Anatomy of a Translation 1.2: Crafting the Poem

I’m presently working on translations of Mayan and Aztec poetry (for a volume tentatively 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.

In part 1 of this anatomy of a translation, I went word-by-word through the Nahuatl poem and created a straightforward translation (stripped bare of musicality, rhythm, etc.):

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.

John Bierhort, who translated all of the Cantares, has the following:

Flowers are sprinkling down. Let there be dancing beside the drum, O friends. Whom do we await? Our hearts are grieving. He’s the one. It’s God! Hear him! He descends from heaven, singing. Angels echo him. They come fluting.

The language is less literal, more ecstatic, but the translation still doesn’t flow like poetry to my ear, and I’m not all that keen on including the glosses as part of the poem.

Garibay’s Spanish translation feels more poetic:

Flores están esparciendo,
sea el baile, amigos míos, allí junto a los tambores.
Allí es festejado: nuestros corazones sufren
Pero es él…oídlo ya;
viene de dentro del cielo.
Viene cantando y le responden
los que están aquí tañendo flautas.

Plan of attack. Aztec poetry did not follow the same sorts of prosodic customs as much traditional Western verse. Rhyme was used, but not in any perceivable scheme. As for meter, many poems tended to have lines of about 4 beats and 8 to 10 syllables, but others had longer lines, and many alternated long and short lines without discernible patterns. Stanzas were of varying length and often indicated refrains. But we know most existing poems were set to music and accompanied by dance, so I find it meaningful when crafting my versions to use some basic rhythmic scheme (while allowing myself absolute freedom on other matters of prosody).

For this particular piece, which makes explicit mention of the huehuetl drum, I am opting for a more trochaic rhythm (a patter of stressed-unstressed syllable that rolls along percussively), with about 3 or 4 beats per line. This structure will help sharpen my diction as well, I hope.

First attempt

Flowers have been scattered:
Let the dance begin, my friends,
Yonder by the beating drums.
Everyone awaits Him there—
Anguish rules our hearts.

Hark! It’s him…listen close…
Dropping down from heaven’s bourn,
Singing as he nears—
Round about, the unseen conches
Echo every note.

You can see that I broke up some of the longer lines (2, 3, 6), keeping the number of beats consistently 3 or 4 per line. The need for trochees pushed me into different word choices (yonder, everyone, dropping) and some more interesting syntax. I’m not perfectly satisfied with this version (the contraction at the beginning of the second stanza feels out of place, and I’m not inspired by the very first or fourth line), but overall I like the direction it’s going.

Second attempt

Flowers have been scattered:
Let the dance begin, my friends,
Yonder by the beating drums.
All of them await His presence—
Anguish rules our hearts.

Hark! He comes…Creation’s Lord…
Dropping down from heaven’s bourn,
Singing as he nears—
Round about, the unseen conches
Echo every note.

I tweaked line four so there was a clearer contrast between the feelings of the observed and the ones observing (indicated in Nahuatl by the prefix on-). In line six I realized that “hark” and “listen close” were too redundant, and the whole line was too casual for such a sober moment. I also wanted to do more than simply hint at the identity of the god arriving (probably Tezcatlipoca, originally).

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of a Translation 1.1: Getting the Meaning | David Bowles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.