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The Conceptualization and Writing of Popol Wuj: Nueva Traducción y Comentarios

12 February 2019 Written by   James L. Mondloch
First page of Ximénez’s Popol Wuj (Newberry Library, Chicago). First page of Ximénez’s Popol Wuj (Newberry Library, Chicago).

In October 2018 my friend, colleague, and former anthropology professor Robert (Bob) Carmack and I were invited by la Universidad Mesoamericana of Guatemala to participate in the ceremonial presentation of our book, Popol Wuj, Nueva Traducción y Comentarios (Universidad Mesoamericana, Guatemala, 2018), the culmination of a twenty-year effort in researching and writing. Bob was unable to participate, but I spoke about the challenges we faced in writing the book and the clarifications we made to both the transcription and translation of the Ximénez text.

The original Popol Wuj manuscript was written in about 1550 in the K’iche’ Maya language by elders of the K’iche’ community using an alphabet developed by the early Spanish missionaries to write Mayan languages. In the text, the elders narrate the K’iche’ creation story and the adventures of a number of superhuman beings—both good and evil—of K’iche’ mythology, as well as the history of the founding and development of the K’iche’ kingdom up until the Spanish invasion of Guatemala in 1524. The Popol Wuj contains the most complete description known to exist of an Amerindian society’s pre-Columbian belief system and social organization.

In about 1702, the 1550 Popol Wuj manuscript came into the hands of the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, who at that time was the pastor of the church in the K’iche’ community of Chichicastenango. Padre Ximénez was a Spaniard but spoke K’iche’ and had a deep interest in the language and culture of the K’iche’. Ximénez transcribed the 1550 K’iche’ text onto his new manuscript, writing a total of 56 pages, each with a front and back side, resulting in 112 folios. He divided each page into two columns. In the left-hand column he wrote his transcription of the 1550 K’iche’ text, and in the right-hand column, his line-by-line translation of the K’iche’ into Spanish. Upon completing his transcription and translation, Ximénez returned the 1550 manuscript to the K’iche’ elders, and since then it has never been seen by anyone outside the Chichicastenango community. The Ximénez Popol Wuj is currently housed in the University of Chicago’s Newberry Library.

I first went to Guatemala in 1965 as a Catholic missionary priest. I worked as a missionary there for ten years, during which period I lived and worked in K’iche’-speaking communities. I took advantage of my time there to learn the K’iche’ language. In 1975 I retired from missionary work and returned to the United States to study linguistics and anthropology, and in the following year I married Maria Tahay, a K’iche’ from Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Sololá, Guatemala.

Beginning in about 1977, Bob Carmack and I teamed up to translate several K’iche’ manuscripts written contemporaneously with the Popol Wuj. These works were published in Mexico in 1983 and 1989. Bob has studied and written extensively on pre-Columbian K’iche’ culture and social organization. With our combined knowledge of K’iche’ culture and language, we formed an ideal team to translate, analyze, and annotate sixteenth-century K’iche’ documents.

In 1997, I conducted a week-long workshop on the analysis of sixteenth-century K’iche’ documents in Antigua, Guatemala. The participants in the workshop were Mayan paralinguists, including several from the K’iche’ region. When we began studying the K’iche’ transcription in Ximénez’s Popol Wuj, we were unable to make much progress due to the multitude of obscure terms and metaphorical language in the document.

It was then that I decided to write my own transcription and translation of Ximénez’s Popol Wuj. Other translations had already been published in both English and Spanish but upon examining a number of these works, I was convinced there was still a need to clarify many of the document’s many unresolved errors and obscurities. As soon as I began working on the  Ximénez text, I discovered that many of the errors were transcription and translation errors and decided that my first task was to correct the inconsistencies. Ximénez’s transcription of the 1550 K’iche’ text employed an alphabet for writing Mayan languages developed in about 1540 by the Spanish friar Alonzo de Parra. Most of the symbols in the Parra alphabet are identical to those of Spanish but include unique symbols Parra invented to represent the sounds in Mayan languages not found in Spanish or other European languages. The Ximénez transcription is replete with copy errors and inconsistent use of the Parra alphabet, errors that frequently obscure the meanings of the passages in which they occur. For example, Ximénez used the symbol c to represent three distinct sounds: uinac should have been written uinak in the Parra alphabet; cut should be 9ut, and ucalahobisaxic should be u3alahobisaxic.

In about 2012, when I had completed my preliminary transcription of the Ximénez text’s 112 pages, I contacted Bob and requested that he work with me on a Spanish translation of my transcription, along with notes and commentaries. Bob enthusiastically accepted my invitation, and his wife, Teresa Carranza de Carmack, volunteered to read my Spanish translation and offer suggestions on how to improve it. Teresa is a native Spanish speaker with a master’s degree in Spanish linguistics and a doctorate in Hispano-American literature. Bob immediately contacted Padre Javier Serrano Ursua, president of la Universidad Mesoamericana in Guatemala, and obtained his commitment to publish our book upon completion. La Universidad had previously published our transcription, translation, and annotation of the sixteenth-century K’iche’ document el Título K’oyoi.

Bob and I agreed that in the writing of our Popol Wuj we should divide our efforts in the project based on our respective areas of expertise. As a K’iche’ linguist and fluent speaker of the language, I agreed to work on correcting and modernizing Ximénez’s transcription, producing a Spanish translation based on my updated K’iche’ transcription and writing notes clarifying some passages of the transcription. Bob’s role was to use his deep knowledge of pre-Columbian and modern K’iche’ culture and social organization to prepare extensive notes on the text and offer commentaries and critiques on previous English and Spanish translations. Once I corrected Ximénez’s transcription errors, I was able to translate correctly the more obscure passages that had never been translated accurately.¹

Bob and I are pleased to have produced what we judge to be an accurate reconstruction of the 1550 K’iche’ manuscript as well as a Spanish translation that we believe captures the message the authors of this magnificent document wished to convey.

James L. Mondloch is adjunct professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico, where he founded the K'iche' Maya Oral History Project, a digitized collection of more than one hundred oral histories gathered in the municipios of Nahualá and Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán in Sololá, Guatemala, during the 1960s and 1970s. He has co-translated and annotated several sixteenth-century K'iche' documents, including El Título de Totonicapán, El Título Yax, and El Título K'oyoy in collaboration with Robert Carmack. He is also the author of Basic K’ichee’ Grammar.

1. Unfortunately, la Universidad Mesoamericana, despite its beautiful publications, still does not have a sales and marketing office. Those interested in obtaining a copy of our Popol Wuj: Nueva Traducción y Comentarios should contact the university president, Rev. Felix Serrano Ursua at . In the near future we plan to begin writing an English edition of our Popol Wuj. Return to text.