In an article entitled “The Conception of Time in Mapuche Culture” (1987), the Chilean anthropologist María Grebe describes the spatiotemporal orientation of the earth according to the indigenous Mapuche people in the south of Chile. According to the Mapuche, the mapu—or earth (the literal meaning of the name “Mapuche” is “people of the earth”)—is divided into four quadrants whose axes appear, at first sight, to be analogous with the cardinal points of the Western compass: north (piku); east (puel); south (willi); west (lafkén). So far so good.

Yet Grebe also notes that in the Mapuche cosmovision, the mapu is oriented not to the north but to the east, from where the sun rises (tripapan-antü) and the snow-capped Andes lie in the distance, and towards which Mapuche rukas, or houses, are oriented. From this principal bearing, the Mapuche system follows the movement of the sun throughout the course of the day: north (rangi-antü, or midday); west (konün-antü, or sundown); and south (rangi-pun, or midnight). In this geocentric model, the traditional Western schema is subject to a double transformation: first rotated by ninety degrees and then inverted. From N–E–S–W, we get E–N–W–S.

In terms of translation, this difference has profound implications that lead us to the outer limits of representability. Consider a seemingly innocuous phrase such as: “he came from the north.” Immediately we understand a vertical axis, determined by the magnetic poles of the earth. Perhaps those of us in the northern hemisphere will think of colder climates, of the Northern Star, or of concepts such as “up north” as further affirmation of this vertical schema. What is sure is that we have in mind a very definite understanding of this primary cardinal point. Yet for the Mapuche, this phrase has none of these connotations and a large number of quite different ones. North, as Grebe shows elsewhere, is for them associated with sickness, death and bad luck. Moreover, the secure vertical axis of “up north” and “down south” vanishes. While the rotation-inversion mentioned above may hint at the difference, this is but a partial representation on a new axis (north-left to south-right) that provides a convenient means for glimpsing the difference that separates the Mapuche reality from our own.

For all we can understand and analyse this difference, being able to feel this space to the point where we can begin to orient ourselves inside it is quite something else. In the negotiations between the Mapuche and the Spanish colonisers during the period of Ambrosio O’Higgins (1770–1803), there is evidence of a similar instance of difference in the translation of space. A recent study by Gertrudis Payàs, Ramón Curivil and José Quidel entitled “Bireferentiality in the translation of key terms in the Hispano–Mapuche negotiations” emphasises the “ontological union” between mapu (earth) and che (humans). “The Mapuche,” the authors observe, “is born of the earth, lives of the earth, belongs to the earth and it is in this sense that the earth is his or her mother.” The relationship is one of reciprocity and inseparability and stands in stark contrast to the political economy of colonial Europe, for which land is one of the three fundamental factors of production, a resource to be conquered, possessed and ultimately exploited. The study then goes on to analyse how this difference reveals itself in the records of the Hispano-Mapuche parliaments held towards the end of the 18th century. References such as “ten years ago, the earth gathered in this very place to hold parliament” and “it was he who caused the earth to rise up” are fossilised remains of the colonisers’ transposition of the Mapuche cosmovision onto the categories of their own, with all the conceptual violence—conscious or otherwise—such an enterprise entailed.

The difference between one worldview and the other—more specifically, the impossibility for the colonisers of understanding this difference and admitting the Mapuche world on its own terms—constitutes the origin of a fault-line that persists in Chile to this day. Like the Yaghan in the far south of the country, the lack of a centralised political structure with which to order and control the land and its inhabitants has prevented—and continues to prevent—effective engagement with and resistance against the highly centralised model of the nation state, which by default tends to subsume difference into its realm.

Let us consider a final example, this time in terms not of space but time: specifically, the relationship between the past and the future. Once again, we encounter a profound difference: the Western conception of moving forward through time, leaving the past behind us, is replaced by a schema based on seen and unseen. Similar to the Aymara in northern Chile, in the Mapuche schema, the past stands in front of us because we have already seen it, while the future—unseen or yet to be seen—stands behind. Once again, how can we translate this reality? We could try to hint at this difference through such dissonant phrasing as: “The War of Pacification stands in front of us, in the past.” Yet while this may prompt the reader to reflect on why the past stands in front of us, without further explanation the connection may not be clear and thus the effectiveness of such an approach is questionable. Moreover, while it may convey the geometric inversion of the spatiotemporal axis, it stops short of capturing the different conception of time vis-à-vis space that characterises the Mapuche reality.

All this raises the question of whether this different reality can be represented at all, of whether there is a way to represent the space–time of the Mapuche cosmovision in a language and culture so far removed from it. Such an enigma reminds us that, at its heart (and at its most fascinating), translation—far from being a problem of equivalence, of finding correspondence between “equal” elements in source and target milieus—is a problem of difference, and of how to represent the distance between source and target. This paradigm may be less apparent when the distance is small, but as it grows, the problem of translation becomes insidious: we can quickly find our words working against us, undermining the reality we seek to represent, trapping us in our own worldview and imposing it on all we seek to translate. From within the cage of our language, equality reveals itself to be a mirage and we see that certain worlds will remain at best partially known, that north—at least as we once knew it—is no longer north.

This article was first published in issue 49 of In Other Words (2017).