Translating culture through language

Translating culture through language

Liesl Driver
Just when I thought I was getting adjusted to the heat here, torrential downpours occur for three consecutive days, making for a cool, damp city. Aside from partially flooded streets and showers without hot water, it was nice to have a break from the heat.

My class schedule was changed this week (July 5) due to a teacher’s strike throughout Oaxaca suspending classes at all schools, which means our Zapotec professor who is the director of a primary school was free to teach us in the mornings. So we have been meeting at 11 a.m. for about three to four hours, followed by lunch at a restaurant near our house. Since our host stay does not include meals, we made a deal with the owner of a nearby restaurant that we would eat there Monday through Friday if she cooked us a variety of Mexican dishes for a discounted price. It works out for both parties, she has consistent business and we get cheap, good meals … lots of tortillas, chicken, salsa, salads etc. After lunch we (there are now three other students and myself) head to Café Italiano, where there is air conditioning, caffeine, wireless and plenty of time to get studying and other work done.

One major focus in class this week has been on family vocabulary. It’s interesting because in Zapotec they don’t just have one word for brother and sister. If you are asking a girl whether she has a brother the word you use is biza’na (brother), whereas if you use that same word (biza’na) when asking a boy it would mean sister. Then they have two distinct words for a sister-sister relationship (benda) and brother-brother relationship (bi’chi). Furthermore, they have distinct word to differentiate between a young girl (ba’ duxaapa’) and a young girl that is a virgin (binnidxaapa’). All the more confusing to learn!

On Wednesday (June 30) in class, we learned about food, numbers, and how to hold basic transactions of buying and selling in Zapotec. We only learned numbers 1-10, 20 and 100, because aside from that they normally just use Spanish numbers. The Spanish language has had a very obvious influence on Zapotec, some food items the Zapotec word has been replaced with Spanish or just never even existed at all. On Thursday, we went to the market to practice asking what things were, how much they cost, and then just chatting about anything we knew how to say in Zapotec. It was a lot of fun trying to speak with them, despite how easily placing the accent on a word in the incorrect spot can give it a completely different meaning. For example, one of my classmates wanted to say “I am here learning to speak Zapotec” but instead of the word speak said stupid due to accentuating the incorrect vowel. They appreciate our attempts regardless and enjoy teaching us new words. After the market we tried some typical market items our professor had bought, the most unique one being iguana — tastes like chicken!

On Friday (July 2) we attended the 6th grade graduation ceremony of students from our professor’s school. All the graduates were dressed up in traditional clothing, the girls in the flower shirts and skirts and the boys in black pants and white shirts with a bandana around their necks. At the beginning, it seemed like any graduation ceremony, there were commencement speeches (in both Spanish and Zapotec), a poem recited by a student and the presentation of certificates to all the graduates. Then the graduates performed traditional dances for their friends and families, some girls balanced figurines on their heads while others danced with pottery jars. Each family had their own table and brought their own botanas (snacks-such as fish, peanuts, tacos, shrimp etc) and drinks for throughout the celebration. Afterwards the teachers and students danced to the live band until at least 11 p.m.

Elections in Mexico were this Sunday (July 4), so throughout the week there were different speeches, rallies and parades throughout the city. They have “la ley seca” on the day of and the day before elections, which means no alcohol can be sold or bought on those two days. I guess they want to keep everyone as calm as possible for elections!

Instead of staying in Juchitan, the other students and I took an overnight trip on Sunday to Huatulco, a touristy beach town about four hours from here. Rather than one long stretch of beach, it’s composed of several different little beaches surrounded by huge cliffs, making it impossible to walk from one beach to the next. Unlike many other beaches on the Oaxacan coast, Huatulco has many big resort hotels and upscale places for foreign tourists to stay. Since it’s not peak tourist season in Mexico, the majority of vacationers I saw were from Mexico. It was a great way to cool of from the heat of Juchitan and a chance to see a new part of Mexico.

Recently what I have really started to realize is how much a culture is reflected in its language and vice versa. In my Anthropology Thought and Theory class last semester, I read about the Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis, which deals with how one’s native language actually creates distinct worlds we all live in. For example, a native English speaker sees and experiences the world in a different way due to their language than a native Spanish speaker. Although I do not agree with the strong theory language completely determines thought, through the Zapotec language I can see the interrelationship between culture, language and thought more than before. This makes it difficult at many times to make a direct translation from Zapotec to Spanish. It also reaffirms the importance of learning and maintaining indigenous languages; if the language is no longer spoken, a whole culture is essentially lost.

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