Language Matters

When you commit to publishing a book involving an indigenous culture, the question always comes up: can it be bilingual? Many of the books we’ve published are based in Spanish-speaking countries, and it would seem both logical and respectful to include both Spanish and English. And we have done that. Sometimes.

En Español

Chip Morris’s Textile Guide to Traditional the Highlands of Chiapas is bilingual (having been adapted from an earlier edition that was actually trilingual. We ditched the French). To save the reader from utter confusion, we printed the Spanish text on each page in a plummy dark red, followed by the English translation in a golden rust. It’s pretty. It’s not an easy read, though, especially if your color acuity is a little lacking. And given that the Spanish takes up something like 30 percent more space than the English, getting everything to come out even was a design challenge.

When we published Nilda Callañaupa’s Textile Traditions of Chinchero: A Living Heritage, our designer came up with a more effective solution: all the type is black, but the Spanish text is against a white background, while the English is against light tan. Again, though, the disparity in word count between Spanish and English made for jigsaw-puzzle pages.


Another Spanish/English book we published early on was Weaving Lives: Traditional Textiles of Cusco. It’s basically a catalog for the museum in the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco headquarters. Designer Michael Signorella’s solution here was elegant and made possible by the fact that the book is only 48 pages long. If you’re English-speaking, you read the first twenty-two pages in English. If you’re Spanish-speaking, you turn the book over and upside down and read from what was the back. Same book, two ways.

For Maya Gods and Monsters, we printed a translation insert for the entire text, especially for sales in Mexico. For Traditional Weavers of Guatemala, co-author Tere Cordón translated the personal interviews and gave them to those who participated in the book, and their families. A much-appreciated gesture.

Dead DanceTraditional Weavers of Guatemala


La Solución

The ideal solution, of course, is to publish two separate editions, one in each language. That’s generally beyond the means of a small independent publisher, though, and we’ve had no success in interesting foreign publishers to take on the job. The market for books on traditional textiles is vastly larger in English-speaking countries, it seems. But sometimes good things happen. Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands: Dreaming Patterns, Weaving Memories sold briskly for several years before an “angel” stepped in and funded the printing of a Spanish edition, now available at CTTC in Cusco.

Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands

In the case of Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Peruvian Highlands, CTTC itself funded a Spanish edition, four years after the original version came out. The trick was to translate in such a way that the Spanish text would fit exactly in the same space that the English text had, so that the pages didn’t have to be redesigned. That helped keep the cost down significantly. It was truly thrilling to present Rostros de una Tradicion to the elders themselves at Tinkuy last November, and to take copies to each of the weaving villages in the CTTC network.


The next challenge will be the book being produced by the Young Weavers Groups of the CTTC. They want not only Spanish, but also Quechua! And maybe English, if we must. I’ve been told that it’s easier to translate Quechua thoughts and feelings into English than into Spanish, but the kids have written their text mostly in Spanish, and I don’t know yet how difficult it will be to translate in the other direction, assuming we can find someone fluent in all three languages. Come summer, though, we should know. Stay tuned.


4 thoughts on “Language Matters

  1. Susanna Badgley Place says:

    So important to provide as many translations as possible, in whatever form feasible. I think this will inspire and enable indigenous cultures/communities to document and share their own stories and cultures.

    I have just published Los Mayas Ixiles de Guatemala: Viajes a Nebaj, Chajul y Cotzal (2017), an updated version of Guatemala Journey Among the Ixil Maya (2013). It was definitely a worthwhile endeavor because I can put this back in the hands of the Ixil Maya weavers and community members who contributed to the original endeavor. Both are available on Amazon!

  2. Deborah Chandler says:

    In hotel drawers here in Guatemala one finds bilingual New Testaments. Each page has two columns of text, with the same content. Their way to make them match is to use smaller type for the Spanish. Not as much fun as turning the book around and upside down, but clever, and easier for those practicing the other language since they can see both together.

    • Karen Brock says:

      Thanks for letting us know this, Deb. That’s a clever technique we’ll have to consider in the future.

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