By the time I met him, Demetrio Túpac Yupanqui was ninety-two years old, partially deaf, and mostly blind. Still, he seemed to wear his age lightly. Three days a week, he hosted twelve students—of all ages, and from all over the city—around a long table on the second story of his home in the quiet La Perla neighborhood in Lima, Peru, and one March afternoon in 2016, I found myself among them. The students listened, enraptured, as for ninety minutes he regaled them with a mixture of songs, ribald anecdotes, and grammar lessons in Quechua, the indigenous language spoken by millions of people across the Andean region.
I had come to visit the amauta (or “teacher”) after learning that for little pay and no institutional support he had single-handedly translated Don Quixote into Quechua. (To give you a sense of this feat, the Vintage Español 2010 edition is over 1,000 pages long.) A Cervantes fanatic since college, I arrived expecting a long, lovely discourse on the pleasures and struggles relating to translating the Spanish masterwork into Quechua, a language that has an ersatz relationship to the written word.
Yet Túpac Yupanqui quickly disabused me of my romantic idea. “Don Quixote doesn’t mean anything special to me personally,” he told me as his daughter Mirian showed me a huge illustrated copy of Yachay Sapa Wiraqucha Dun Qvixote Manchamantan—the definitive translation, according to him, of the book’s full title: El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.
His translation of Don Quixote was simply the best-known example of his decades-long effort to create a standardized literary Quechua.
As we spoke, it soon became clear that Túpac Yupanqui’s mission was, if anything, even bolder and slightly more harebrained—dare I say quixotic?—than the one I had come to interview him about. His translation of Don Quixote was simply the best-known example of his decades-long effort to create a standardized literary Quechua and leave millions of Peruvian schoolchildren with an alternative to what he calls the “language of the invader.” That Spanish has been the definitive language of Peruvian law and literature since the mid-sixteenth century didn’t seem to strike him as a particularly onerous obstacle.
“No language spontaneously produces its own literature,” Túpac Yupanqui told me. “If you know how to read and write, it’s because someone taught you.”
Túpac Yupanqui’s ambition to leave generations of Peruvians with an authentic indigenous literary artifact is not new. In fact, the first book ever published in Peru was a trilingual edition of the Catholic doctrine and its catechism, modified for Jesuit missionaries proselytizing Quechua and Aymara (the second-largest indigenous language in the region) communities in the early colonial period.
Published in 1584—just over fifty years after the Spanish arrival—by an Italian colonist, Doctrina christiana, y catecismo para instruccion de los indios, y de las de mas personas, que han de ser enseñadas en nuestra sancta fé: con vn confessionario, y otras cosas necessarias included Quechua (or “Quichua”) and Aymara translations of the fundamental tenets of Catholicism and Christianity—everything from the Our Father prayer to theological queries and morality tales. The text also included an alphabet, as well as a list of “scolios,” or explanatory notes, on the translation and orthographic representation of the two indigenous languages. One such example: “As for pronunciation, be advised, these vowels e, i, and these, o, u, the Indians pronounce them indifferently, as those in Cuzco use one for another, Huaoque huauqui, ñoca ñuca, quellca quillca, but the best and most polished has been the way they are used in this text.”
It is a document that fascinates not simply as an artifact but as a symbol. As Spanish encomenderos divvied up the former Inca empire into massive estates upon which indigenous people were forced to provide labor and tribute, their religious counterparts were engaged in a parallel process of linguistic colonization—giving Quechua and Aymara “logical” structure and codifying them according to a European logic. The Incas, for their part, communicated by using Khipus, a system of knotted cords used to transmit orders, record statistics, and, scholars have begun to posit, record mythologies and spiritual guidance.
The Huarochirí manuscript (1608) is perhaps the purest example of an original piece of authentic “Quechua literature,” yet its origins, too, are fraught. A collection of pre-Christian myths from oral sources, Huarochirí also relates detailed explanations of religious rituals and rites—including the proper priestly function of the Khipu. But what today is regarded as a hugely important anthropological text was born in the spirit of the Inquisition. Francisco de Avila, a bilingual Peruvian-born priest, commissioned the manuscript in order to sniff out those parishioners who still held onto “idolatrous” ideas—and punish them accordingly.
In subsequent centuries, Quechua remained marginalized, a condition that went largely unchanged when Peru won its independence in 1821. Of the millions today who speak the language or who grew up hearing it spoken, very few, according to Túpac Yupanqui, can read or write in Quechua. “There are a few books,” he said, “but they’re hard to find and the language isn’t exactly right. Everyone does the best they can.” After all, he continued, there are no centralized rules for grammar, spelling, or even pronunciation. Some linguists—many of whom, Túpac Yupanqui noted, tend to know the language better than native speakers—do not even consider it one language at all, preferring to view “Quechua” as a family of interrelated dialects. A native Quechua speaker from Cuzco, for example, might struggle to understand a native speaker from Áncash. In our hyperliterate age, this registers an existential threat to the language.
Born into a Quechua-speaking household in San Jerónimo, just outside of Cuzco, Túpac Yupanqui won a scholarship at an early age to travel to the regional capital and enroll in the Franciscan school there, where the monks instilled in him a terrifyingly sharp appreciation for Latin grammar. After school, he moved to Lima and became a journalist, a job where his fluency in Quechua made him a valuable asset for the radio station and newspaper that employed him, sending him on long journeys to far-flung towns across the Andean highlands to collect stories that none of his monolingual colleagues could cover.
Túpac Yupanqui came of age in a moment when many Peruvian scholars, artists, and activists from Peru’s metropolitan areas were beginning to belatedly celebrate and even glamorize indigenous culture and thought. The most prominent of these Peruvians, José Maria Arguedas, took this indigenism a step further in his novels, poetry, and ethnographies, declaring himself fully fluent in Quechua thanks to a lonely childhood spent among his wealthy father’s housekeepers and cooks. Arguedas’s bilingual novels initially scandalized Lima’s small, conservative literary milieu with their frank depictions of life in the Peruvian highlands, where Spanish-speaking whites brutalized their Quechua-speaking servants.
When I asked Túpac Yupanqui about Arguedas, he cracked a smile. “I was friends with Arguedas. He was the first to admit that he didn’t really know the language—just a child’s version of it, a few words here and there. But the critics didn’t know it either. That’s why they found his prose so wonderful.”
Túpac Yupanqui realized that there was minimal research on the linguistic structure of Quechua. So, using his Franciscan training in Latin, he began to compile a grammar of his own.
In his travels around Peru, Túpac Yupanqui realized that there was minimal research on the linguistic structure of Quechua. So, using his Franciscan training in Latin, he began to compile a grammar of his own, eventually leaving journalism and opening a language institute in his home in the 1960s. After a brief stint at Cornell in the 1970s, where he received a fellowship to finish his grammar, Túpac Yupanqui returned to Peru hoping to bring what he’d learned into Peruvian classrooms via the ministry of education. But his proposals, he told me, fell on deaf ears from the bureaucrats who had initially encouraged him. Discouraged, he returned to Yachay Wasi, his language academy.
In early May, I woke up to the news that Túpac Yupanqui had died. His death immediately brought to mind our 2016 conversation, and how seemingly unrancorous the old man had been despite his frustrated ambition. Even his Don Quixote translation had come to a somewhat ignominious end.
In 2005, after ten years of labor, he signed a deal with Peru’s El Comercio newspaper to publish the book in a luxurious illustrated edition meant to celebrate Quixote’s four-hundredth anniversary. Each of the original four hundred copies were priced exorbitantly, swiftly becoming a collector’s item for wealthy Peruvians. Making matters worse, the contract granted him no republication rights, effectively killing his dreams of creating a popular volume that could reach classrooms across the country.
A few months after the book’s publication, he told me, he was invited to speak on a panel abroad—he couldn’t recall which one. As he prepared his suitcases, he realized that he had misplaced his sole copy of the text. A call to his editor was fruitless: they had already sold out. In the end, he ended up paying over $100 for a used copy—the same book I held in my hands for a few minutes that afternoon.
Incredibly, Túpac Yupanqui had finished translating the book’s second volume—in which Don Quixote, the character, becomes aware of Don Quixote, the book—in 2015. He was hoping to publish it the following year, but the project’s champion, a Spanish reporter and television personality named Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo, passed away in May, shortly before my visit, further dampening any prospect of the book’s publication.
But such considerations seemed far from Túpac Yupanqui’s mind as he rose to lead his students in a final song. The song’s humorous subject matter—its lyrics told the story of a baby fathered anonymously during Carnival celebrations—led him to ruminate on a picaresque tale from his own youth. Newly married, Túpac Yupanqui had accompanied his father-in-law to a Carnival celebration in a small village outside Cuzco. After a few cups of chicha—a kind of beer made from fermented corn—his father-in-law noticed that one of the revelers, a young woman, seemed to have eyes only for young Demetrio. “‘Go on!’” Túpac Yupanqui cried out in an affected voice, mimicking his drunken father-in-law. “‘It’s tradition here that the women have their choice of men during Carnival.’ He insisted so much that I had to flee on horseback in order to preserve my honor!” The old man grinned.
His students, who had already put their things away in the process of girding themselves up for the madness of Lima’s rush-hour traffic, sat motionless as he finished his tale—a brilliant blend of comedy, pathos, miscommunication, imagination, and nobility.
Read Ilan Stavans’s essay “Flemish Tapestries: On Don Quixote in English”
Read Antônio Xerxenesky’s story “Seizing Cervantes,” translated by Kim M. Hastings
Read “Translating the Classics: An Interview with Lydia Davis,” by Regina Galasso and Ilan Stavans