The legacy of Ortiz’s Yorubization of Lucumí: Translation as transculturation

Amanda Villepastour


The contemporary retranslation and circulation of Lucumí songs for the orishas (deities) among devotees and scholars in Cuba inadvertently reproduces both the sources and methods of Ortiz’s earliest linguistic ventures and reinforces his enduring influence on popular understandings of Santería’s utterances. This article draws on research in Cuba in 2018 in partnership with a Nigerian priestess, which revealed the processes, aspirations, and mixed results of contemporary Lucumí song translation efforts. As many Cuban priests granted her religious authority largely on the basis of her Yoruba language knowledge, the hierarchies of translation revealed themselves within a changing global setting. While Ortiz’s theory of transculturation recognized the agency of subaltern groups in stimulating cultural change, this article demonstrates that translation is an intrinsically asymmetrical intercultural communication. The linguistic processes of contemporary Nigerian-Cuban priestly encounters resemble Ortiz’s philological speculations, yet may also engender change and sustained religious influence.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/714380