An Ethnographic Inventory

Instructions for Becoming a Writer-turned-Translator-turned-Ethnographer

A recipe to: Create a Hypertext1, Translate Metonymically2, and Write Ekphrastically3

A hypertextual collection of metonymic translations and ekphrastic fictions executed by a writer-turned-translator-turned-ethnographer, for the rendition of oral literature in an indigenous language into chirographic (written) literature in English

In Amerindian literature the figure of the writer-turned-translator-turned-ethnographer challenges the conception of authorship and literature related to verbally organized and inherited lyric materials. The term literature must be refuted because it reduces these verbally organized materials to a variant further developed by chirographic cultures. The term authorship must shift from an individual to a communal definition because these poems do not belong to those that recite them, they only author a version, not unlike a translator, but to the millenary indigenous cultures the reciters belong to. Only if these conceptions are challenged can the national and world literature canon be broadened to include indigenous fiction. Otherwise, these narrative materials will continue to circulate orally as common, not marginal, knowledge but without the elevation to literary, rather than folkloric, value.

Drawing from this, I here propose a hypertextual collection of metonymic translations and ekphrastic fictions executed by a writer-turned-translator-turned-ethnographer, for the rendition of oral literature in an indigenous language into chirographic (written) literature in English. I have the following authors’ translated collections from indigenous languages, listed in order of proximity to the cultures the sources pertain to, in mind when conceiving this project: broadly, in Latin America, José María Arguedas, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Ernesto Cardenal. I was inspired to create a hypertext by Barthes theory of the text as a hyphology and the Paraguayan embroidery technique, Ñandutí. Hyphos is the tissue of a spider’s web. As such a text is a network of signifiers without hierarchy, within which the reader traverses the path of his choice and thus produces a unified but ephemeral narrative. This theory resembles Geertz’s definition of culture as the web of significance man has spun and the task of the anthropologist as an interpretive one in search of meaning. I cannot help but lead theory back to practice. Ñandutí means spider’s web in Guaraní. Threads are extracted from a fabric with a geometric pattern drawn on it. I imitate this practice by un-editing my translations. The omitted literal translation and annotated cultural connotation are included alongside the literary translation.

I assign a literary approach that emphasizes the pre-existence of a source to each role: translation is coupled with metonymy, ethnography with ekphrasis, and writing with hypertextuality. The writer-turned-translator employs metonymy by transcribing and translating a word at a time. By metonymy I mean the substitution of an absent whole for a part (White, 1973; Moxey, 2013). Audio recordings of the recited stories and poems included in the paratext gesture to the absent whole which only attains unity in speech. The translator turned ethnographer utilizes ekphrasis to render an inhabitants’ lyric and narrative descriptions of the field site. By ekphrasis I mean the substitution of an image with a text through a description of the first (Venuti, 2010; Moxey, 2013). Speculative fictions, based on films included in the paratext, signal the limits of verbal and visual representation. The ethnographer turned back into a writer constructs a structure of links between the chirographic target and alternate renditions of the oral source. By hypertext I mean simply a multi-sequentially read text (Landow, 2006). Links from the main text to the paratext will enforce multi-sequential reading. Unable to reconstruct the source in the target language, I construct an artifact that is not chirographic but hypertextual, and which I hope will summon a secondary orality.

To translate is to render the source text into the target language. What is at stake is neither the intent of the author nor the interpretation of the translator. It is whether the intrinsic quality of the sum of the parts is made experientially available to the reader. The essence is akin to an aphorism. It is only apprehended in the act of reading. The task at hand is to work at the microscopic level of word choice, where finding an equivalent in the target vocabulary is a creative exercise. This close reading and rewriting practice consists of recreating the aphoristic effect while under its spell. To practice anthropology is to conduct an ethnography and as such to interpret culture through a microscopic characteristic (Geertz, 1973). This interpretation renders that culture visible and ostensibly comprehensible to a target audience. The ethnographer must address the meaning encrypted in language at every stage of his compilation, translation, and writing process. An informant’s interview, the juxtaposition of fieldwork and theory, and the anthropological text as artifact are intrinsically poetic. I posit that the authors and translators of Guaraní literature, in all its variants, employ the method and theory of ethnographic practice to reveal and push the limits of untranslatability between languages, chirographic and oral literary traditions, and Amerindian cosmologies and Western cosmology (Moretti, 2013; Apter, 2014).

The translator recreates the aphoristic effect. The aphorism is the sum of parts only apprehended in the act of reading. The parts consist of the word choice and narrative structure. The difficulty lies in recreating the original text while under its spell. The epistemology that underlies the reading and translation practices of the writer-turned-translator-turned-ethnographer is based on the ability to recognize and render an ontological poetics, a text’s potential to transform. This felt thought or thought feeling is encrypted in those words in that order; it cannot be restated but shows the reader how to attune to other kinds of realities (Williams, 1977; Kohn, 2015). Analyzing the evidence of an ethnographic translation, self-translation, or macaronic writing practice embedded in the discomfort at the micro level of word choice and an alternate reading practice embedded in the incoherence at the macro level of collected texts has led me to question whether discomfort and incoherence are signs of different, rather than bad, ways of poeticizing or narrativizing the world (White, 1973). Can the aphoristic essence of these texts withstand multiple mediations? In reference to the interventions, orally imparted narratives or poems are transcribed, translated, and collected alongside those from other indigenous cultures. Can the transcription of orality using electronic media invoke a secondary orality? Does a translated and transcribed oral poem or narrative problematize the term literature?

My conception of the ontological poetics of Amerindian literature is akin to Gloria E. Chacón’s Mesoamerican cosmolectics–a term that ties together the fundamental role that the cosmos and history, sacred writing and poetry, nature and spirituality, and glyphs and memory play in articulating Maya and Zapotec ontologies–and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Amerindian perspectivism–the notion, common to many peoples of the continent, that the world is inhabited by different sorts of subjects, human and non-human, which apprehend reality from distinct points of view (Chacón, 2018; Viveiros de Castro, 1998). I seek to approach this concept through a shift from academic rhetoric, which aims to persuade and classify, to performative poetry, which seeks to sense and render; thus, transforming theory into experience. Poetry collections by literary critic Violeta Percia and anthropologist Pedro Favaron respectively attune to–rather than analyze–the Shipibo’s tanti rao, medicine of tranquility, and Awajún’s bikut, the last stage of spiritual development (Percia, 2019; Favaron, 2016). My approach owes something to the site-specific and collaborative performative practices by artists Ofri Lapid and Dani Zelko respectively create close listening sessions for oral histories legible in geometric designs on Shipibo textiles and colloquial conversations with the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu Mapuche community regarding land rights (Lapid, 2019; Zelko, 2019).

It is electronic, rather than print, media that makes visible the transgressions writing inflects on transcribed orality (Ong, 1982). Below you will find instructions for metonymic translation and ekphrastic writing. The example of the first is a translated narrative composed of a literary, literal, expounded versions of the original which are differentiated through typography. The example of the latter is a story I wrote of which the descriptive passages links to videos they reference. You can choose to alternate between translated versions, as well as between text and video. My reasons for creating such a convoluted reading process are the following: The form–the multi-sequential reading practice disrupts linear narrative–and the content–the discomfort at the micro level of word choice gestures to orality and incoherence at the macro level of contiguous texts gestures to another cosmology–attune the reader to other ways of existing in the world and in language (Landow, 2006; Genette, 1997; Kohn, 2015; Apter, 2014).

Create a hypertext for your translation of oral literature by following the instructions for metonymic translation and ekphrastic writing detailed below.

Instructions for Metonymic Translation

(A Word/A Word) = Substitute. Literal proceeds literary translation.

A Word = Addition. Literal precedes literary translation.

A Word = Un-translated Guaraní word.

A Word1 = Expounded meaning

The following is a story translated utilizing metonymy. It pertains to an ethnographic statement compiled and translated into Spanish by the Paraguayan anthropologist Léon Cadogan. I translated it from a mixture of Spanish and Mbya Guaraní into English.

(Paradise/The First Earth)

Ñamandu4 conceives our future5 earthly dwelling with the creative wisdom contained in his divinity. Digs a scepter into the core. Drops a seed in each orifice. Wind pushes him to four sites. Stakes opposite ends of the equator–(West/where the Karaí live) and (East/where the Tupa live, the sun sets)–and meridian–(North-East6/where the prosperous wind originates)7 and (South/where the primitive time-space8 began). Four blue,9 indestructible, and endless10 palm trees sprout from each orifice. They (root/knot) the earth to the sky.

(Snake/Y-amai), creator of bodies of water, is the first to soil our dwelling. Grasshopper penetrates the ground with its end. Knotted weeds sprout. It celebrates with a chirp.11 (Cicada/Yrypa) sings a lament. (Armadillo/Tatu) unsnarls the matted bush and tills the soil. The owl owns darkness. Our father owns dawn, the sun. The original snake, cicada, grasshopper, armadillo, and owl dwell in the outskirts of paradise. Their progeny are images of them.

Ñamandu muttered his children’s soul-names12 while ascending into paradise.13 (Guardian of the flames/Karaí), keep (the fire/the origin of the sacred words that inspire me) inextinguishable. Listen for the crackling sound. (Guardian of the fog/Jakaira), release the visible and wet air through the crown of your head each Spring. (Guardian of the water/Tupa), supply all daily with the liquid that satiates thirst stored in your heart. That which alleviates needs disables the production of excess heat.

Instructions for Ekphrastic Writing

To translate literally renders the text unreadable and to translate literarily, untranslatable. Supplant the impulse to edit the metonymic translations with the impulse to analyze or expound. Film and describe where the oral stories were retold to you. Description of images, moving or still, is akin to the task of the translator. In the absence of what exceeds our analytic and descriptive capacities lies the potential to create new images that may not be mimetic to those of the film but that open the latter to interpretation through its absence.

Film objects, landscapes, and animals because there is a silence to things with a concrete presence in the external world. By filming them for intervals of 30 seconds, instead of photographing them, make your presence in the space they occupy, visible to the viewer. The camera shakes in your hand, the animals peer at you till they grow distracted, you chose the perspective from which to observe them.

Do not film the people you speak to or record your conversations but take detailed notes of gestures performed by men, women, and children during recitations. Actions render identity describable but also, because they are silent, like things, they show what you do not understand and cannot say. Fiction has the potential to be just in that it creates a cyclical logic by which actions foreshadow repercussions and thus make the latter inevitable.

Use the documentary elements of film in writing. Describe rather than simply screen the videos. Substitute characterization, setting, and plot with cinematography (light and sound), mise-en-scene, and editing. Using the mode of documenting experience of one medium in another subverts the reader’s expectations. The aim is to render the films unfamiliar and renew the reader’s awareness of space and self.

Finally, incorporate hyperlinks that link paragraphs in each story to the 30 second films that inspired them. Then, present the reader with 3 options. The first, to watch the videos and click hyperlinks to the corresponding descriptive narratives. The second, to read the narrative lineally. The third, to interrupt the lineal narrative by clicking the hyperlinks to the corresponding videos and then return to the text.

The following is a story written utilizing ekphrasis. It was inspired by the previous origin myth which I translated metonymically from Guaraní.

Al Ras

Genoveva’s foot was hooked on something. “A thorn encrusted but petal-less stem that protruded from the ground,” she thought. Peered around her. She stood in an island of palm trees surrounded by a matted forest. Then down. Her filthy white sneaker lay in a field of small crosses that barely protruded from the stone dry earth. 14

The moon cast a florescent putrid silver glare on everything. The light showed strongest on the crown of her head. She heard herself ask, “Who is buried here?” Some loose black feathers floated past. Genoveva sensed something cling to her body. A bird so dark it was blue was perched on her shoulder. He whistled, “The lumen that live in Al Ras.

The lumen are extinct on earth. They have bodies covered in scales, translucent copper wings, threadlike but firm antennae and legs. They fly low. Grazing the ground with their wings and soles. Crawl into holes that only fit the body with wings folded tight through a labyrinth of tunnels you cannot rise above to see. They are led by the glow of the light at the end. Find their eyes. You are hypnotized. Pus yellow colored pupil and iris of interlaced hexagons that seem to rotate. A gaze like the smell of a fruit so sweet it is rotting.15

Cats and birds would catch them but as soon as they bit into the tiny morsel an acrid taste and smell would flood their senses, dropping the already dead being while they ran away from the disgust. Each one that was killed was left at the mercy of the heat and sun, the bacteria in the soil, to decompose in plain sight until they became one with the ground. They were wasteful when they ate. Biting into a leaf they had struggled to fly up to as they fit ten times in the height of the stem and dropping like a stone. They did not store food in their mouths to regurgitate into a mound. They nibbled here and there without appetite during the warm months and grew frantic expending energy without finding fuel during the colder months. Still they never died of natural causes.

They took shelter in caves underground.

The floor of the cave gave way to another sky reversing gravity, so the ceiling became the floor. Another sun shined here. The light was white and as cold in its warmth as a burn or fluorescent bulb. Enormous trees with roots that protruded from the soil like human spines bent by pain, and thick low hanging branches from which four leathery petaled flowers as large as an average newborn hung, where the stigma should protrude, a small blue-black bird slept curled into himself. Nothing here required work, everything was eternal and constant. New animate and inanimate inhabitants would appear, but they would never disappear, die. Time did not exist. Space never grew scarce. Both were infinite, things were distributed equally across the surface and what occurred seemed to have done so elsewhere before, after or at the same time.

The only disturbing quality of afterlife in a ras de otra tierra16 was that everything hovered above the ground. Homes, the roots of trees, toddlers crawling unsupervised. Yet they did not float and could not fall, it was only as though there was a transparent layer of earth you walked on.

The crosses sprouted like plants because they were pushed through the kilometer after kilometer of earth from the other world into our own by these new inhabitants of a ras de otra tierra. There everything is made to their scale. They grew tired of always peering up, hardly being seen, never occupying space, fearing being stepped on, receiving sounds as unintelligible vibrations, never being heard. Everything they saw or heard before was fragmented like a painting so large you can only focus on the folds on the lap of a seated woman, how flesh adheres to the hooked nose and high cheekbones of the man, I like hands best when they hold something, a cradled bird.

Here everything was miniature, or it would be for us, for them it was right. The first Lumen to crawl, Clasp, felt the change, he could identify the light as the other sun. He heard a ring, saw the brass bell hanging off the tree. Snow started to fall, and he could both see and hear each flake. He felt everything. Tiny flecks of ice that landed, melted, and dripped off his pelt. His always scalding flesh below the hair grew cooler. “It feels like love,” he thought. Distances disappearing touching occurring without cognition that bodies approach each other and caress. Peering down he did not see the floor but another body. Eyelet, the one below, felt not the things that touched but that coursed through her.

The others followed the scent of those that now lived below. On earth that was the only thing that kept them alive. Following each other’s scent. Together they were capable not of frightening but disgusting a being much larger than each individual one.

Genoveva felt ill realizing she would have felt the same disgust upon finding one of these creatures crawling out of the drain while bathing. Falling to her knees she dug covering her white pants and shirt with dry dust that would easily come off with a pat of her palm. The hole was big enough to bury a dog in. Yet she knew that to reach a ras de otro cielo she would need something with the force of a bulldozer and the care of a diener. One had to dig a cave not an open hole and do so with care for the buried bodies that litter the underworld. Had neither. Soon she even lost the guilt and curiosity that drove her to dig. Never reached the other face of the earth.

Still, she tends to those small graves. Placing upright the crosses that humans and animals topple with their clumsy feet. One day, while inspecting the earth’s surface seeking for T-shaped white sticks, she realized that perhaps only the dead can reach this place. Maybe their coffins disintegrate, the weight of their bodies allows them to slowly descend until the ground become the sky, and the force of gravity flips, here they awake. While the living continue to tend to their graves and prepare for their own deaths, the dead cease sleeping but awake where things do not require work to come alive.


Apter, Emily S. 2014. Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. New York: Verso Books.

Chacón, Gloria E. 2018. Indigenous Cosmolectics: Kab’awil and the Making of Maya and Zapotec Literatures. United States, University of North Carolina Press.

Favaron, Pedro. 2016. Manantial Transparente. Mexico City: 20.20 Editorial.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic.

Genette, Gérard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2015. “Anthropology of Ontologies.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 44.1. 311-327.

Landow, George P. 2006. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lapid, Ofri. 2019. “Reading Session with Props.” The Usefulness of the Experiment. July 4, 2019, Cieszyn, Poland. Colleex (Collaboratory for Ethnographic Experimentation).

Moretti, Franco. 2013. Distant Reading. New York: Verso Books.

Moxey, Keith. 2013. Visual Time: The Image in History. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ong, Walter J. 1982. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen Publishing.

Percia, Violeta. 2019. Poesía Del Tanti Rao. Mexico City: Cactus Del Viento.

Venuti, Lawrence. 2010. “Ekphrasis, Translation, Critique.” Art in Translation, 2.2. 131–152.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 469–488.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zelko, Dani. 2019. “Reunión: Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu.” ¿Mapuche terrorista? El contra-relato del enemigo interno [Mapuche terrorist? The Counter-Narrative of the Internal Enemy]. Participants: Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu community, Facundo Jones Huala, Soraya Maicoño, Pilar Calveiro, Claudia Briones, and Eli Alcorta. June 15, 2019, Puel Mapu, Argentina.


1 A Multi-Sequentially Read Text.

2 Substitute an absent whole with a part. Use typography to distinguish yet merge multiple translations, the parts, that gesture toward the original, the whole.

3 Substitute a moving image with a text. Write a speculative fiction based on a thirty-second video you took and link the descriptive elements of the first to the latter.

4 Self-created first man. Not a man or God.

5 Memory recited in present tense.

6 Historical sites of dwellings. Not exact cardinal points.

7 Wind is the origin of nomadic life. Ñamandu does not exist underground or in the sky but hovers above earth like a hummingbird.

8 The first settlement is the origin of the memory of place, time and space, history and geography.

9 Color of the open sky. Sacred tones are assigned to some flora and fauna.

10 Temporal and spatial extension of the tree.

11 Success and failure are expressed through song.

12 Name means imbuement with a divine soul and expression of an idea.

13 Speech is never direct. Speaker keeps back to listener or messenger mediates.



16 A floating body nearly grazing a surface.  

Published as part of the Colleex Open Formats, February 17, 2020