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  • UntranslationThe Popol Wuj and Comparative Methodology
  • Nathan C. Henne (bio)

[R]eading . . . can never be reduced to what is read.

—Roger Chartier

Any competent account of American genesis is bound to center on the Popol Vuh [spelled in the old orthography]. . . . The reasons for this are several but quite simple. The Popol Vuh tells the Fourth World [the Americas] story of creation legibly and at length and in a fashion that draws ingeniously on the native-script tradition from which it claims to have been transcribed. Stemming as it does from the middle of Mesoamerica, it serves as an un-rivaled point of reference for cosmogonical texts from cultures to west and east, and beyond that, from North and South America. . . . Offering a critique of the Popol Vuh means searching for the heart of native America, which in turn means raising philosophical questions that have appeared fundamental over millennia.

—Gordon Brotherston, Book of the Fourth World [End Page 107]

For all the reasons Brotherston offers above, the Maya K’ichePopol Wuj1 has long served as the anchor of Mesoamerican studies. Yet the Popol Wuj account of the “creation” differs radically from the standard line in other Mesoamerican literature. These differences provide the taking-off point for this article and offer a window onto some of the complications and opportunities involved in translating indigenous American texts. Specifically, the “creation” scene of the Popol Wuj depends on an abstract poetics that contrasts sharply with the concrete descriptions of the inceptions of the world in other Mesoamerican texts. My contention here is that stark differences like these often stem from translation and reading practices founded on Western philosophies and not from actual stark differences in these particular cultural artifacts across the region. Understanding the complications in translation that led to these differences can help us learn to read indigenous American texts through a less distorted lens. In the following pages I compare various translations of the “creation” passage in the Popol Wuj to illustrate how the significant differences among the translation choices expose a bigger complication in the translation of indigenous texts.

Commonly called “the oldest book in the Americas,” the Popol Wuj certainly meets the criteria for this name if we adhere to what the term “book” means in the strict Western sense. Though many of the extant versions of Mesoamerican codices2 (four of them Maya3) and some other nonbook (but fairly long) hieroglyphic inscriptions on other surfaces predate this version of the Popol Wuj, these do not have the narrative unity of the Popol Wuj and, as such, do not seriously challenge this designation in the comparative context of other “books.” Because of this narrative unity, the Popol Wuj is often used to anchor in pre-Contact4 times the oral traditions of other American peoples. This is possible for two main reasons: first, a significant philosophical continuity exists in the American languages and literatures across the continent; second, the Maya recorded much of their literature in a highly sophisticated writing system that could not be completely destroyed by the ravages of the colonial era—though, of course, much of it was wiped out in the version of the Inquisition that took place in the Americas.5 However, in this article, I primarily concern myself with the continuity the Popol Wuj anchors across only the Mesoamerican portion of the Americas. [End Page 108]

Although the earliest extant version dates from 1703, the Popol Wuj certainly was a book in the most traditional sense of the word almost two centuries before that. The 1703 manuscript was copied by the Spanish priest Francisco Ximénez in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, from a mid-sixteenth-century text. The sixteenth-century text from which it was copied had been secretly written by Maya scribes using Latinate characters adapted by priests at the time of Contact to represent, somewhat crudely, the sounds of the K’iche’ language. However, this version was probably also a copy of sorts, from a pre-Contact text in the form of a hieroglyphic screenfold codex that had survived the book bonfires of the Spanish clergy.6 The process of “copying” this sixteenth-century manuscript from...


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