Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the island of Guam, co-founder of Achiote Press, and author of 2 chapbooks: constellations gathered along the ecliptic (Shadowbox Press, 2007), and all with ocean views (Overhere Press, 2007). His first book, from unincorporated territory, is forthcoming from Tinfish Press in 2008. His poetry, essays, fiction, reviews, and translations have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, Jacket, Sentence, Tinfish, and Rain Taxi, among others.
Almost every Sunday, my grandmother dragged me to Catholic mass at the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in the village of Hagatna, the capital of the Pacific Island of Guahan (Guam, in English). The Basilica marks the site where the first Catholic church on Guahan was constructed in 1669 under the guidance of Padre San Vitores. Guahan, a Spanish colony from the 17th century to 1898, has been a US territory since the Spanish-American War.
Although mass was held in English, each night my grandmother recited the rosary in Chamorro, the native language of Guahan. She said her mother taught her the prayers in Chamorro, and that her mother would read her the psalms from the Chamorro Bible. Bored during mass, I read the psalms in the English language Bibles. The voice of the psalms -- helpless, threatened, confused, hopeful, and trusting -- continues to haunt me.
My family immigrated to California in 1995, when I was 15 years old. We stopped going to church. I stopped hearing my grandmother's voice saying her prayers in Chamorro. When I spoke to her on the phone, I asked if she still had her mother’s Chamorro Bible, but she said that it was lost when she was still a young girl. It wasn't until about a year ago, when I began searching for the Chamorro Bible online, that I learned its tumultuous history.
In 1900, a Protestant Minister named Francis Price arrived on Guam. He believed that translating the Bible into Chamorro would help him connect to his congregation. He began by transcribing a Chamorro teacher’s translation of a Spanish Bible into Chamorro. This method proved too slow, so Price then had several Spanish speaking Chamorros translate independently; Price then compiled these translations to suit his ideas of the Chamorro language (which reflected a Spanish-influenced orthography. In 1907, they had translated the four Gospels, Acts, and Psalms into the Chamorro language. Price secured the permission of the American Bible Society to have the books printed in New York at a cost of $250 for 1,000 copies. The bibles were printed and distributed on Guahan in 1908.
By 1922, the US implemented a California based public school system. American teachers and local English-speaking teachers were used in the classrooms, and all instruction was in English; Chamorro was prohibited in schools and on playgrounds. By government order, about 900 Chamorro dictionaries and other books were collected and burned. Some people contribute the loss of the Chamorro Bible to this linguistic colonialism. Some people also point to the destruction of World War 2, during which the Japanese occupied Guahan, forcing the people off their homes and lands into concentration camps. Despite speculation, the disappearance of the original Chamorro Bible remains a mystery.
In 2001, a middle school teacher named Clarence L. Thomas IV began to search for the original Chamorro Bible to use in a class project. He found a reference online to a Chamorro Bible in the general collection of the Mudd Library at Yale. On September 11, 2001, at 3:23 p.m., the library shipped the Chamorro Bible to Guam, and it was transported from Connecticut to Kentucky, California, Hong Kong, and finally arrived on Guam at 12:15 p.m., September 20, Chamorro Standard Time, which is 15 hours ahead of EST.
Now, the Chamorro Bible is available online at chamorrobible.org.
When I first read Y Salmo Sija (the Psalms) in Chamorro, I stumbled through the text because while I lived on Guam, Chamorro was not taught in the schools. But as I continued to navigate the text, I began to hear the etchings of my grandmother's voice. Staring at a computer screen an ocean away from my homeland, I whispered the words that at one point my grandmother heard her mother whispering.
While reading Y Salmo Sija, I heard another voice. It was not my grandmother’s voice, nor was it the psalmic voice I remember from childhood. It was a voice translating the Chamorro into English, rendering the violent pulse and colonial of currents of the language itself forced into psalm. This voice emerges in these translations, fragmented psalms held together by silence, omissions, and ellipses.
As a result, my translations are neither objective nor transparent. Often, a phrase will translated into its ‘colonial reality’ (“Dichoso y taotao”, literally “Blessed the people”, becomes “we are cursed”). Other times, a phrase will be omitted to show disbelief (“ya todo y finatinasña mumemegae”, which roughly means, “and all he does shall prosper”, becomes “[…]”). Finally, a phrase will often be translated to question its very meaning (“Sa si Jeova jatungo y chalan manunas: lao y chalan manaelaye ufanmalingo” means roughly “God knows the righteous path; the path of sinners shall perish”, but is translated to “will the Landlord of our path ever perish?”). Although this free / open / subjective / experimental translation methodology does not cleanly translate meaning from one language into another, my hope is that these translations clearly translate the voice I hear in the Chamorro psalms, a voice that has been burned and lost and forgotten and recovered.