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  • How ‘Bout Them Sapotes?Mendicant Translations and Maya Corrections in Early Indigenous Theologies
  • Garry Sparks (bio)

indigenous theology, ideology, doctrinal and pastoral discourse, K’iche’

The encounter with the Americas posed new challenges for European translators, who struggled to render Christian concepts into non-Indo-European and non-Semitic languages. The most influential treatise on translation published between the late medieval period and early modernity, Étienne Dolet’s 1540 essay La manière de bien traduire d’une langue en aultre, outlined five basic principles for translation.1 Historians of translation theory have argued that these principles were already used in Iberia by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially translations of Jewish and Muslim texts from classical languages into Castilian and Catalan (Cartagena 2009).2 Furthermore, the influence of Erasmus’s humanism—which stressed rhetoric and philology, critical interpretation of texts, and studies of classical and vernacular languages—led to the production of the first systemic grammars and lexicons in Iberia on Latin, Castilian, and Arabic around the turn of the [End Page 213] sixteenth century.3 Attention to humanist language ideologies coincided with the political consolidation of Spain and conversion efforts toward historic Jewish and Muslim populations. As these early translators attempted to apply the humanism of the Reconquista in Spain to the peoples of Conquista in New Spain and Peru,4 they began to develop new translation strategies for a distinct register of doctrinal and pastoral discourse. Unlike other populations in Eurasia or northern Africa before the 1500s, some indigenous peoples of the Americas quickly appropriated the missionaries’ scripts and genres to write their own texts, which aimed to autochthonously correct mendicant translations. As a result, for the first time in the history of Christian thought, this paper trail provides not only a transmission history written by missionaries as the proverbial victors but also a reception history by subaltern elites and, thus, discloses older antecedents for critical studies of current religions in the Americas.

Translating Catholicisms

Unlike Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew, the American languages that mendicants used did not have phonetic writing systems, with the exception of the lowland Maya.5 Instead, indigenous civilizations such as the Aztec and Mixtec recorded their histories in pictographic books or elaborate cartographies, while the Inka kept records via khipus (threads of tied knots). The language ideologies in the Americas thus posed unique puzzles for early mendicant translators. After developing an alphabetic script with native-speaking collaborators, mendicants produced translations of popular devotional literature such as catechisms, confessional aids, and sermons for educated native elites and fellow clergy. In central Mexico and the Andes this occurred through two main regulatory mechanisms. The first, beginning in the 1530s, was the establishment of schools for children of indigenous nobility. The second of these mechanisms was the production of standardized doctrinal and pastoral texts in indigenous languages approved by the bishops’ synods for use by all clergy and enforced by the Spanish Inquisition after the 1570s. The result was the development of a distinct register of language that intentionally drew upon colloquial indigenous speech as well as the formal rhetoric, [End Page 214] poetics, and idioms used by indigenous nobility in pre-Hispanic ceremonial discourse reserved for speaking about or to gods and ancestors. Historian Alan Durston refers to this register by Dominicans and Jesuits in colonial Peru as pastoral Quechua (2007), and subsequent scholars of early colonial Mexico have followed Durston in referring to the development of a pastoral or doctrinal Nahuatl by Franciscans and pastoral Q’eqchi’ and K’iche’ by Dominicans (Romero 2012a; 2012b; 2015).

However, absence of phonetic writing systems continued to cause problems among the Andean population. Clergy translated catechisms into pictographic books for indigenous readers to use as mnemonic devices that transmitted the basics of Catholicism. Pictographic doctrinal materials were also produced in central Mexico, where it has been conventionally thought that early mendicants used pictographic translations of popular Catholic texts to transition Nahua readers from a pre-Hispanic iconography to an alphabetic mode of literacy.6 Thus, two preliminary generalizations can be made. First, that while a pastoral register of discourse was developed in collaboration with native speakers, the functional translation of...


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