the Aztec imperial language as a vehicle for propagating Christianity. 

But, the first steps toward a Spanish imperial language policy would change even this: in the late Sixteenth Century Phillip the Second issued a royal decree titled “Sobre que deprendan los indios la lengua de Castilla”, which forbade any official use of indigenous languages and, in addition, declared that their application in formal education was, henceforth, illegal. Although this particular ordinance had little impact in the short term, it really marked the beginning of the decline of indigenous languages in most of the vast territory called New Spain. Contracts, wills and documents related to land rights, but also dramas, poems and literary translations were no longer written in Nahuatl; thus, “writing” came to mean “writing in Spanish”. Larger villages and towns also began to favor Spanish and the indigenous languages withdrew into what anthropologist Aguirre Beltrán later named “refuge zones”. The decline was, for the most part, slow and gradual, but new events, both cultural and political, would steadily accelerate it.  

Paradoxically, two of these events were the Mexican Independence during the early Nineteenth Century, and, later, the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910.  In the first case, the social and political groups that dominated the military process were the Spanish speaking “criollos” who, following the model of a nation state, strongly favored the ideal of “national” education, naturally to be offered in Spanish.  As regards the Mexican Revolution, the governments that emanated from the movement put into practice the very same ideals.  A single fact will illustrate the effects of these two historical upheavals from the perspective of language diversity. It is estimated that in 1820, shortly after Mexico became independent from the Spanish Crown, sixty percent of its population spoke an indigenous language as a mother tongue. Today the figure has dropped to only five-point-four percent, which is even less than in Canada, where some six percent of the population still claims to speak an aboriginal tongue at home. 

In the decades following the 1910 revolution, the Mexican government began to implement its official policy towards indigenous people, a policy named “indigenismo”. Although the public discourse strongly exalted Mexico’s indigenous past, glorifying the ancient Mayan, Nahua, Zapotec civilizations, along with other cultures and their most obvious scientific and artistic accomplishments, real practices, especially in the field of education, were clearly aimed at further propagating the Spanish language and assimilating the remaining indigenous populations into the national mainstream. Even at a theoretical level, no attempt was made to deny or even disguise the policy: To “Mexicanize” an Indian, it was said, was to “build the Fatherland”. Just as in Canada, the United States and Australia, countless residential schools were created. Children were separated from their families.  Once they arrived at the schools, their clothing was taken away, they were washed down with hoses, their hair was shaved off, and it was strictly forbidden to speak in their own language. Violation of this rule was penalized by public scorning or, more often than not, by physical punishment. “Campos de concentración para niños” (“Concentration camps for children”), someone has eloquently called these schools. And we all know the results of these infamous social experiments. For Indigenous people, the toll appeared in the form of social maladjustment, substance abuse and violence generated in those places, things that continue to be one of the Mexican government’s greatest debts it has to yet to make amends for.  

By the sixties a gradual shift in attitudes and values had taken place. Several factors had changed the overall view of ethnic plurality. Cultural relativism, although shaped decades earlier, had finally made its way not only into universities, but also into governmental agencies; also the desire for democratization that swept Latin America at large, left a strong imprint on almost every aspect of society. A gradual revalorization of indigenous languages came to be a part of the official discourse. Several reforms were carried out in the indigenous school system. Sadly though, they were too timid and too insufficient: elementary reading materials continued to be bilingual, but some bilingual books that included more advanced texts, mostly based on the documentation of indigenous oral tradition, were published, and, for the first time, children were advised to speak their mother tongues at home.  But none of these actions proved strong enough to stop what had already become devastating language erosion, which, to this day, continues to be one of our most severe cultural problems. 

The next two decades became the stage for one of the most interesting phenomena in the field of Mexican literature, which, from that point on, came to be known as “Mexican literatures”, in the plural. I refer to the emergence of indigenous writers who use their mother tongues instead of Spanish as their primary tool. This was most noticeable in the major languages (Nahuatl, Maya, Zapotec), but later on in many others, including some that are used only by a few thousand speakers. These intellectuals made a difficult and daring choice: they renounced being immediately accessible to the huge readership that already exists in Spanish, and directed themselves to a tiny group of people in communities with no recent tradition of literacy, no standard alphabets and very little money to purchase books. In exchange, they were making themselves highly visible at the international level, thus creating new cultural and even political niches. Their posture was one of political opposition and cultural resistance, because creating written literatures for, let’s say Otomí or Tarahumara, goes against all stereotypes and cultural clichés at the popular level. We have to remember that, within this framework, all languages other than Spanish (or the major European foreign languages) are considered to be only “dialects”, unable to express anything beyond immediate material needs. 

What has become of this surprising cultural movement? I have certain doubts, but also a couple of certainties. An important literary prize now exists, bearing the name of an ancient nahuatl poet, and each year more and more writers send their works to compete in the hope of winning it. Dozens of books have been published in the major languages. Some names are now part of the Mexican cultural scene: Briceida Cuevas Cob in Mayan, Natalio Hernández in Nahuatl, Natalia Toledo in Zapotec, and the number of authors and titles keeps growing. They include poetry, novel, short stories and even essays, but also translations from Spanish or other languages. Recently, “The Little Prince”, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, has been translated into Otomí by Banff ex-resident Raymundo Álvarez and into Totonac by Pedro Pérez Luna, to mention one example.  Also many classical works on the subject of the aboriginal cultures of the Americas are now available. Cessia Chuc Uc, with the generous help of the Banff Center, by the way, has translated Emilio Abreu Gómez’s novel, Canek, into Maya, and, as an indirect result of that artistic residency, the Popol Vuh, one of the most imaginative and powerful books ever composed (originally written in the Quiché language in what is now Guatemala), has also been translated into Yucatecan Maya. 

What are my doubts? Although it would be unfair and simply unwise to deny the importance of such a movement, one must also recognize that it has created political interest groups, economic niches and, inevitably, a growing picaresque around it all. Some people write in Spanish, the language in which they were educated, and only then translate their work into their vernacular.  Coming from such a small group of promoters, sometimes the awarding of prizes and distinctions has become questionable. Moreover, even as the creation of a written corpus has helped to call attention to the language situation and to elevate the status of indigenous languages, one must recognize that very little has been done to stop the continuing displacement of languages overall, because language displacement is a social, complex, multi-factorial phenomenon, and literature or language prestige alone cannot stop it. In fact, the most important cause of language displacement in Mexico —so-called bilingual education— has not been changed one iota because of the recent amendment to the status of indigenous languages. We have to bear in mind that schools are social spaces and, therefore, daily producers of socio-linguistic practices, so they continue to create new generations of Spanish-speakers. A Tarahumara Governor put it this way at a gathering dedicated to analyzing indigenous education: “Our schools are nothing more than factories of white people; our children go in as Tarahumara monolinguals, and come out as Spanish monolinguals.” 

What are my certainties? First of all: no matter what the final outcome of these socio-linguistic trends may be in the future, what Mexican indigenous writers have already achieved is one of the most important chapters in our country’s recent cultural history. In the worst case scenario (that is, should indigenous languages disappear), the now extant corpus of novels, essays, short stories and poems written in different indigenous tongues, will, no doubt, constitute a priceless treasure that will, at some point, be valued as we now value the surviving literary treasures of Ancient Mexico. They will constitute an important body of linguistic documentation, testimonies of a unique political and cultural struggle and, last but not least, an exploration of the artistic and intellectual possibilities of linguistic codes that are vastly different from those of the European national languages of the Americas.   

In the last ten years, new developments have appeared in Mexico. A national Institute for Indigenous Languages was created at the federal level and many states also founded different agencies dedicated to the promotion and development of our linguistic and cultural heritage.  They provide assistance for individual and community projects, standardize orthographies for languages that haven’t yet achieved this goal, and publish books and audiobooks. They have engaged in highly visible actions, such as publishing advertisements in the national media or creating so-called linguistic landscapes, such as road signs and billboards. Cinema in some of the languages is also a recent innovation and some good films have been produced. Yet, for strong political imperatives, neither these actions, nor the institutions behind them have changed the educational system in any way.  So, the important factor driving Mexico’s language displacement has been left intact. Constitutional reforms aimed at creating political and ethnic autonomies —able to empower the original inhabitants and reduce the enormous disparity between mainstream society and indigenous groups— are also far from feasible, given the current political situation.  And so, year after year the percentages of Amerindian language speakers continue to plummet.  So the question arises: why should we try to keep them alive? 


There are several possible answers.  First, because it is a matter of Human Rights. Whenever and wherever one language yields its place to another there is an asymmetrical political relationship between two social subjects. It is no coincidence that endangered languages are almost always spoken by impoverished or politically subjugated peoples. “Wherever an Empire went, so did language, and whenever the first succeeded, so did the second” wrote, five centuries ago, Alfonso de Nebrija, author of the first grammar of the Castilian language, when he advised Queen Isabella the First of Castile and Aragón to propagate Spanish in the then newly conquered territories. A highly qualified speaker for the British Empire, Winston Churchill, would say, centuries later: “There must be a universal language, and that language must be English”. Language imposition is never innocent, neither from a political nor a cultural point of view. The fact that a child can be mistreated or beaten simply for speaking the language he or she was taught at home to think ìn, is indeed a barbaric act of complete, cultural humiliation.  

But let’s take a close look at words themselves as we search for more answers, because understanding the way a word operates is central to our understanding the real meaning of language diversity, and, therefore, to the importance of its preservation.  Language is a rather mysterious phenomenon. It could well be defined as the very definition of what we are, because, as far as we know, we are the only living creatures capable of simplifying the universe into mental categories and, then fusing them, in order to externalize them, with fixed combinations of noises, accents and tones. With these clusters of simple elements we can, not only think, dream, play, recreate our experiences and share them with other members of our species, but also build monuments in which we codify our innermost feelings and ideas —I’m talking of course about stories, novels, essays and poems—, and these monuments have proven to be stronger than empires and more lasting than religions. It would be an absolute oddity to find someone worshipping Jupiter in the present day, yet Catullus’ poems seem to have been written this morning, and they are still cherished, studied, translated and imitated; in other words, they are still very much alive. 

Yet language, as a concept, is an abstraction. What we have in reality is languages, in the plural. No one really knows where and how language appeared, whether it was the result of a sudden genetic mutation or of a slow, evolutionary process. We do know that it changes gradually when one person teaches it to another, when it travels from one generation to the next.  Thus it acquires regional diversity as the number of speakers multiplies and they colonize new territories.  So any given language will eventually change diachronically beyond recognition, separating from itself, and fragmenting into multiple languages. We also know that it adapts to the expressive needs of a community, and that, for this reason, it is always the semantic mirror image of a culture. Domina meant “the one residing in a house” (from the word domus) in early Latin; by the fifth century it was pronounced domna, or even donna. In contemporary Spanish it has become doña, and it is now an honorific title used to denote respect when addressing a woman of a certain importance or of a certain age. But the fascinating point here is that contemporary Spanish has no exact equivalent for early Latin domina, nor did early Latin have an exact equivalent for doña.  By constantly changing both their form and content, words ended up enriching our ways of perceiving reality. 

Indeed, language does not reflect reality, as one might tend to think; rather it interprets it by classifying continuous external processes and turning them into much simpler, more stable categories. Each language does this in a particular manner, no matter whether it is under the influence of other languages and cultures, or not. It is of course true that other, more universal factors, fuel language and thought. Emotion is one of them, and surely there also is a genetic substratum that partially accounts for the way we convert reality into language.  But even aspects as omnipresent as color, the body parts, and family are expressed, from one language to another, with astounding and asymmetrical differences. English has one word for “grandmother”, Nahuatl has two, depending on whether it is on the maternal or the paternal side. French has one word for brother and another for cousin, whereas Tarahumara has a term (“ba’chí”) for an older brother and another for a younger one (“boní”), but they include all male cousins on the maternal side. Ódami, a language from Northern Mexico, considers blue and green to be different grades of the same color, yet it has three different terms for what we, from an Indo-European language, would call “yellow”, depending on whether they are being reflected from a fruit, a stone or a bird.  

Grammatical idiosyncrasies can allow some languages to express some things better than others: “The father told his son that he could help him” is an ambiguous sentence in English, because it doesn’t specify whether the person to be helped is the son, the father or someone else. Algonquian languages such as Cree or Blackfoot possess suffixes that completely overcome this ambiguity. Indeed, grammar can also convey particular nuances that are sometimes difficult to translate: in Spanish and French, languages which possess sex-oriented grammatical genders, la flor and la fleur (“the flower”) are feminine, but in Italian it is a masculine (il fiore), and in most languages the equivalents simply do not have any gender connotations. So when a native speaker of Spanish says something about la flor, his sentence will be magnetized with feminine resonances, and when that native speaker, trying to learn a foreign language like English, needs to use a pronoun in order to refer to the flower, he will automatically choose “she”, instead of “it”. Diminutives, honorifics and other emotion oriented grammatical devices, such as distinctions in personal pronouns, can also convey deeply meaningful distinctions and are a frequent source of untranslatability, just as culturally unique lexical items are: “Compadrito, tutéeme y vamos a echarnos una charandita” can be a very expressive sentence in Mexican Spanish, only it’s completely untranslatable into English. But even when a term has a close equivalent in a different language, the often complex network of connotations each term has in a particular language can constitute a barrier. “Butterfly” in English is associated with nature and ephemeral beauty. Its equivalent in tarahumara, a language in which there is no word for “nature”, “nakarówali” is associated instead with supernatural powers and even death.  Moreover, intonation patterns, so frequently used in languages to express particular shades of thought or emotion, are very different from language to language, and, in many cases, what in a given language would be expressed by intonation alone, in another is expressed by particles or by other linguistic means. Nuances expressed in this way sometimes imply psychological attitudes particular to each culture, and that is why it is no exaggeration to say that when a person is seriously learning a foreign language, she or he has to adopt the role of an impersonator. 

I will now address language as the “raw material” for literary creation, a subject seldom talked about. Any particular language consists of a limited, although changing, inventory of elements. At the semantic level, as we have just seen, these elements can direct our very thoughts and channel them in different directions. It is evident that in a language in which there is no word for “fairy” there will be no songs, stories, or poems about fairies. But if we look at the phonological components we will find another set of possibilities, particularly interesting for poets, but important as well for all the other genres. Consonants, vowels, glides, accents, tones and ways of combining all of the above can be creators of mere “effects”, but can also be real generators of meaning. Some examples will suffice, and I will begin with a very famous one. Homer (or that elusive ghost we call Homer) tells us in the Iliad that “πολλὰ δ᾽ ἄναντα κάταντα πάραντά τε δόχμιά τ᾽ ἦλθον” [pollá d’ánanta kátanta párantá te dókhmiá t’éélthon], which means that “through many slopes and descènts and bends they found the houses”. Both the rhythm and the combination of consonants imitate the sound of horses trotting, and the line has been admired and discussed for more than two thousand years. But it would have been impossible to express in a language like Japanese, with no complex consonant clusters and no movable stress patterns. Juan de Yépez, also known as John of the Cross, in his Cántico espiritual (in English “Spiritual Canticle”) tells us that, after much searching for her beloved (Christ), the wife (the soul) finally stops at a fountain and wishes to see the reflection of her husband’s eyes in its surface.

When she sees that reflection and suddenly turns around to see him face to face, she transforms herself into a dove and exclaims: “Mi amado, las montañas / los valles solitarios nemorosos / las ínsulas extrañas, los ríos sonorosos / el silbo de los aires amororsos…” (“My Beloved: the mountains / The solitary wooded valleys / The strange islands / The roaring torrents / The whisper of the amorous gales…”). The English translation, of course, cannot be a match for the original, because in the original verses, twenty one sibilant sounds combine together in order to enhance the idea that the poetical voice is that of a dove flying high up in the sky. And this is only possible because Spanish is very rich in sibilants, so the verses materialize without sounding artificial or stiff. 

Another great poet, Arthur Rimbaud, makes a fantastic use of the sounds of French in his world acclaimed “The drunken boat”: “Glaciers, soleils d’argent, flots nacreux, cieux de braises! / Échouages hideux au fond des golfes bruns…” (“Glaciers, suns of silver, waves of pearl, skies of red-hot coals! / Hìdeous wrecks at the bottom of brown gulfs”), where almost all of the French vowels gather in a mesmerizing phonological landscape. But then again, there have been languages like Ubyx, formerly spoken in the Caucasus region, which only possessed two vowels. And eighty four consonants. 

There is yet another reason to treasure languages and language communities.  A group of speakers is always the depository of collective knowledge, both strictly cultural and scientific. Many of the last speakers of displaced languages are real human libraries, keeping in their memories not only knowledge of traditional medicine, for instance, but also the history of their communities, the old rites and, of course, their ancestral mythology, one of the most valuable forms of knowledge we might still dream to find anywhere. When children no longer speak the language of their grandparents, the transmission of these elements is broken forever and these treasures are destined to oblivion.  Once, in Chihuahua, I had the privilege of taking an elder, a woman from the Ódame community, to a recording studio where we were to produce an audio-book. After much hesitation (she was hearing-impaired and almost monolingual in Ódami) she suddenly started speaking about how the raven, being the one who, in the beginning, brought corn to the land, comes back regularly to take his share from every harvest, but being also a compassionate bird he helped a fallen star to return to the sky; much to the vulture’s dismay, who shot an arrow at him and made the perforation in his beak we can still see to this day.  Then she told us how, in former days, all the girls of the community would prepare to greet the first full moon each year. “The elderly —she said— would prepare corn-beer and we would sit around the big clay pot endlessly shaking our rattles, waiting for her, until the lady appeared; I saw her, myself, with my own eyes, approaching us; she would be crying, alone, and then she would dip her fingers into the pot in order to sprinkle some drops of the maize liquor on our heads, blessing us; because she was the moon, the lady, and we, the Ódami people, were her children”, she emphasized. We were all astounded, especially the studio engineer. When she finished speaking, he just turned around and asked me: “Why weren’t we ever taught this at school?” I just went home thinking about how many stories and precious images like these had disappeared forever in other indigenous languages and communities. 

We all know the debate over how much is “lost in translation”, but language loss —always the product of conquest, internal colonialism and inequality— deprives mankind of entire universes to translate from and into.  The collective mind shrinks every time a language dies. Languages are both the product and the source of human imagination. We all think in a particular language, and we think differently. The intricacies each language provides, constitute our innermost resource for the exploration of reality.  So in the end, the proliferation of languages is not —as it was thought in the past, and as it was expressed in the old Middle Eastern myth of the Tower of Babel— a terrible curse, aimed at curtailing the abilities and ambitions of mankind, but rather, it has always been an instrument for ever-growing mental and spiritual expansion. 

Thank you. 

Enrique Servín