Speaking Guaraní, Don Quixote Rides into Paraguay
Don Quixote is riding into Paraguay, but he's not just tilting at windmills. The idealistic knight from La Mancha has a new quest: to defend the indigenous Guaraní language.
The first-ever Guaraní translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote was completed in June by a team of four Paraguayan scholars who labored eight years on the tome. Scheduled for release before the end of the year by the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation for Development (AECID), the abridged adaptation represents the latest effort in Paraguay to embrace Guaraní and formalize the language’s usage in society.
“Like Paraguay’s rural regions, the Guaraní language faces a crisis of deforestation,” said Bartomeu Melía, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who led the translation project. “The only way to protect the grammar and laws of the language is through writing and publishing.”
Not long ago, Guaraní – the only indigenous language in South America spoken by the majority of a country – was quickly being cast aside in favor of Spanish and English, languages that could help Paraguay integrate with the global economy. But thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Melía and the election of officials who see the language as integral to the Paraguayan identity, Guaraní appears to be experiencing something of a renaissance.
The Guaraní Language Academy (ALG) is racing to finish the language’s first official grammar book by the end of this year, following on its completion in November of the first official version of the Guaraní alphabet, according to Domingo Aguilera, director of linguistic research at the Secretariat of Linguistic Policy (SPL) in Asunción. The private sector isn’t waiting for them: Web browser Mozilla in February launched a Guaraní version called Aguaratata, while Facebook added Guaraní to its service in 2013.
“Guaraní is at an inflection point,” Aguilera told AQ. “At the moment we don’t have a mass market of Guaraní readers, but the only way of growing it is to publish books. That’s why Father Melía’s book is significant.”
Melía began translating Don Quixote in 2008, which is when Paraguay as a whole began to look differently at Guaraní. In August of that year, for the first time in the country’s history, the national anthem was sung in Guaraní during a presidential inauguration – underscoring incoming President Fernando Lugo’s intentions to promote Guaraní in public institutions. Two years later, Lugo signed the Ley de Lenguas (Languages Law) that created the Guaraní Language Academy and Secretariat of Linguistic Policy and also stipulated that all government processes be available in Guaraní.
By 2013, a survey found that 89 percent of Paraguayans believed public institutions should work in both Guaraní and Spanish; 71 percent of Paraguayans agreed that public documents should be available in both languages. The following year, in March 2014, the regional group Mercosur made Guaraní one of its three official languages, alongside Spanish and Portuguese.
“Today, Paraguayans can defend themselves in a court of law in Guaraní without their statements being translated into Spanish,” said Susy Delgado, a poet and member of the Academy of the Guaraní Language. “We have seen signs of a recuperation of the Guaraní language,” she continued, citing how the language was highly visible during the nation’s bicentenary celebrations in 2011. “For the first time people seemed proud of the language.”
Until then, Guaraní appeared to be declining in usage. A 2012 census suggested the total proportion of Guaraní speakers had fallen to 77 percent from 87 percent in 2002 – although the 2012 data was also called into question because it only covered three-quarters of the population and left out many people in the countryside where Guaraní is more prevalent. According to the 2002 census, 83 percent of rural families spoke Guaraní at home, compared to 43 percent of urban families.
Today it is assumed that up to 90 percent of the population speaks Guaraní. Soccer fans, taxi drivers, and club singers all readily speak the language, which is considered more colorful than Spanish because of its evocative metaphors. For example, the word “prison” is called ka’irãi, which literally means monkey’s teeth, because it’s impossible to escape the clasp of the primate’s jaws. The word for money, pirapire, means fish scales, for the latter’s resemblance to coins.
But Guaraní still faces stigmas. According to Aguilera, the director of linguistic research, rural families often believe speaking Guaraní can hinder learning Spanish – which is undoubtedly needed to get ahead in education and business – and some parents have stopped teaching their children Guaraní as a result.
“Guaraní needs to move away from being associated with rural areas or a particular social class,” said Aguilera. “We need to invest in ways to make Guaraní more visible and extend its usage in the public sphere and in cultural spaces.
Slowly, attitudes are changing, to the point that some Paraguayans who gave up the language are now rediscovering it.
“When I was a child my grandmother forbid us from speaking Guaraní, saying it was the devil’s tongue,” said Jaime Torales, who studied abroad at Oxford before taking a job in Paraguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “When I lived abroad I came to realize the uniqueness of Guaraní. Now I have a private tutor and when I speak the language it gives me a sense of patriotism.”
Ana Ayala, a 29-year-old Paraguayan singer who grew up in Miami and returned to Asunción in 2015, is one of a growing number of music artists to embrace Guaraní folk music and ballads. “In April 2016 I sang a guaranía at the Antofagasta Cultural Fair in Chile,” she said. “The Chileans loved it and I was proud to sing music from my country and in my native language.”
Instrumental in Guaraní’s resurgence is Melía, the priest. A native of the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, the Jesuit order sent him to Paraguay in 1954 and he quickly became an advocate for indigenous rights and culture. In translating Don Quixote, he sought to make the 17th century novel more accessible to today’s youths by transplanting the action to Paraguay with feasts of asado, a traditional barbecue.
“The project is a little quixotic,” Melía admitted with a smile during an interview in his book-filled office at Asunción’s Jesuit University. But, he added: “I think improvements in education and the construction of a new linguistic community dedicated to defending Guaraní are a reason for hope.”
Youkee is an independent journalist and analyst based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter: @matyoukee.