Poetry Friday: Translating Language And Concepts, The Poetry Of Rex Lee Jim

Apr 19, 2019

Translating poems from Dine' to English is not just a matter of words, it's a matter of concepts. That's how Rex Lee Jim creates his poetry. He is a storyteller, Medicine Man, Princeton University scholar and former Vice President of the Navajo Nation. He's just released a new collection of bilingual poems. And in this week's Poetry Friday segment, Jim shares some cultural analysis of his own work. 

Rex Lee Jim
Credit Salina Bookshelf, Inc.

Rex Lee Jim:

In Navajo, we really don’t distinguish poetry, plays, storytelling. And we have always been listening to stories most of our lives. As young kids, we listen to coyote stories, we listen to stories about our grandparents going down to the local store on horseback and who was there and what they were discussing. I’ve always listened to elders, and the language they use. It’s very beautiful, very descriptive, articulate and authentic. It was just amazing, the vocabulary. They painted pictures with the language they used. And the way they did it, it was very alive, and it’s as though you were there watching them. So, that’s how I got interested in storytelling.

Rex Lee JIm (L) with his maternal uncle, Kin Lichii'nii Nez, 1979.
Credit Sam Bingham

A good example of the difficulty of translation is Nááts’íílid Bee Na’ní’á, The Bridge of Rainbow:

Sitting in the sandstone alcove.

Fire water firing us up,

We climbed up here on a narrow trail. 

In front of us a river runs

Through a tunnel of red willows.

A swinging bridge stretches across.

Whiteman land is on this side,

Navajo land is on the other side.

We want to get back to the other side.

We might make it back to the other side.

If we hold hands together and hold on tightly.

If not then we will go beneath the river.

On the other side, in Navajo country, 

I hear drumming of the giant's heart.

Yíiyá

Rex Lee Jim (R), graduating from Princeton University, 1986
Credit Princeton Alumni News

In Navajo, yiits’a’, is translated as “the one walking giant” in English. But if you look at the word carefully, yiits’a’, you can divide it into two: yii, which means “fear”, and ts’a’, means “big.” So the concept there is actually “big fear”. If you translate it to “the giant”, it does not have that association, that connection. The Navajos talk about “the big fear” as something or someone who didn’t exist a long time ago, or external to who we are. That “big fear” is inside of us.

The next poem is called Hózhóójí T’iis, Tree of Peace:

At the house made of thought

At the house made of action

Where the ponderosa trees meet the sky

Where varied plants take root in the earth

We plant a tree of peace

From here on

Think for seven generations,

Act for them,

We are told.

In this way the hoop will become whole again,

They are told.

Every time we say ‘language preservation’, we talk about herding sheep and weaving. We need to go beyond that. The Navajo language can embrace more, and we need to expand its’ capacity to embrace all kinds of experiences.

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu.