After death you will scratch at infinity

Language: Maya Ki’ché and Spanish
Poet: Humberto Ak’abal
Translator: John Oliver Simon
REGION: Guatemala

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After death you will scratch at infinity

Two poems by Humberto Ak’abal, written in both Maya Ki’ché and Spanish, translated by John Oliver Simon

Humberto Ak’abal (whose Mayan name means Storm at Dawn) was born in 1952 in Momostenango, Guatemala. He left school after sixth grade to herd his family’s sheep, but he never stopped reading and writing poetry. His first book of poems, El animalero, was published in 1990. A selected volume, Ajkem Tzij/Tejedor de palabras (Weaver of Words), was published in 1996. In 2004 he rejected Guatemala’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Miguel Angel Asturias, because of racist statements made by the eponymous Nobel laureate.
John Oliver Simon’s most recent book of poems is Caminante (Creative Arts, 2002). From the Lightning, a selection of his translations of the Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas, for which he received an NEA Literature Fellowship, was published by Green Integer. He worked as Artistic Director of Poetry Inside Out, a bilingual writers-in-schools program sponsored by the Center for the Art of Translation.

Ri kaj

We kateq’an puwi’ jum ri’j k’isis
we katopan pa ri utza’m ri uq’ab’,
kawilo chi ri uwächulew
man naj ta k’o wi che ri kaj.

Pa chuwitz’aq
katkuwinik kachapo.

El cielo

Si te encaramás a un viejo ciprés
y trepás por sus ramas,
verás que la tierra
no está lejos del cielo.


En Momostenango
podrás tocarlo.

The Sky

If you climb up an old cypress
and hang on the highest branch,
you will see that the sky
is not far from the earth.


In Momostenango
you can touch it.

Katpe na jela’

Are chii’ atkaminaq
karakakej ri unimal ri kaj
kejar ri awixk’e yaq.

Kattzalij uloq che ri utzukuxik
che ri utzukuxik ri xaya’ kanoq
chuxo’l taq ri xan.

Volver de allá

Después de muerto
rascarás el infinito.
Se te acabarán las uñas.

Volverás para buscar
las que dejaste en las ranuras
de las paredes viejas.

Going Back There

After death
you will scratch at infinity.
Your fingernails will give out.

You will return to look for
the clippings you left in the cracks of the old walls.

These poems were first published in Issue 4 of Circumference Magazine; Volume 2, Issue 2 • Autumn | Winter 2005–2006
© 2005 Circumference, Inc.