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IN A CONVINCING ARGUMENT IN FAVOR of the authenticity of the Popol Vuh, Lewis Spence declares: "The very fact that it was composed in the Quiché tongue is almost sufficient proof of its genuine American character. The scholarship of the nineteenth century was unequal to the adequate translation of the Popol Vuh; the twentieth century has as yet shown no signs of being able to accomplish the task. It is therefore not difficult to credit that if modern scholarship is unable to properly translate the work, that of the eighteenth century was unable to create it."
Despite his undeniable and profound knowledge of the Quiché language, Father Francisco Ximénez by himself alone would not have been able to compose the Manuscript of Chichicastenango, the most notable literary expression of native American genius. On the other hand, this distinguished historian and linguist does not claim other than the title of discoverer of the Indian document. Defects, unfortunately, appear in his two versions of this work which have come down to us; these defects reveal that sometimes Ximénez was not able to perceive the meaning of the text, showing that the thought and phraseology of the ancient Quiché frequently escape comprehension even by those Europeans best qualified to interpret it.
The two principal translations which have been made, both in Spanish and in French, of the Quiché document are well known. The first, as has been said, is the work of Father Ximénez, who translated, verbatim, the histories of the Indians into the Spanish language from the Quiché, in which they had been written from the time of the Conquest. This first is a literal translation, closely following the phraseology of the original text. In it the translator not only wanted to give the meaning of the words, but many times tried to preserve
the Quiché syntax, dropping the Spanish syntax and thus confusing the very meaning which he was trying to interpret. From the beginning of Ximénez' translation, one finds the passive form of the verbs preceding the possessive, which imitates the morphology of the original Quiché language, but which lacks meaning in Spanish. When Ximénez translates "his being declared and manifested," "his being related," and "his being said," or "his being formed," he reveals the peculiar forms of the Quiché construction, but he makes it impossible to understand the document, until the reader familiarizes himself with those forms and converts them into the corresponding substantives: "the declaration the manifestation," "the relation," "the formation," and so on.
It must be noted here that these passive forms gradually disappear in the course of the translation and the style becomes easier and more natural.
In other places the translator, in an exaggerated effort to be faithful to the original, retains the metaphorical expressions of the Quiché text without giving the Spanish equivalents. For example when Hun-Ahpú and Xbalanqué decide to get rid of their envious brothers, Hun Batz and Hun Chouén, the translator has them say, "We will only change their stomachs into other things," using a metaphor which could be interpreted by saying that they would change only their figure, as in effect they did, transforming them into monkeys. In this same passage the sense is very obscure, because Ximénez limits himself to translating, word for word, the extremely abbreviated sentences of the original Quiché without developing them more extensively, as they require in Spanish. These examples are cited in order to give an idea of the difficulties which, in general, the reader of the first version of the Popol Vuh will find.
Ximénez' translation with all its defects represents a work of infinite patience, which must have taken a long time, years perhaps, of the life of the translator. The first version may be read in the right column of the manuscript of the Historias de los Indios, and is the same which Carl Scherzer published in Vienna in 1857, with numerous errata. The copyist who made the transcript which the editor used did not know how to interpret some of the abbreviations
which Ximénez employed; he read parts of the manuscript wrong, omitted words and even whole sentences, and confused many of the proper names and common Quiché words. Some of these errors are undoubtedly those of the Guatemalan copyist; but he is not altogether to blame, and it must be supposed that the Vienna printer made some of the errors which are found in that edition, which, however, in general is a very good one.
The first translation appears to have been made during the time in which Ximénez administered the parish of Santo Tomás. On the title page of the Historias de los Indios one reads that the translator was the priest who taught the Christian doctrine by royal appointment in the town of Santo Tomás Chuilá, today Santo Tomás Chichicastenango. Years later, on undertaking his longer work, the Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala, Ximénez revised his first translation of the Indian document, deleting many repetitions which are peculiar to the Quiché language, divided the account into chapters, and made it in general easier to read, although less true to the original text. in this condensed translation some of the redundancies of the first draft have disappeared, but some of the concepts and words and, at times, even entire paragraphs have been omitted. It must be taken into account, however, that this second version is known only through the transcription made by Señor Gavarrete, a transcription which served for the edition of the work printed in Guatemala in 1929. It is to be hoped that the authentic text of this second version of Ximénez will be published as it is found in the original manuscript which is preserved in Guatemala. The numerous errors and omissions, the defective spelling, and other faults which, unfortunately, fill the 1929 edition, must be attributed to its successive transcriptions, since Gavarrete himself said, as early as 1872, that his was not a direct copy of the original, but of another copy made carelessly and with many imperfections. This copy must have been very old, because the errors and omissions which it contains are also observed in the chapters which Ordóñez y Aguiar inserted at the end of the eighteenth century in his Historia de la Creación del Cielo y de la Tierra.
Luckily, the manuscript of the first version having been preserved
together with the original copy of the Quiché, it is still possible to appreciate the translation in its primitive form, without the errors which mar the two printings of 1857 and 1929 respectively.
Despite its defects, this translation is a work of great merit and inestimable value. Our linguistically-minded friar knew the Quiché language of the sixteenth century better than any other of the modern translators and commentators, and at the same time he knew the mentality of the Indians of that race. For this reason the Spanish translator almost always kept his text at the same intellectual level as that of the Quiché narrator, without elevating himself to spheres foreign to pre-Columbian American culture, and without letting himself be carried away by fantasy, as has occurred in the case of the first French translator.
In 1855 the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg found in Guatemala the manuscript of the Historias de los Indios which contained the original transcription of the Quiché text and the first Spanish translation of it made by Father Ximénez. Sent to the parish of Rabinal by Archbishop García Peláez, who, according to Brasseur de Bourbourg, wanted to further his archaeological investigations and his studies of the Indian languages, the famous French traveler moved to that Quiché center, learned how to read and write the language of the people, and prepared himself sufficiently to undertake the translation of the Quiché book, according to what he says in the foreword to his Histoire des Nations Civilisées du Mexique et de l'Amérique Centrale.
In this way Brasseur de Bourbourg had the opportunity to learn the dialect spoken at Rabinal and to consult the Indians of that town on the difficult passages of the Popol Vuh. Furthermore, during his trips to Central America, he acquired a valuable collection of grammars and old vocabularies of the Indian languages which were most useful to him in his interpretation of the Guatemalan documents. The Quiché Vocabulario of Fray Domingo Basseta which is in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris is full of Brasseur de Bourbourg's annotations, which show the constant use which he made of it in his work of translation.
In 1861 the Popol Vuh, Le Livre Sacré, which contains the Quiché text of the Manuscript of Chichicastenango, was published in Paris,
divided into chapters and phoneticized according to Brasseur de Bourbourg's ideas, in order to facilitate its reading by the people of his country. According to these ideas, the Abbé introduced the letter "k" which does not exist in the original, and substituted it for the "c" and the "q" which Ximénez used in transcribing the Quiché manuscript. On the other hand, he kept the "v" which was used in the Colonial Period to represent the sound of "u" as in the words varal, vinac, etc.
The Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg's version of the Popol Vuh is a notable work in which he tried to interpret, with the precision and elegance of the French language, the ancient and simple thought of the Quiché race. As he himself says, this translation is based on the Spanish of Ximénez and supplemented with the parts which the Dominican friar omitted. In general, the Abbé interpreted the Quiché manuscript correctly, although there are many errors which he committed in his translation, despite the evident care that he took. His version, however, shows one major defect. Despite having lived some time among the American Indians, the Abbé never succeeded in understanding their primitive mentality, and he attributed to them ideas and thoughts as elevated as those of the peoples of the Old World, the heirs of a classical culture of many centuries.
The German writer Noah Elieser Pohorilles published a version of the Popol Vuh in Leipzig in 1913 under the title of Das Popol Wuh. Die mytische Geschichte des Kicé-Volkes von Guatemala nach dem Original Texte übersetzt und bearbeitet. In general, the German translator follows Brasseur de Bourbourg in interpreting the Quiché document, despite the fact that in the title of his work he says that it is a translation from the original text. In a study on the "Significance of the Myths of the Popol Vuh," Eduard Seler indicates that he does not consider that the Pohorilles translation had improved that of Brasseur de Bourbourg, rather the contrary.
Professor Georges Raynaud of the Sorbonne spent many years studying the Indian manuscripts of the Americas, and in Paris in 1925, he published a new version of the Popol Vuh, under the title of Les dieux, les heros et les hommes de l'ancien Guatémala d'après le Livre du Conseil. A Spanish translation of this work was published in 1927.
Finally there should be mentioned the version of Licenciado J. Antonio Villacorta and Don Flavio Rodas N. contained in a volume entitled Manuscrito de Chichicastenango (Popol Buj). Estudio sobre las antiguas tradiciones del Pueblo Quiché. Texto indígena fonetizado y traducido al Castellano. Notas etimológicas, etc. (Guatemala, 1927). This is the first modern translation to be published in Guatemala. In the preface of the work one reads that the authors undertook the translation because a faithful version of the Manuscript had not yet been made. Señor Rodas, well versed in the modern Quiché language, took the text transcribed by Brasseur de Bourbourg and phoneticized it according to Spanish spelling "In order that the Indians and other people who speak the language could read it." The Quiché text appears in this form accompanied by a Spanish translation. Studies on the Quiché, the Maya, and the Tolteca, the calendar, and the pre-Columbian manuscripts precede the translation, and at the end there are several pages of notes and etymology.
A well-known Austrian Investigator, Rudolph Schuller, left an English translation of the Quiché book, according to Dr. Samuel K. Lothrop's report in his archaeological study on the region of Lake Atitlán (Carnegie Institution of Washington, September, 1933). Lothrop adds that he himself also has prepared a translation of the same document.
In his book An introduction to Mythology, Lewis Spence says:
"There is an abridgment in English by the present writer. An English translation of the whole appeared in an American magazine entitled The Word during 1906 and 1907, from the pen of Dr. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, but whether from the Spanish, or original Kiche, I do not know. It is, moreover, couched in Scriptural language, and such treatment assists the vulgar error that the Popol Vuh is merely a native travesty of portions of the Old Testament."
Dr. Guthrie states that his translation was made independently, "but some felicitous terms have been added" from another translation from the first book of the Popol Vuh by James Pryse, which appeared in Lucifer in 1894-95.
A new German translation by Leonhard Schultze Jena was published in Stuttgart in 1944, together with the original text as transcribed
by Ximénez, under the title of Popol Vuh. Das heiliges Buch der Quiché Indianer von Guatemala.
The Ayer Collection in the Newberry Libra of Chicago has an unpublished English translation of the Popol Vuh made by Colonel Beebe. It is a manuscript of 264 pages, apparently based on the French translation of Brasseur de Bourbourg.
The legends of the Popol Vuh have been used by some modern writers in the composition of stories and narratives for children, as one can see in the collection of Krickeberg and in the Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger. Isolated passages of the Popol Vuh have been dramatized many times. And the German writer, Oswald Claassen, using the same episodes, composed a long poem, entitled Die Ahnen des Mondes, and Das Gefass des Schicksals, inspired by the translation of Pohorilles.
In this way modern authors have justified the opinion, somewhat ironical, that Ximénez expressed when he wrote, "I well know that all these histories are children's stories," although this opinion certainly did not deter the austere friar from dedicating much of the time which his ecclesiastical duties left free, to transcribing and translating them Into Spanish and commenting upon them.
In his study on the Indian authors and their works (Aboriginal American Authors and Their Productions), Brinton comments on the narrative of the mythology and traditional history of the Quiché, and the translations of Ximénez and Brasseur de Bourbourg, and declares that neither of these translations is satisfactory. According to Brinton, Ximénez wrote with all the prejudices of a Spanish monk, and Brasseur de Bourbourg was an euhemerist of the most advanced type, who saw in every myth the expression of a historical fact. And adds "there is need for a re-translation of all the work, with critical linguistic notes attached." Other critics have seconded this eminent Americanist in his observation. Since the time he wrote, new translations have been published which have clarified some of the obscure parts of the Quiché book, but the field is very wide and the subject is always new and attractive.
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It is fair to devote a final word to the Quiché language in which this book is written. Father Ximénez, who translated it for the first time into Spanish at the beginning of the eighteenth century, maintains that the Quiché language is the principal one in all the world. Without entirely sharing the enthusiastic opinion of the venerable historian and eminent linguist, I must observe that only a highly developed language, possessed of a rich vocabulary and a highly flexible syntax which lends itself to clarity and elegance of style and fluency in narration, could serve as an instrument for composing this work, which has the interest and beauty of a novel and the austerity of history, and which paints in brightest colors the life and thoughts of a great people.
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