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Flower, Song, and Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry
David Bowles
Lamar University Press
146 Pages; Paper, $18.95 (

When it comes to ancient Mesoamerican verse, two familiar western points of critical reference can immediately be thrown out: one, the structures and rhythms that govern most of the poetry we consider as foundation-work (even Homer, Virgil, and the Beowulf poet) do not exist in Aztec and Mayan poetry. The familiar tools of scansion cannot be used. And two, there is no Rosetta Stone that will allow us to do a direct, word-for-word translation.

In his book Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, David Bowles has followed in the footsteps of Ángel Garibay, John Bierhorst, Earl and Sylvia Shorris, Miguel León-Portilla, and Thelma Sullivan. Bowles has translated into English, selections from the three primary codices of Mesoamerican verse: The Cantares Mexicanos (Songs of Mexico); Romances de los senores de la Neuva Espana (Ballads of the Lords of New Spain); and Los Cantares de Dzitbalche (Songs of Dzitbalche). In addition, Bowles has also included some translations from some of the smaller codices that are less well-known.

But following in the footsteps of those other translators is not precisely an accurate statement. The codices noted above are written in Nahuatl and Mayan. Like any other translation, even that statement has caveats. For instance, The Cantares Mexicanos (written using Roman letter equivalents of Nahuatl) was most likely put on paper between 1585 and 1597 by native transcribers under the direction of Benardino de Sahagun, a missionary-ethnographer. Equivalency is an important word here and not entirely accurate. Nahuatl and Mayan are both logo-syllabic type of languages. Nahuatl (which was the lingua franca of the Mesoamerican world for centuries) was not a “simple” sound-symbolic alphabet. It was more of a rebus-style/pictographic alphabet where nouns and verbs could have multiple visual representations—or one set of symbols could have multiple meanings. In some cases, the symbols were associative, that is, the meanings would be derived by the symbols they were sitting next to. And in some cases they were stacked, that is, a word could be added to a word could be added to another word, all of which might result in a whole new word or metaphoric concept. And while it can be argued that all languages are meant to be tied to sounds, which does not necessarily appear to be true for Nahuatl or Mayan.

When it comes to the translators listed, even more explanations are necessary. Bierhorst, in his book In the Trail of the Wind (1971), indicates that the “ideal translation is the lexical, or word for word rendering; but as this rarely yields readable English, the translator resorts to what might properly be called a literal version.” He adds, “A third approach is to completely recast the text in a new mold; thus, the so-called free translation.” Bierhorst himself admits he takes the more literal version. But Bierhorst takes the approach that the Aztec and Mayan poetry is more along the lines of a Plains Indian Ghost Dance model, an echo back to what the culture was, and not what currently existed at the time of writing. Garibay and Leon-Portilla, recognized as leaders in the field of Mesoamerican translations, translated mostly into Spanish—but they too did not approach the source material from a poetic vantage point. The Shorrises, as poetic as much as their work was, did most of their translations into English from the Gariby and Leon-Portilla texts. In the forefront of all translators was Thelma Sullivan who had probably done the most complete and sensitive work from The Cantares (and other sources). Even including Sullivan, these translators generally approached the original (or translated) codices from the attitude of historians, anthropologists, or ethnographers and then tried to build in the poetic machinery and analysis. Bowles has approached the sources as a poet first, then a translator/historian.

The explanation about prior translators and the codices themselves are crucial to understanding exactly what Bowles has attempted to accomplish. There are problems inherent in any translation but...