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Wednesday Post: The Silencing of Language

meerajay's picture

I, Rigoberta Menchú has me thinking a lot about voice and language. I can’t help but think that because this book has been translated so many times, its original emotional power has been diluted. I am sure her tone must have been musical and her language colorful, despite and perhaps because of the anguish that she has faced in life, but so much of that is out of our reach because of the repeated translation. I was also thinking a lot about the protagonist/writer’s constant ache to tell her story in the dominant language. She says to her father that she “[wants] to read or speak or write Spanish…perhaps things were different if you could read” (105). This becomes her main reason for leaving her home to go to Guatemala City to work as a maid. Spanish, here, is the language of the colonizer and of the dominant power, so it makes sense that she would want to learn it. But some would argue that by learning Spanish and desiring to learn it, she is turning her back on her people. There some different narratives around languages of postcolonial theory: one states that by learning the dominant, colonizer’s language, you become an instrument to the colonizer, proving that your own language is less worthy of respect. Fanon, for example, was one writer that I read about last semester. He wrote about the Algerian revolution from the French and said that you cannot learn the language of the colonizer without subconsciously imbibing racist cultural symbolism within the language. Another narrative seeks to subvert the mainstream language by learning it, and by mastering it to an even greater extent than the colonizer. However, there is yet another narrative that points to hybridity as the ideal solution; it cannot be denied that some of the colonizer’s culture directly influences the colonized, so creating a hybrid language and culture is more inclusive of identities.

I am trying to connect all of this to the concept of silence. Obviously, the multiple translations have a silencing effect on Rigoberta Menchú’s narrative. Language, our primary mode of communication, is silencing because it encounters power and systems of oppression. It is both a means of liberation and a means of silencing a marginalized narrative. 


rb.richx's picture

"by learning the dominant, colonizer’s language, you become an instrument to the colonizer, proving that your own language is less worthy of respect."

i agree that her desire as a child to want to learn spanish could be argued to be a turning her back on her people. but i disagree; by learning the colonizer's language, there is a recollection to all the times that having someone to speak that language could have helped her and her family recieve aid or even just talk to the people around them. also, her learning spanish as a maid was necessary for her survival in that moment. so i think that this is a forced assimilation, and thus one cannot be considered a direct instrument of the colonizer because of that force.

to add to that, she if i'm not mistaken, menchú continues to speak her first language (quiche) but was very purposeful in her use of the colonizer's language. who would have translated the book if it weren't in spanish? in what ways has her culture become more 'hybridized' because of her use of spanish?

"I'm still keeping my Indian identity a secret. I'm still keeping secret what I think no-one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets." (215)

i'm ending here with this quote (the last in the book) to say that she is also very intentional about the things to which she puts voice, and that because the colonizers don't know her language, they cannot know things. because she does not use her first language, there are even more secrets kept because, undoubtedly, there is something lost in translation.

this is all not to disagree with you, but i suppose to complicate the subject even more so...