Translating the Maya Popol Wuj
It’s the 20th of December and we are in Chichicastenango for its Fiesta Patronal. Just after 3:33 a.m., we are woken up by powerful explosions right above the Hotel Pop Wuj where we are staying. The photographer, Joey the Juice, is wide awake, pounding on my door, screaming over the bombs, “Get up Vin Man, come on, you gotta see this!” The fireworks go on for an entire hour until leaving the world silent again, except for the sound of roosters and corn mills that announce the coming of another day in the western highlands of Guatemala. We make our way over to the Cofradía Santo Tomás to drink as many gourds as possible of the sweet and salty q’or, maatz’ or atole, a kind of corn gruel that doesn’t sound nearly as good as this hearty ancient libation tastes. After the festivities, I head back to my home of more than thirty years in the forest high above Lake Atitlán to put the finishing touches on my new English translation of the famous Popol (or Pop) Wuj, the K’iche’ Maya Book of Council.
The Popol Wuj is a true masterpiece of Native American literature; there is nothing else quite like it. The surviving text at the Newberry Library in Chicago is thought to be a copy of a much older document found in Santo Tomás Chichicastenango late in the 17th century but now lost. According to the gifted Dutch anthropologist, Mesoamericanist and Popol Wuj scholar, Rudd van Akkeren, between 1554 and 1558, scribes calling themselves Nim Ch’okoj wrote down the sacred history and myths of their ancestors in their native K’iche’ Mayan language using the Roman alphabet taught to them by Dominican missionaries. They took their time and great care to bequeath to their descendants a record of their ancestors’ most significant stories, gleaned from hieroglyphic writings, images, and oral tradition passed down from generation to generation, and intended, in part, to form and shape young Maya women and men into perfect replicas, that is, spitting images of the First Mother and First Father, Tz’aqol and B’itol, Alom and K’ajolom, Modeler and Maker, Bearer and Begetter of their precious human replacements who would follow.
The K’iche’ people of western highland and lowland Guatemala belong to a much larger Maya cultural sphere that holds many beliefs and practices in common. The Popol Wuj, in fact, is a collection of Maya myths and stories developed over the course of millennia and presented continuously in a set order that is not necessarily chronological. The text can be divided into several distinct parts, beginning with the formation of the Sky-Earth by the Creators in their various incarnations followed by three failed attempts at peopling Uwach Ulew, the Face of the Earth. The narrative continues with the story of the father and uncle of the Hero Twins—Junajpu and Xb’alanke’—whose ingenious mother manages to escape from Xib’alb’a, the Maya underworld from whence she came. She gives birth to the twin boys who are later summoned, like their father before them, to engage in a match of the Mesoamerican ballgame against the Lords of Death and Disease in Xib’alb’a, the Place of Intimidation and Fear, and Trials, Tests and Ordeals. After overcoming many tribulations during an initiatory journey through the underworld, the Hero Twins play the Lords of Xib’alb’a to a draw, sacrifice themselves and become the sun and the moon. But before doing so, the boy-tricksters give order to the present world through sacrifice and prepare it for the coming of the Ixim Winaq, that is, the Maize People—their flesh and bones formed and shaped from yellow and white corn—who give rise to the Maya in general and the K’iche’ in particular. The rest of the text recounts the history of these people’s emergence and migration, and their conquest and settlement of the land known as K’iche’. My love and knowledge of Maya culture led me to delve deeper into this dynamic world of divine ancestors, which I felt had not been adequately captured or conveyed in past translations of the Popol Wuj.
The history of the manuscript and its transmission is admirably treated in Akkeren’s authoritative Xib’alb’a y el nacimiento del nuevo sol (2012). Although we don’t know its original title, or whether it even had one, the Nim Ch’okoj text was copied by Francisco Ximénez (1666–c. 1729/30), a Dominican friar who studied it from 1701 to 1703 in Chichicastenango, before spending many more years on the arduous scholarly task of rendering it into Spanish in the town of Rabinal, where the good father also produced local dynastic histories, dictionaries and catechisms in the K’iche’, Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil languages. Ximenez’s translation would not be published until 1857, by Austrian naturalist Carl Scherzer (1821–1903) after returning from his New World travels, on the advice of Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). In 1861, missionary-ethnographer Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–74) published a French version of the Spanish text in Paris, along with Ximénez’s original K’iche’ transcription, based on the actual document in his possession that eventually ended up at the Newberry by 1911, which he called the Popol Vuh.
Winter 2021, Volume XX, Number 2
Scholarly interest in the text gradually increased in the mid-20th century after a German translation, Popol Vuh: Das heilige Buch der Quiche-Indianer von Guatemala, by anthropologist Leonhard Schultze-Jena (1872–1955), appeared in 1944. This offering was soon followed by a new Spanish edition by Guatemalan Mayanist and ambassador to the United States Adrián Recinos (1886–1962), entitled Popol Vuh: Las antiguas historias del Quiché (1947), which, in turn, was translated into English by author-educator Delia Goetz (1896–1996) and archaeologist-epigrapher Sylvanus Griswold Morley (1883–1948), as Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya (1950).
Far more significant progress, however, was initiated by a Tulane University linguistic anthropologist and student of Harvard’s Clyde Kluckhohn (1905–60) by the name of Monro Edmonson (1924–2002), whose seminal Quiche-English Dictionary (1965) and The Book of Council: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya (1971)—with its facing K’iche’ and English text in verse—would forever change the course of Popol Wuj translation. Edmonson’s student, Dennis Tedlock (1939–2016), soon followed with his popular Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings (1985, 1996), while Tedlock’s student, Guatemalan linguist and poet Luis Enrique Sam Colop (1955–2011), published an exceptional modern K’iche’ version and meticulous corresponding Spanish translation in 1999. Since then, a few less linguistically rigorous English offerings have appeared from Brigham Young University art historian Allen Christenson (2000, 2004, 2007) and Amherst College literary critic Ilan Stavans (2020), in addition to the monumental bilingual K’iche’-Spanish Popol Wuj: Nueva traducción y comentarios produced by linguist James Mondloch and anthropologist Robert Carmack in 2018, which includes a color facsimile of Ximénez’s original manuscript at the Newberry. Although all of these editions have their strengths and weaknesses, I have found the translations and work of Edmonson, and especially Sam Colop, to be the most useful, along with Akkeren’s historical and anthropological scholarship.
With such a rich legacy of scholarly lineages and translations, you might ask, why on earth would a student of distinguished University of Chicago Divinity School graduates Charles Long (1926–2020) and Davíd Carrasco want to produce a new English edition of the Popol Wuj? The answer is quite simple. None of the previous translators approached the K’iche’ text from the hermeneutical perspective of the history of religions tradition and the existential experience of more than three decades of continuous living, working and conversing among K’iche’ people. None of them seemed to study myth as serio ludere (serious play) and as an expression of the soul of a people whose recitations of the story through words and actions bring the ancestors spiritually and physically into the present day. And none of them seemed to understand what historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) knew and wrote about so well—that myth records the divine actions and creation episodes of deities and revered ancestors that are repeatedly told, imitated and performed for the renovation and renewal of the community. Similarly, Eliade’s colleague Charles Long, in his Alpha: The Myths of Creation (1963), revealed how the telling of stories such as the Popol Wuj recite the experience of the human soul as it is transformed through ordeals in its journey on earth and through the underworld, while Davíd Carrasco’s work on the Feathered Serpent stories in Mexica and Maya traditions has shown how creation myths aid in the revitalization of sacred places and community identities. Along with Eliade’s profound insights into humanity’s quest for the eternal return through rites of initiation, as well as his work in comparative religion regarding the vigorous powers and archaic patterns in nature and the universe that orient and shape human consciousness, these contributions offer the best preparation for interpreting the Popol Wuj and the “secret” sacred language used throughout the K’iche’ Maya text.
As for my interpretive skills as a translator, they are clearly rooted in what my teachers taught me long ago. As historians of religions, they provided me with much of what I needed to know in order to live out in the “field” that I would write about, after my physical—though not intellectual or psychological—departure from the academic world. They imparted an intellectual inheritance that prepared me to observe, listen, read and interpret myth as the still active sacred history of the K’iche’. I learned how to interpret a text by asking questions that sought to diminish the distance between myself and the beloved and respected other as a human soul. Although Eliade and Long were gifted thinkers and interpreters of sacred words and texts in their own right, it was Carrasco who taught me how to interpret myth in order to understand for myself why I was driven to do so. A deep sense of compassion and respect for the other and the world we inhabit with others goes a long way to answering why I wanted to translate the Popol Wuj.
When interpretation involves moving between very different languages, it is important that the translator approach the text, not only as a linguist interested in words as separate parts of a whole, but also as a historian of religions who understands that sacred words must be understood as dynamic entities that animate relationships in the community held together by a common language. I often ask myself how people think they can translate the Popol Wuj without living with the K’iche’ Maya, year after year, season after season, maize cycle after maize cycle, day and night, watching the movement of the celestial spheres above, and working in the natural world of the milpa and the forest. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve turned to the realm of nature to correct past translations that simply guessed or depended on a dictionary to find something that “worked.”
The astonishing natural world is where the Popol Wuj plays out; those who have not walked, seen, smelled, heard, feared and marveled at that world have little hope of finding answers to comprehend the complex word-play and Maya poetics that illuminate the natural powers of transformation, which this sacred narrative talks about in magical ways. Translators are not free to distort the meaning of the original text simply because they do not speak the language well or have not immersed themselves in the “field” long enough to grasp the metaphors running through the Popol Wuj. But by living with the Maya in their world, one eventually can develop a translation that is grounded in the seasonal transformations in nature and among humans.
After more than 30 years in that world, I believe that my spoken K’iche’ is respectable. My accent is what catches people’s attention. I make myself easily understood by replicating K’iche’ speech like a mocking bird. My ability to mimic sound is something I was born with, and my capacity to imitate other human beings is what opened the way to my lifelong love of living language. Replicating the rhythm and sound of words and phrases in the Popol Wuj enables me to ask my K’iche’ neighbors about various aspects of the text, and helps me to understand the creative imagination of the people who speak and write K’iche’. There is both terror and luck to be found in history, and we should feel lucky that we can still speak with the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala in the same language of their sacred history.
One of the most salient aspects of K’iche’ society involves ritual, as the Fiesta Patronal in Chichicastenango mentioned above certainly attests. The Nim Ch’okoj who gathered long ago to produce the Popol Wuj included ceremonial specialists and spiritual guides who instructed Maya youth in the singing of sacred cantos or songs and the performance of lengthy dance dramas before attentive audiences, as a form of communal storytelling and collective mythmaking. In this regard, the Popol Wuj functions as the script used by singer-dancers and participant-observers to achieve a kind of ritual ecstasy that transports them back to the Ancestral Time of the Creators. The songs and dances must be performed in the prescribed fashion to re-create the sacred world and the animate beings living within it. Rather than a chronological fictional narrative, the Popol Wuj is myth, and as such, must play out just as it was formed and shaped by artists, scribes and performers long ago. We see such ritual scenes carved in Maya sculpture, depicted in elaborate murals and painted on exquisite ceramics.
The Maya, in turn, have taught me that one must know their land and its light and darknesses, understand nature and its ways, feel the words as thought from the heart, and, perhaps, most of all, sense the beauty that touches and stirs in one’s soul. These lessons have shaped how I’ve translated and interpreted the Popol Wuj, while knowing that it is not possible to create a literal translation when every word, written or spoken, is a metaphor whose meanings we must experience in order to feel our way through the living pathways of a world that is myth. By coming to know this creation story as a manifestation of a Mayan language, with its names of divine ancestors and sacred spaces that transform us into actors moving through its timeless landscapes, we can truly become a bit more American, in the hemispheric sense of that word, invented more than five centuries ago. So let us begin to transform and enrich our transient sense of self through the language and living story of the Popol Wuj.
I say this because this extraordinary text is surely Ancient America’s greatest masterpiece of mythological writing. This is why I sought to translate the original K’iche’ text in indigenous ways, without recourse to Judeo-Christian or Greco-Roman conventions, so that the rhythmic grace of the essential Ancient Word (Ojer Tzij) of the Maya could shine. Accordingly, my translation would have to convey the rich sense of humor and imagination ingeniously expressed through the multivalent metaphors and word-play of Maya poetics that create the mythological magic of incantation. In this way, the reader or listener could get an idea of the way the text was intended to be sung or performed. I would also have to bring to life the “serious play” (serio ludere) of the imaginal world of the divine ancestors who created the Sky-Earth and all that exist within it, which I often felt was lacking in many previous translations. In the serious play of mythic poetry, beauty reveals a truth that vibrates in the heart and resonates in the soul. I knew I had to try and capture this playful yet serious imaginal world embodied in the Ancient Word. Anything less playful or less serious would not reflect the inherent tension of the epic K’iche’ Popol Wuj.
Vincent Stanzione carries out research while living and working in the western highlands of Guatemala. He is the author of Rituals of Sacrifice: Walking the Face of the Earth on the Sacred Path of the Sun (2003), and has been translating language and myths of the Maya for three decades.
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