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There may be no art more dangerous, more poised on the edge of a blade, than the art of translation. Without attention (or with too much attention), a translation can dice meaning, mince understanding, shred music; it can slice and savage the spirit of a thing.

It is not to be trifled with.

But, sometimes, its sharp edge becomes a bridge, and the translator's words leap across with such fierce abandon we know (if only we can keep up) we're headed somewhere marvellously new to us.

David Bowles is a translator.

More, he is a translator of poetry in languages near extinction—endangered languages, like Nahuatl, that hold the heavy weight of history and a tenuous sense of future in their meter.

"Winds that Stir Vermillion Sands" isn't a translation, but it is a translator's story. Its music is played by ear, by memory; in language acknowledged to be sacred and profane, at risk and riskier than hell.

It is 2370. Rodrigo ben-David and his father, Isaac, live in a shantytown called Babulandia, on the red sands of Mars. It is a settlement of migrants, of refugees, of those fleeing persecution and banded together by hard circumstance and proximity. The father and son speak to each other in Ladino, the language of the Sephardim, a language that in our century is also seriously endangered [1] and carries in its Judeo-Spanish phonemes a history of expulsion, relocation and resilience.

The elder ben-David is a scapper, a scavenger of junkyards, who keeps to the religion of his fathers and the language only he and his son share, as a life preserver. As insulation from a world both harsh and dangerous with the wants of those who have and the needs of those who haven't.

A chance junkyard find with veiled power only Isaac recognizes will change both the ben-David's lives, and pit them against others whose adherence to codified tradition and linguistic isolation and resilience is also hallmark. The antagonists in Bowles's story share some aspects of the complex history of the ben-Davids. And if their position makes them far more powerful than the ben-Davids in the moment depicted, it still carries the memory of tied 20th century holocausts—their own effected by sudden detonation of weapons of fulminating power and incalculable repercussion.

"Winds that Stir Vermillion Sands," which first appeared in James Gunn's Ad Astra in 2014, was the first of Bowles's stories I read. I am always on the lookout for Latino writers whose work is new to me, and though I tend to gravitate more toward the historical and urban speculative than the science fictional, I was quickly hooked by Bowles's multilingual diction. I understood "Winds"—like a good translation—as a story of skill that flowed easily on a surface level, and upon examination, revealed a subtext of deeper tenor and resonance.

Like his story, "Wildcat," published in Apex Magazine in May 2015, this story doesn't offer platitudes about holding power close, it makes us linger on the cost in doing so. The protagonist in "Winds" may bluster; he may rail against God in the way of the psalmists of old, but Bowles does not. His faith is in the survival of meaning—across time, across distance, across the porous wall that separates one language, and one people, from another.

Read "Winds that Stir Vermillion Sands" here or listen to the podcast here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[1] This is the UNESCO's map of endangered languages of the world. You can enter Nahuatl to see where it is still spoken and by how many people; Ladino is also in the database, but listed as Judezmo-Europe and Judezmo-Israel. One in four languages that are spoken in the world today are likely to die out because of increased economic development, according to research from the University of Cambridge; the United Nations estimates that without conservation about half of the world's 6,000 languages will be extinct by the end of the century. [return]

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink (Crossed Genres, 2012), a speculative novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala's armed internal conflict, and of the Latin@ experience in the United States. Her stories have appeared at, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres and in a number of anthologies. She is the managing editor of Al Día News in Philadelphia, where she writes, edits and ruminates in English, Spanish and Spanglish. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.
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9 Dec 2019

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