“Who is in the dark houses?”: a poetry translation challenge

We’re delighted to team up with Modern Poetry in Translation for the third time, and once more offer you the chance to be published in this world-leading journal, and take part in a workshop with its editor. This time, we’re asking you to (co-)translate a poem by Irma Pineda, writing in the endangered language of Isthmus Zapotec, with the help of translator Wendy Call and MPT editor Clare Pollard, who introduces the challenge…

This challenge is now closed. Congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read in the sidebar. Congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judge: Issy Adams, Daniel Clark, Sonika Jaiganesh, Divya Mehrish, Filippo Rossi and Amy Wolstenholme.
Blue sky and mountains in the distance; what appears to be still water in the foreground
Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

This summer’s issue of Modern Poetry in TranslationIf No One Names Us: Focus on Mexico – led me, as editor, to read poems translated from a number of Mexico’s 68 national languages. 63 of those languages are indigenous, and many are critically endangered due to both a history of colonialism, and those who would still extract resources from indigenous ancestral lands. Poetry is one of the ways by which such languages can be preserved, its writing often a work of activism as well as care.

Wendy Call’s wonderful translations of Zoque poet Mikeas Sánchez appear in our issue, along with her co-translations of Juana Karen Peñate, who writes poems in the Tumbalá variant of Ch’ol, a Mayan language spoken in Chiapas. We were also interested in her work with Irma Pineda, who writes in Isthmus Zapotec, and are thrilled that she has made a bridge translation of one of Pineda’s poems for this challenge. Though her poem is in Isthmus Zapotec, you don’t need to know Zapotec to take part in this challenge. Her translator Wendy Call has created a ‘bridge’ translation into English, which we are asking you to adapt, co-creating a translation with Wendy Call and Irma Pineda.

MPT cover for If No-one Names us: Focus on Mexico. Abstract graphic of a figure opening their mouth towards a disembodied elbow with a skull on itAs many indigenous Mexican writers are also fluent in Spanish, it is often the first language they are translated or self-translated into, and the Spanish translations can act as a ‘bridge’ – allowing for new versions of poems in multiple languages that often wouldn’t otherwise exist (fluent translators of many indigenous languages being few in number). So, below, you can see Irma Pineda’s Spanish version as well as Wendy Call’s ‘bridge’ into English. By letting the poem cross these generous, connective translations, you can perhaps make a third – your own.

This is a chance to really engage with an endangered literature; listen to its sounds; pay attention to the different ways in which it encourages us to think.   

We would like you to read through the all the versions of the poem and ask yourself:

  • What do I think this poem is trying to say?
  • What are my favourite things about this poem? Are there particularly powerful lines or images I need to bring out?
  • Do I have any questions or uncertainties? Is there anything I might want to research online?
  • Has the form changed between the original and the bridge translation? If so, why?
  • Am I trying to make a very accurate translation, or a looser ‘version’? Am I going to experiment with aspects such as layout or imagery, or try to mirror the original? What aspects of the original poem do I need to keep and what am I willing to lose to make a poem that feels like the real thing in English?

Your final co-translated text might be as close to Irma Pineda’s as possible or only in conversation with it, but however you approach the material I hope that spending time this closely with someone else’s words will expand your own poetic practise.

Submit your poetic translation by Sunday 15 August 2021. We will publish the best entry in Modern Poetry in Translation, where we are always keen to support emerging translators. We also hope you will join our community and learn more – do follow us on Twitter @MPTmagazine or think about subscribing.

I am also facilitating a free online poetry translation workshop on Monday 19 July 2021 (7-8.30pm BST) over Zoom. We will be doing some translation warm-ups and creating a group translation of a different poem. You don’t need to know any other languages to take part, and you don’t need to ever have translated a poem before – you just have to be aged 14-25 and interested in learning more. All the spots have now been taken. Please check back next year for more opportunities – and we look forward to reading your entry to the challenge!

You can find more ways into translation in last year’s challenge working with Persian, the 2019 challenge working with Armenian, and the other features on translation across Young Poets Network.

Original in Isthmus Zapotec

Lu Neza VII

by Irma Pineda

Ca yoo xquidxilu’ napaca’ lu
cuyubica yuxi nisado’
cayuyadxica’ gubidxa
cadi cuzaani íqueca’
cadi cutiee guichaíque dexa ca’
dié nayaase, naxiñá ne na té
Tuunga nabeza xa’na’ íque yoo na té ne naguchi ca ya?
Tulaa ndaani’ ca yoo nacahui ca?

Neza ca dani riniti
tobiluchasi neza rihuiini ndaani’ guidxi
tisi ndi nga ni ribee binni
ruaa nisado’
guidxi nacahuigá
ni cului’si ti ruaa
dié naxiñá

Paraa zé xrinibe?
Xquendadxido’be nga bichibi
bi’cu’ la?
Qui guinni xcuidi lu guidxi
ni gubaana qui richesabi íque yoo
Ca manihuiinica laaca zié ca’…

Listen to Irma Pineda reading the poem in Isthmus Zapotec below.

Self-translation into Spanish

Sobre el Camino VII

by Irma Pineda

Las casas de tu pueblo tienen ojos
que buscan arenas de la playa
ven a lo lejos el sol
que hoy no brilla sobre sus cabezas
no ilumina sus cabellos-tejas
pintadas de negro, rojo y suaves colores
¿Quién habita bajo los techos rosas o amarillos?
¿Quién en las casas obscuras?

Rumbo a las montañas se pierde
la única arteria visible del cuerpo de tu pueblo
acaso porque ésta sea
el camino que lleva al mar
Pueblo sombrío
que sólo enseña una boca-puerta
pintada de rojo

¿Adónde fue su sangre?
¿fue su insoportable silencio
el que asustó a los perros?
No hay niños en la calle,
ni siquiera ladrones brincando por los techos
Las aves también se marcharon…

Bridge Translation

On the Path VII

by Irma Pineda, translated by Wendy Call

The houses of your village have eyes
that look for sand grains on the beach
they see the sun from far off
that doesn’t shine on their heads today
doesn’t illuminate their roof tile-hair
painted with black, red and soft colours
Who lives underneath the pink or yellow roofs?
Who is in the dark houses?

On the way to the mountains the only
visible artery of your village’s body disappears
maybe this is because
the path leads to the sea
sombre village
that only shows one mouth-door
painted with red

Where did its blood go?
Was it the unbearable silence
that scared away the dogs?
There are no children in the street,
not even robbers leaping on the roofs
The birds have also gone away…

Notes from the translator, Wendy Call:

Irma Pineda is an Indigenous Binnizá (Isthmus Zapotec) poet from the city of Juchitán in Oaxaca, Mexico. She has published ten books of bilingual (Spanish-Isthmus Zapotec) poetry. Since she was a little girl, Pineda has been immersed in the work of language, or guunda—an Isthmus Zapotec word that means to sing, to read, or to study.

She writes in Isthmus Zapotec, which is part of the group of languages all called Zapotec. Nearly half a million people in the state of Oaxaca—and many thousands who have immigrated to Mexico City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere—are Zapotec speakers. ‘Isthmus Zapotec’ includes languages that are as different as Catalán and Spanish. What we call ‘Zapotec’ contains more than sixty distinct language variants—as wide-ranging as the entire family of Romance languages.

Map of places where various Zapotec languages are spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, including: Rincón, Mltla, Choapan, Lachlgulrl, Isthmus and Loxicha
Map of the Zapotec language family. Image by Noahedits

Zapotec was the first language in the Americas to have a written form. Around 600 BCE, long before the Maya developed a writing system, the Zapotecs began using glyphs to record their history and stories. This glyph recording system persisted for fourteen hundred years. Nobody knows why the Zapotecs stopped using their written system, and after that, Zapotec literature continued as an entirely oral tradition. In the 1890s, Isthmus Zapotecs began to use the Latinate alphabet—the same one we use in English—to write down their poems, stories, histories, songs, and jokes.

Still, most of the people who speak Isthmus Zapotec today aren’t formally taught to read or write it. The language survives in their ears, mouths, minds, and hearts. Like most Zapotec speakers, Irma Pineda was educated entirely in Spanish. When she began to write poetry as a teenager, she composed the poems in her head. Then, she borrowed Zapotec books of literature and history from her neighbours and looked up the words in her poems one by one, to learn how to spell them. She remembers, ‘I wasn’t taught to read Zapotec, so I didn’t know how to represent the sounds. I didn’t have a dictionary. I didn’t even have a grammar book.’

Book cover of Xilase qui rié di’ sicasi rié nisa guiigu’ (La nostalgia no se marcha como el agua de los ríos) This poem originally appeared in Irma Pineda’s third collection of poetry, Xilase qui rié di’ sicasi rié nisa guiigu’ (La nostalgia no se marcha como el agua de los ríos), published by Escritores de Lenguas Indígenas, 2007. This poem is the seventh in a twelve-poem sequence titled ‘Lu Neza / Sobre el Camino’ (‘On the Path’). All of the poems in this book are persona poems: poems told in the voice of a speaker who is not the author. In the case of this book, there are two (fictional) speakers: a person who has left their home village in southern Mexico to travel to the United States to work, and that person’s spouse, who waits at home. This poem is in the voice of the person waiting at home.

This poem is also included in her anthology for children: Chupa laxidua’ / Dos es mi corazon (My Heart in Two): Irma Pineda para ninos. All the illustrations in the book are by children from Juchitan. The link is to the full book, published on the web, so you can see the children’s artwork. This poem (‘On the Path VII’) is included in this anthology, on pages 40 and 41.

Cover Chupa laxidua' / Dos es mi corazon (My Heart in Two): Irma Pineda para ninos

I have been translating Irma Pineda’s poetry into English for more than a decade. She and I have worked out a three-stage translation process. First, I create a draft translation in English, based on the Spanish version of each poem. I also study the patterns in the Zapotec version, though I don’t speak Zapotec. I look up key words from the poem an Isthmus Zapotec-Spanish dictionary. Then, I discuss that draft with Pineda; we often spend an hour discussing a single poem. She answers my questions; gives me a deeper sense of the poem’s inspiration, meaning, and context; and explains the differences between the Zapotec and Spanish versions of the poem—she calls them ‘mirror-poems.’

What do you see in the mirror of this poem?

Further resources on Isthmus Zapotec:

Isthmus Zapotec – Language, Memory, and Identity

The Sound of the Isthmus Zapotec language (YouTube)

DBpedia: Isthmus Zapotec

An article about Irma Pineda performing her poems

Irma Pineda reading in Isthmus Zapoetc in 2010

Wendy Call and Irma Pineda smiling, with an arm around each other
Photo: Kathy Cowell

Irma Pineda, author, translator, and professor from Juchitán, Oaxaca, has published seven books of bilingual Isthmus Zapotec-Spanish poetry. She is a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Wendy Call is an author, editor, translator, and educator in Seattle (Duwamish land). Her poetry translations have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Commission.


Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies. The first-prize poem in this challenge will also be published in Modern Poetry in Translation, an international poetry magazine founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort that publishes the best of world poetry in English translation. You could appear in print alongside some of the leading poets and translators of the global poetry scene!

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 15 August 2021. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file; however, do bear in mind that the first-prize winner will have the text of their poem published in Modern Poetry in Translation. You can send as many poems as you like. Submissions must be in English, although you may include snippets in other languages.

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, where you heard about the challenge (e.g. YPN email, Twitter etc.). Please write in the subject line ‘Translation challenge 2021’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 15 August 2021, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Modern Poetry in Translation to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].

Irma Pineda, author, translator, and professor from Juchitán, Oaxaca, has published seven books of bilingual Isthmus Zapotec-Spanish poetry. She is a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Wendy Call is an author, editor, translator, and educator in Seattle (Duwamish land). Her poetry translations have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Commission.

Clare Pollard. Photo: Justine Stoddart

Clare Pollard is the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and a judge of Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2021. She has published five collections of poetry with Bloodaxe, the latest of which is Incarnation (2017). Her translation projects have included a new version of Ovid’s Heroines (2013), which she toured as a one-woman show with Jaybird Live Literature, and a co-translation of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations (2017) which was The Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year 2017.

MPT: modern poetry in translation logo

19 thoughts on ““Who is in the dark houses?”: a poetry translation challenge

    1. Hi Zinnia,

      Yes, you can submit as many versions as you like!

      Best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  1. Any specific guidelines about if the poems should be sent in a blind document, any particular format, file? Also, If my submission doesn’t get selected am I allowed to submit it anywhere else (asking because I might as well have to submit the original language text by Irma Pineda in that case)

    1. Hi Jay,

      Thanks for your comment. If you could please copy and paste the entry/entries into the body of the email, that would be great – we then anonymise them ourselves.

      If your entry isn’t selected as one of the winners in this challenge, of course you are welcome to submit it elsewhere, and of course do credit Irma Pineda as the original poet, and Wendy Call as a co-translator.

      Best of luck!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  2. Hi I am 19 and just landed this platform. I see you accept submissions for the Foyle Anthology only from younger group. I wanted to check incase you have any other anthology for the older group. If not do you make excepts?

    1. Dear Anasthya,

      Thanks for your comment! The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is a competition for 11-17 year olds only I am afraid.

      On Young Poets Network (which is for anyone up to the age of 25), we are sometimes able to create anthologies of winners’ work, and this will usually be stated in the challenge itself. Do check our Issuu page for a few examples: https://issuu.com/poetrysociety/stacks/d6681db6ae594cabbeb9a43a9c6b2c2a Thinking Outside the Penalty Box, Ode to Code, Melting Ice, I am the Universe, and Poems to end UK hunger are the anthologies we have created from winning entries – the others are zines which have won our challenges.

      For this translation challenge, the first prize winner will be published in Modern Poetry in Translation, a world-leading journal.

      Do also have a look at our Poetry Opportunities page for opportunities from other organisations: https://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/poetry-opportunities/

      I hope that is helpful. Best of luck!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi there,

      We do if you put “confirm receipt” in the subject line!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

        1. Hi Ajay,

          I’ve just checked and we have received your entry. Best of luck in the competition!

          Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Jack,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it includes 25 year olds!

      Looking forward to receiving your entry,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Aiyra,

      Thanks for your comments! The deadline is always 23:59 on the named day, unless otherwise specified. Hopefully you found that in the ‘How to enter’ section!

      We are a small team and only work during the week, so I’ve just responded to your email. Let me know if you don’t receive confirmation.

      Best of luck in the challenge!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for getting in touch. As soon as possible! Definitely by the end of September.

      Best wishes,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *