Disparities of Discourse in Popol Vuh

Conference Paper. Francisco Ximénez’s transcription and translation of Popol Vuh is not as straightforward and sterile as is generally presumed. The task requires intricate management of the textual and semiotic grids, both in the the Quiché transcription and in the Spanish translation.

In their introduction to Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page, Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry point out that “to mark a text is also to make it; [and] features such as punctuation, footnotes, epigraphs, white space and marginalia, marks that traditionally have been ignored in literary criticism, can be examined for their contribution to a text’s meaning” (xvii). This paper grew out of an observation of Ximénez’s marginal notations on the folio generally referred to as the preamble. As I examined the evidence, I became aware that Ximénez is considerably more present than he is typically acknowledged to be. I endeavored to write an essay on my findings and in the process discovered that I had two relatively discrete issues at hand. The first of these is the inherent contradiction of a written oral discourse. The second issue is the disparity of discourse presented by Ximénez’s text and translation, which it is the subject of this paper.

To give a brief background, Popol Vuh is a mythistory of the Quiché Maya of western highland Guatemala. Once subjugated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524, the task of pacification largely fell to the Catholic monastic orders who, in their zeal, destroyed or suppressed much of the “pagan” culture. Normative evangelical strategies proved less effective in the New World because Maya culture, religion, and language were tightly intertwined. The Dominican Order, however, had embraced target-language evangelization as a core tenet since the thirteenth century and some seized upon learning the native historias for this purpose (although it came with some risk as evidenced by the Inquisition’s scrutiny of Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún concerning his Florentine Codex).1

It is traditionally believed that Father Ximénez, sometime around 1700, borrowed a phonetic manuscript from a parishioner, which he transcribed and translated in parallel columns of Quiché and Spanish, and in this way preserved Popol Vuh in perpetuity. Ximénez’s transcription-translation, however, is not a free-standing text; rather, it is co-bound with several other items, and the mythistory itself is enveloped by the manuscript’s Tratado segvndo. Nevertheless, every published edition to date presents the mythistory by itself, thus perpetuating the notion that it is an authentic native discourse.

Defining Popol Vuh as an “authentic” text is problematic for two reasons. First, the Amerindians did not practice discourse on an epistemologically equivalent level as the Europeans, which Walter Mignolo points out in his essay, “When Speaking Was Not Good Enough: Illiterates, Barbarians, Savages, and Cannibals.”

The lack of alphabetic writing was one of the most significant trademarks, next to lack of clothing and the eating of human flesh, in the construction of the image of the Amerindians during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Not having it yet or having it in excess were two cognitive moves used by Europeans in constructing the identity of the self-same by constructing, at the same time, the image of the other. (312)

A robust example of the oppositional discourse can be seen in José de Acosta, a sixteenth century Jesuit missionary. While Acosta believed in the intellectual capacity of the natives, he  nevertheless fell into the trap of “presuppos[ing] a regional and culturally relative concept of rhetoric” in which “[s]peech was not good enough to consider the Amerindians at the same level as the Spanish and the Greco-Roman tradition” (313-14). In a letter to fellow Jesuit Joan de Tovar, Acosta questioned how it could be possible for the Amerindian to possess lengthy, elegant discourse or maintain a history without the use of letters (Mignolo 313). Tovar’s reply was that the natives operated schools of rhetoric in which young men of special aptitude memorized their discourses word-for-word.

Pero es de advertir que aunque tenian diversas figuras y caracteres con que escrebian las cosas, no era tan suficientemente como nuestra escritura, que sin discrepar, por las mismas palabras, refiriese cada uno lo que estaba escrito: sólo concordaban en los conceptos; pero para tener memoria entera de las palabras y traza de los parlamentos que hacian los oradores, y de los muchos cantares que tenian, que todos sabian sin discrepar palabra, los cuales componian los mismos oradores, aunque los figuraban con sus caracteres, pero para conservarlos por las mismas palabras que los dijeron sus oradores y poetas, habia cada dia ejercicio dello en los colegios de los mozos principales que habian de ser sucesores á estos, y con la continua repeticion se les quedaba en la memoria, sin discrepar palabra, tomando las oraciones más famosas que en cada tiempo se hacian, por método, para imponer á los mozos que habian de ser retóricos; y de esta manera se conservaron muchos parlamentos, sin discrepar palabra, de gente en gente, hasta que vinieron los españoles, que en nuestra letra escribieron muchas oraciones y cantares que yo vi, y así se han conservado. Y con esto queda respondido á la última pregunta de “cómo era posible tener esta memoria de las palabras,” etc. (Icazbalceta 263-65)

Clearly these facts were not widely known to the European colonizers, or if they were known, the concept was dismissed. Another example of the perceived discursive and intellectual inadequacy can be seen in Pedro de Gante, an early Franciscan missionary to Mexico, who described his Indians as “gente sin escriptura, sin letras, sin caracteres y sin lumbre de cosa alguna” (Mignolo, “Literacy” 66; “Speaking” 313).

Returning now to the problem of defining Popol Vuh as an “authentic” text, if the first impediment was that the Amerindian did not engage in written discourse, then the second difficulty emerges from the fact Ximénez is always present by way of his translation. As André Lefevere notes, both translators and writers must find ways of manipulating the conceptual and textual constructs in such a way as to achieve communicative success (77). Furthermore, the interaction of the conceptual and the textual grids “determine how reality is constructed for the reader, not just of the translation, but also of the original” (77). Since the natives did not engage in written discourse, it follows then, that even at the transcription level, Ximénez is involved in constructing an analogous reality for his European reader. In effect, Ximénez must translate the epistemology before he can translate its language. There are, therefore, two translations present in the text: the epistemological translation from oral to written, and the linguistic translation from Quiché to Spanish.

Lefevere also explains that “certain texts are supposed to contain certain markers designed to elicit certain reactions on the reader’s part, and […] the success of communication depends on both the writer and the reader of the text agreeing to play their assigned parts in connection with those markers. The writer is supposed to put them in, and the reader is supposed to recognize them” (76). For example, we as writers and readers understand that markers such as “once upon a time” indicate the referential nature of a text (Lefevere 76). Furthermore, Lefevere suggests that there are innumerably more markers, but that they become increasingly consigned to those who are “more or less professional readers of texts since these alone are likely to recognize and appreciate most of the markers” (76). Because the composers of Popol Vuh are orators as apposed to writers, the markers undergo a reformulation from one medium to the other. Some of the markers in the oral Popol Vuh would necessarily refer to the authenticity and accuracy of the oral narrative, handed down through generations without alteration, which may be the purpose of the genealogies that conclude the mythistory. The orators insert such authenticity spikes, the audience recognizes them as such, and the mutual role playing cures the absence of the author-function.2 In translating the epistemology from oral to written, these authenticity spikes can only be recreated by the suggestion of written records, which is how Europeans understand the means of flawless preservation. This too is upheld by Ximénez’s treatment of the Quiché word xchicatzibaj, which can be translated as either escribir or pintar. Ximénez uses escribir in the preamble, but pintar in the corpus of the narrative. The only exception to this is when he introduces the genealogy.

A dominant theme of Popol Vuh is the living essence of oral discourse as an innate human distinction. As the animals are unable to speak or invoke the names of the creators, the gods ask themselves, “What shall we do to be invoked, in order to be remembered on earth? We have already tried with out first creations, our first creatures; but we could not make them praise and venerate us” (Goetz 85-86). The gods create the first human out of earth and mud. “At first it spoke, but had no mind;” it soaked up water and dissolved (86). So the gods determine that “man, whom we are going to make, will nourish and sustain us, invoke and remember us” (87). Next wooden figures were created that “looked like men, talked like men, and populated the surface of the earth […] but they did not have souls, nor minds, they did not remember their Creator, their Maker; […] therefore they fell out of favor” and were destroyed (89).

The gods then command the animals to gather white and yellow corn which is formed into the shape of a man. This time, their humans “talked, conversed, saw and heard, walked, grasped things […]. They were endowed with intelligence […]. Then they gave thanks to the Creator and the Maker: ‘We really give you thanks, two and three times. We have been created, we have been given a mouth and a face, we speak, we hear, we think, and walk’” (168). Even as their population expanded, “they did not forget the name of their grandfather and father” (171). In addition to the orality required of mankind, the narration abounds with references to saying, telling, speaking, uttering, listening, hearing, silence, and noise. Intellect and cleverness are manifested in speech, as is seen in the tests of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué in Xibalbá, and their defeat of Vacub-Caquix and Zipacná through rhetorical trickery and deception.

The arrival of the Spanish conquerors and the establishment of the colonial regime did not abolish the Maya’s practices of oral discourse, nor did it establish written discourse as its substitute. Ximénez himself speaks to this issue in his Escolios a las historias, which immediately follows in his manuscript. He states:

y aunq’ los Pes. antiguos les dieran çiertas historias de Stos. en su lengua q’ cantasen al tun, en lugar de las q’ ellos cantaban de su gentilidad, no obstante, yo entiendo q’ eso cantan en lo publico, y donde el Pe. los oye, y q’ alla en secreto haçen muey lindas memorias de su gentilidad. de estas cosas, y otras muchissimas q’ han llegado a mi notiçia, intento el formar estos escolios a esta su historia de ellos anotando lo q’ es historia antigua, y çitando a la historia q’ queda antes puesta. y anotando lo q’ toca en punto de nuestra Sta. fee catholica pa q’ mas comodidad tenga el q’ se quisiere approvechar de este mi trabaxo. advirtiendo aqui, y teniendo por cosa çierta, q’ el dia de oy estan en los mesmos herrores, y disparates, y aunq’ pareçe q’ no es mas q’ tal, o qual çentella de aquel fuego, es mucho el inçendio q’ ay entre ellos. (Escolios a las historias ln 131-42; Woodruff 125; Scherzer 148-49)

From this we can infer that oral performances were still conducted at the turn of the eighteenth century—some one-hundred fifty years after Alvarado subjugated the highland populations. And even as late as 1855, Brasseur claims to have redacted a “pièce scénique de la ville de Rabinal” from an oral performance dictated by an aged elder of the town (Brasseur, Rabinal-Achí 17-18).3

The prevailing belief is that a “learned” Indian redacted Popol Vuh from an oral recitation shortly after Alvarado’s conquest (Himelblau 2; Edmonson vii, Tedlock 30, Christenson 36-37, Brasseur, Histoire lxxx; Goetz 16-17; Recinos 24-26). However, this idea silently subscribes to the assumption that Amerindians were intellectually deficient and only the Spanish colonial regime was able to edify a select few Indians of special aptitude to be taught the more elegant Spanish method of writing. It is further surmised that this redaction was copied and circulated clandestinely among the Quiché.4 I have previously elucidated, both in my dissertation and in a forthcoming article, that the belief in an indigenous phonetic redaction presupposes a level of indigenous literacy that cannot be established in the colonial subaltern environment. As John Beverly notes,

No es que lo subalterno “no puede hablar” [sino que] habla mucho (la oralidad es a menudo una de sus características). Lo que ocurre, sin embargo, es que lo que tiene que decir no posee autoridad cultural o epistemológica, en parte precisamente porque está circunscrito a la oralidad. No cuenta para nosotros, es decir, para la cultura letrada. La forma de producción y recepción del testimonio le confiere esa autoridad. (Beverly 10)

And as Néstor Quiroa has observed, a written Popol Vuh in circulation among the Indians does not fully appreciate the pressures of the Inquisition.

Ximénez’s title page states that Popol Vuh is “tradvzido de la lengva qviche en la castellana” (Empiezan las historias ln 4-5). We as readers automatically infer this to signify the process through which “a text formulated in code 1, usually equated with ‘the source language’, is reformulated in code 2, usually equated with ‘the target language’” (Lefevere 75). However, because the Quiché did not write, we need to understand the dual implication that Ximénez’s translation is not merely Quiché to Spanish, but oral Quiché to written Spanish. The logographic records of the central Amerindian served only to solemnize events (as in the case of inscriptions on temples and stelae) or to aid the rhetorician in his preservation. Quiché discourse only existed in the realms of orality such that when Ximénez says he translates from Quiché to Spanish, it necessarily implies an oral dimension.

Ximénez never relates the circumstances of how he came to possess the manuscript, but his intent was unquestionably evangelical and therefore we can conclude that his manuscript—at least in the form that survives—was not intended for a native readership (Quiroa, Woodruff). The reason for the parallel translation, he writes:

se reduçe esta mi obra a dar luz, y notiçia de los herrores, q’ tuvieron, en su gentilidad, y q’ todavia conservan entre si. quise trasladar todas las historias a la letra de estos indios, y tambien traduçirla en la lengua castellana, y ponerle los escolios q’ a la fin van puestos, q’ son como anotaçiones de la historia en q’ se van declarando las cosas de los indios, porq’ discurro q’ havra muchos curiosos, q’ quieran saberlas, y con eso si no saben la lengua tendran la façilidad, en poderlo saber. (Empiezan las historias ln 20-26; emphasis added)

This provision unwittingly constructs a paradigm of inadequacy between discourses, first because Spanish is presented as a more accessible language for intellectual pursuits, and second, because the Quiché is only approximated by the phonetic representation of Latin characters. And yet there is also an underlying reaffirmation that were it not for the infusion of European intellect that introduced the letter, then there would be no conservation value at all to native discourse. So, while Ximénez’s translation is always something of a choral harmony attesting to the value of Quiché discourse, his translation is also something of an echo reminding readers of the disparity between the discourses. Despite Ximénez’s best efforts to construct an analogous reality of the original for the readers of his translation, a reader is left with the feeling that orality is obsolete. Ultimately, the transcription and translation—intentionally or not—perpetuate the “cognitive moves used by Europeans in constructing the identity of the self-same by constructing, at the same time, the image of the other.”

John M. Woodruff
The University of Alabama


1The foregoing synopsis is glossed from Quiroa (“Ideology” 282; Extirpation 55-70), Pagden (xiii-xl), Megged (61-82), and Woodruff (1-10, 98-99).

2See Michel Foucault’s discussion on the issues of anonymity and author-function in post-renaissance European scholarship.

3Consider also the congruence of Ximénez’s description of fiestas (Escolios a las historias ln 120-135) with that of Brasseur’s (Rabinal-Achí 10, 15). It is also worth mentioning that Brasseur uses Achí to mean Tzutuhil (Bibliothèque 164), which places such a performance squarely within Ximénez’s linguistic competence.

4The support for this comes, in part, from Ximénez’s Historia de la provincia in which he says he has one of their “books” in his possession (Escolios a las historias ln 312-315). However, Scherzer explains that what Ximénez described was only a “formula cabalistica,” which Scherzer also found to be commonplace, and therefore was not Popol Vuh (160).


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