Anatomy of a Translation 1.1: Getting the Meaning

I’m presently working on translations of Mayan and Aztec poetry (for a volume titled Flower, Song, Dance), and several people have asked me about my process. As a result, I’ve decided to break down the translation of a relatively short Nahuatl poem from Cantares Mexicanos, one of the few existing codices that contain Aztec verse. It comes from folio 10, and Garibay titles it “Cuarto poema de Tecayehuatzin” or “Fourth Poem of Tecayehuatzin,” a ruler, poet and philosopher in the city of Huexotzinco. Here’s the Nahuatl version (my normative revision of Garibay’s paleographic rendering).

Xōchitl tzetzelihuitoc in.
Mā onnehtotīlo antocnīhuān huēhuētitlan.
Onchiyalo zan nēntlamati toyōlloh.
In zan cā yehhuān (-) tlā xic-ya-caquicān.
Ye huāltemo ilhuicatl ihtic
in cuīcatihuītz in. Quinānquilia (-)
ontlapītztihuītzeh.

Okay, so let me just jump in.

Line 1: xōchitl is “flower” and tzetzelihuitoc consists of the verb tzetzelihui (“scatters”) and the verbal suffix -toc (“lies X-ing”). In is just the article, which can also come after the noun or the verb. For inanimate objects there is just one form of the noun, which represents both the singular and the plural. Obviously a single flower can’t be scattered, so it must mean “the flowers lie scattering” or, more idiomatically rendered in English, “the flowers scatter.”

Line 2: is the optative particle (used to express a wish). On- is a directional prefix that indicates movement away from the speaker (or repetition/distance). Nehtotīlo is the impersonal form of ihtōtia, “to dance,” and it means “there is dancing/people dance.” So far, that gives me “may there be dancing.” Next I’ve got antocnīhuān, which literally means “you [are] our friends” (an- tocnī[uh] -huān), but here is used as a noun: “our/my friends.” Huēhuētitlan is a derivative of huēhuētl (“drum”) with a locative suffix, so it means something like “among/near/by the drums.” The second part of this line, then, is “my friends, near the drums.”

Line 3: Chiyalo is the passive of chiya, (“to await”), so it means “[he/she/it] is awaited, expected.” On- shows that this is distant from the speaker. Zan is “just, only.” Nēntlamati–> “he/she/it is anguished.” Toyōlloh–> “our heart/soul.” So… “he is awaited there; our hearts just suffer.”

Line 4: Here in is like “this.” is the third-person singular form of the verb “to be.” As a result, even though yehhuān ought to mean “they,” it’s being used as a singular pronoun, which typically happens when the poet’s referring to a god (and a gloss of the text assures us that “Dios” is being referred to). There’s lots of debate about why. The men writing these down were apparently editing out the names of Mexica deities, so there are often irregularities. Anyway, that’s “only this one is he,” or, more colloquially, “only it’s him.” Then we have tlā, which works like , expressing a wish or command. Xic-ya-caquicān is an imperative (xi- -c- caqui -cān –> imperative prefix, third person object pronoun, base 3 of verb “to listen,” plural suffix) with the adverb ya infixed (variant of ye, meaning “already”). Altogether, that’s “only it’s him. Listen to him already.”

Line 5: Huāltemo–> “[he/she/it] descended” (the prefix huāl- indicates movement toward the speaker). Ilhuicatl–> “heaven.” Ihtic–> “his/her/its interior.” So, “he descends from within heaven.”

Line 6: Cuīcatihuītz is the verb cuīca (“to sing”) with the verbal ending -tihuītz (“comes X-ing”): “comes singing.” Quinānquilia (c[i]- nānquilia)–> “they answer him.” So, “[as he] comes singing, they answer him.” (A gloss claims that those responding are angels.)

Line 7: Tlapītztihuītzeh is the verb “to blow [on a flute or trumpet]” with the verbal ending -tihuītzeh (“come X-ing”), basically meaning “they come trumpeting/playing their flutes.” Note the directional on- that signals distance from the speaker (and possibly the repetitive nature of the trumpeting). This line, then, is more or less “they come playing their flutes.”

Taken together, a literal translation of the poem would run as follows:

The flowers scatter.
May there be dancing, my friends, beside the drums.
He is awaited there. Our hearts just suffer.
Only it’s him. Listen to him already.
He descends from within heaven,
Singing as he comes. They answer him,
those who come playing their flutes.

But that’s not really a poem. I’ve stripped away all the rhythms and musicality of the original language. A reader fluent in English will have the gist of the song, but none of the magic. In part 2 of this anatomy of a translation, I’ll try to recapture some.

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  1. Pingback: Anatomy of a Translation 1.2: Crafting the Poem | David Bowles

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