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Lost in Translation at Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo-valleyWords are my salvation. They succor me in my distress, they soothe me amidst tempests, they strengthen me in my despair. What would become of me if I did not know the power of the words I speak? The faint etchings upon the rose-colored monoliths blushing in the afternoon light mutely ask me this question. The thirteen-foot interlocking stones stand guard perched on top of a hill overlooking the town of Ollantaytambo, Peru. Their message is a mere sibilation whose meaning remains indecipherable. When the Inca conquered this area, they razed it so that nothing endured of the culture thriving here before them. Awed by the beguiling valley cupped within the Cusco hills, the Incan nobility put diligent judgement into rebuilding the area. On the eastern side, the carved inflexible face of Tunupa, messenger of the Creator God, watches over the vast plain. On the western side, a complex of half-built structures tell stories of the sun, moon, and stars. 

Ollantaytambo-ruinsWhat those stories are and how they related to the people who worshipped here I will never know. The Inca had no written language, instead using quipus and symbolic art to record important data. I do not possess the key that unlocks this semiotic mystery, so the fragments I see survive as unfathomable chimera extending their hands out towards me with incomprehensible gestures. The lives of those who thought and emoted in this secret vocabulary were as meaningful as ours. Yet who is there able to listen and learn from their tales? Looking below at the eucalyptus colored Willkamayu River and the patchwork of fields it flows past, I picture all the knowledge and lore told inside the valley huts. I think of all the ceremonies performed in the plaza and inside these temples disseminating the seeds of a people’s beliefs. Their power and their nuances are now lost even as locals hold fast to some broken core of all the legends.

Ollantaytambo-terracesLanguage has fascinated me. As someone who speaks a few different ones, however, I have never felt at home in any of them. I stutter and stumble in each one, choosing my words haltingly and cautiously, unsure of how best to transcribe my thoughts into syntax. I am at heart a wanderer, but this makes me an immigrant into every culture, a stranger at each societal gathering. How often have I been misunderstood because what I say is not in the native accent? How often have I been misjudged because my command of syllables, rather than my ideas, is imperfect? A Shakespeare could have written georgic lines about this verdant basin. A Socrates could have debated the arrangement of the constellations inside these pink castellated walls. Who can claim there were not mightier than them roaming those palace walls and adobe courtyards?

“Their songs and aphorisms will never see the light of day.”

They will never have the chance to be misunderstood by the world. What has persisted is a book on its own: the fan-shaped valley created to represent the tree of life, the aesthetic practicality of their granaries, the faded scribbling of pumas upon temple facades. I try to listen to the modern retellings about the Great Flood and Wiracocha without consigning triviality to them. I try to give these narratives, passed down orally, the dignity they deserve.

Ollantaytambo-boysThree young boys sing us a Quechuan song at the base of the interminable steps leading down from the ceremonial center. A crowd gathers to watch and politely claps when they finish. Encouraged, the boys dive into a rendition of “O Sole Mio.” Their smiles are wide as they exaggerate the Italian intonations, their eyes twinkling with mischief. The strain ends and the crowd’s applause is boisterous, as if only by this particular performance have the boys earned their keep. Coins tinkle as they drop into the collection bucket. The cultivated plots and swaying trees substantiate their efforts. Squint and this could be Tuscany in Peru.

Ollantaytambo-gateI wonder what the native song was about and if it is a remnant from imperial days when Quechua was the official Incan spoken language. It sounded like the wind sweeping through the mountains and the call of the birds riding the air currents. For a moment I consider asking someone for a translation, but even this has its hiccups. Something is always lost in the translation, the effervescence quashed. I attempt humming the tune, but its intricacy overpowers me. The ineffable Quechuan melody bubbles within me for the rest of the day and takes on the grandeur of an opera. It juxtaposes with the Italian tune, gaining gravitas. Now the native poesy sounds more like a venerable ballad, its lyricism endowed with otherworldly sorrow and agony.

“Maybe the singing boys understood more than I credited them.”

Maybe the Italian ditty was not an indulgence for the foreigners but instead an ingenious method to bridge the chasm between two worlds. Perhaps it was the only way to imprint on our hearts the import of a language I will never learn.


Ollantaytambo was one of the final strongholds against the Spanish conquistadors for Incan emperor Manco Yupanqui. Strategically positioned between a deep canyon and the Urubamba mountains, the town provided ample defensible spots. Retreating onto the steep terraces, Yupanqui flooded the plains to prevent the Spanish from advancing.

Has language ever been a barrier to your understanding or integration into a culture? Has a destination inspired you to learn a new language?

17 replies »

  1. Yes I think a different country motivates you to learn its language but to actually do it is something totally different 🙂 When we’ve been to Thailand the language was sometimes a barrier but overall it helped a lot to understand the culture of the country!

    • Learning a language is definitely a challenge, especially as one gets older! For short travel stints I have found it useful to know a few words like “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” and “How much?” but a smile also works wonders. 🙂

  2. I can definitely relate to being lost in translation, and I find that practicing among native speakers or throwing yourself into the culture is one of the best ways to improve your language skills! Would definitely love to visit Ollantaytambo!

  3. You lovely piece immediately made me connect with a terrific National Public Radio radio/podcast from a program called This American Life that ran a show a couple of weeks ago entitled Americans in China. The point of the program I want to highlight has nothing to do with Americans, but rather being a foreigner in another country and trying to assimilate. I’m posting the link for you here if you’re interested. The part that I’m specifically referring to is in Act Two (Beautiful Downtown Wasteland). I think you’ll find it will resonate deeply.

    • Thank you so much for the link to the show! I fell in love with the ways Michael Meyer described his life in the Wasteland (images of T.S. Eliot popped up at this point). There are so many minute details of a culture that simply cannot be learned but become ingrained in those who grow up within that framework and forever remain mysteries to the rest of us.

  4. Lovely to reminisce the adventures of the village from your perspective: the climb to the top, the little boys singing for the tourists in their colorful outfits, the stunning sceneries all throughout, aaahhh, the beauty of Ollantaytambo!

  5. I lived in Korea and never got the hang of Korean so that didn’t help in my adapting to the culture much. When I lived in Holland and Suriname, I learned to speak Dutch and that was way better! Now moving to Egypt, I am nervous about Arabic but am motivated to learn as much as I can as I think it will be really help in understanding and adapting to the culture there. OH so I think 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Learning the language definitely helps when trying to take an active part in a different culture. Good luck with learning Arabic and your new home in Egypt!

  6. I post in English, though I’m Russian, and I only can imagine how many mistakes I make on a daily basis. I would be glad if my readers would point out my mistakes but everybody probably is just too polite to do that 🙂

    • 🙂 It’s a slippery slope, pointing out another’s mistakes….Trying to write or speak in another language, also makes us notice how nuanced language is. It’s not simply a matter of putting nouns, verbs, and adjectives in the right order, but also understanding cultural phrases, slangs, and idioms. It’s wonderful that you are doing the extra work for your posts so that more readers may read and understand you! What made you decide to take this step?

      • I always was guite good at Russian. I even have won regional language olimpiads a couple of times. And I decided to challenge myself whether I can master English language skills to a high level or it will be too difficult for me. And I think to be in the blogosphere is a proper way.

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