- Ballads of the Lords of New Spain: The Codex 'Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España'
Specialists in sixteenth-century Mexico, especially those who deal with Nahuatl, have for years hoped that a transcription of the "Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España" might become available. John Bierhorst has not only transcribed this important manuscript, but has translated it. Furthermore, the University of Texas has also gone so far as to put the original manuscript on the web so that scholars can consult it directly.
Bierhorst is well known for his controversial translation of the Cantares mexicanos (1985), the companion piece to the Romances. His earlier work consisted of a transcription and translation along with a concordance of the words in the text and other aids to scholars. It was flawed because of Bierhorst's insistence that these works of Nahuatl poetry manifested a "ghost dance" tradition not unlike that found among the natives of the Plains in the United States, an opinion not shared by the majority of scholars working in Nahuatl. In the current work, Bierhorst has continued his argument, but in a more nuanced manner. Rather than envisioning the songs of the Nahua as revivifying the spirits of the dead warriors, potentially in resistance to the Spanish occupiers, Bierhorst now sees the songs as an appeal to the supernatural in a period in which open rebellion was no longer an option for resistance. Bierhorst places the songs of the Romances and the Cantares as part of a genre which he calls "netotiliztli," a Nahuatl word he defined in the Cantares Mexicanos volume as a "dance associated with worldly entertainment" (p. 92). It comes from the Nahuatl word "netotilo," which means "one dances," and comes from an observation by Motolinía. He contrasts it with huehuetlahtolli, the sage advice given [End Page 122] by the elders, and conjuros, ritualistic spells and incantations. In this context, Bierhorst holds that while many approach the songs of the Romances as poetry, they were essentially ritualistic, their purpose to bring back the spirits of dead warriors and native leaders. This is essentially what he argued in the Cantares, but here it is recognized that the impact was more evocative for the listeners rather than destined to actually revivify the dead. Consequently, while Bierhorst has continued to refine his theory regarding the songs, it does color his translation. While he also has an extensive essay on the translation of Nahuatl poetry, it is a systemization of his own hypotheses regarding the functions of images and metaphors all mustered to support his central thesis. This contrasts significantly with the analyses of Nahuatl poetry by Frances Karttunen, who approaches the issue from a more structural perspective.
The transcription is well done. He reproduces with strikeout words that have lines drawn through them in the original; letters blotted out in the original appear as black boxes; in short, he includes even what might be considered extraneous material to assist the reader. This is of great utility to those who wish to make an independent translation of the text since he provides guidance on how he reached his conclusions. Furthermore, since the original is now available on the web, one can have both the transcription and the original for easy comparison. He also provides a commentary on each of the songs in the collection, noting historical figures that appear in the text along with a synopsis of the song, and additional remarks. Unlike the extensive concordance in the Cantares, here Bierhorst has provided a concordance only for proper nouns. The volume is helpful for the transcription of the text, but less so for the translation. Bierhorst has accomplished a great deal in this work. It builds naturally on his work with the Cantares. For scholars, this book is an extremely valuable contribution. For the casual reader or persons not comfortable with Nahuatl translation, the book should be used with...