Nine Writers from Lesser-Known Languages That You Should Check Out
In the wake of Indigenous People’s Day (also known as Columbus Day) this past week, we thought we’d put together a list of some of our favorite poets who write in languages we rarely encounter. The fact that we so uncommonly see translations from these languages suggests to us that colonization continues to unfurl its consequences. As a few select languages continue to dominate and spread across the globe, it becomes easier and easier to ignore those who write in less “accessible” languages.
That’s why we are offering this list to help celebrate these writers and their translators. Fortunately, as translated literature becomes more popular, we’re beginning to see books translated from a wider range of languages and previously ignored regions, but they are still few and far between. This roundup is a good place to start, and we hope you’ll seek out more writers from cultures that are currently at the margins of the translated world.
Poet Margaret Noodin writes and translates her own poetry from Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwe), the language of the Anishinaabe people. Today, just over 90,000 people in southern Canada and the northern United States speak Anishinaabemowin as a native language, despite the fact that the great state of Michigan gets its name from the Anishinaabemowin word “mshigem” meaning “great lake.” Listen to Noodin’s rhythmic song-poem “Umpaowastewin” then check out her book Weweni.
John Smelcer is the only remaining member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska to read and write in Ahtna. Sharing roots with Navajo, Ahtna is an extremely endangered language, with only 30 remaining native speakers worldwide. These three poems written and translated by Smelcer from the Ahtna are clever and will linger in your mind long after you’ve read them.
Phoneme Media published an incredible anthology, Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Isthumus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán and translator David Shook. The book collects the poetry of six contemporary Mexican poets, translated from (among other languages) Nahuatl, Tsotsil, and Isthmus Zapotec, three of the over 50 indigenous languages spoken by more than 6 million Mexicans today.
Two poems and a few more poems by Mikeas Sánchez, translated from the Zoque by David Shook. Zoque is an indigenous language of Mexico’s state of Chiapas and the native language of roughly 70,000 people.
Reading these three poems by Haitian poet Paul Laraque, you can feel the poet’s fierce use of language as he confronts—both directly and indirectly—decades of political oppression. (Laraque spent 25 years living in exile in New York City during the course of the Duvalier dictatorship.) Translated from the Haitian Creole by Rosemary Manno and Jack Hirschman, these poems are charged with a captivating energy.
On the other side of the globe are the Uyghurs, a Muslim community living primarily in the Xinjiang province of China. The Chinese government has continually attempted to suppress the Uyghur cultural presence in the region. We published a folio of Uyghur poets in Two Lines 17: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal. And, more recently, Jeffrey Yang wrote an essay about Uyghur poetry in Two Lines 24, titled “On Thirst.” Here are some more Uyghur poets to check out:
For a bold defense of nonconformity, read “Against Tradition” by Osmanjan Muhemmed Pas’an, translated by Joshua L. Freeman.
Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile is a vibrant poetry collection by Ahmatjan Osman, translated by Jeffrey Yang with the author. This is the first book of Uyghur poetry to be published in English translation.
Groundbreaking Tanzanian poet Euphrase Kezilahabi introduced the concept of free verse to Swahili poetry. Read “Welcome Inside,” translated by Annmarie Drury, which begins courageously: “The traditional poets are playing now at sleeping . . .” Kezilahabe continues to grapple with the difficult and disappointing reality of postcolonial Tanzania in Stray Truths, a book of poetry translated by Drury.
South African poet Moses Mtileni describes the inescapable distress of leaving and returning home in “I Have Gone Away Many Times.” Mtileni writes in and self-translates from Xitsonga (or Tsonga), a Bantu language with roughly 3.6 million speakers. An official language of South Africa, Xitsonga is also spoken in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.