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Pic of the Week: Team of Linguists Translate Rare Mayan-Language Manuscript

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Photo by Shawn Miller.

On March 13 and 14, an international team of linguists visited the Library of Congress to transcribe and translate, for the first time, the “Guatemalan Priests Handbook,” a rare and important manuscript in the Library’s Jay I. Kislak Collection.

Dating from the early 16th century, the manuscript is written in several indigenous Mayan languages. The visiting linguists, experts in the earliest Christian theologies written in the Americas, were Saqijix Candelaria Lopez Ixcoy of Guatemala’s Universidad Rafael Landivar, an authority on the manuscript’s ancient k’iche language; Sergio Romero of the University of Texas, Austin; Frauke Sachse of the University of Bonn; and Garry Sparks of George Mason University.

“They are a truly amazing group whose handle on ancient Maya languages is perhaps unparalleled,” said John Hessler, curator of the Kislak Collection. “As someone who has struggled to understand some of these indigenous languages, I am in awe.”

Frauke Sachse and Saqijix Candelaria Lopez Ixcoy study the manuscript. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Comments (6)

  1. Incredible! Where on earth was this unearthed? And do you think it was written by Mayans, or by Spaniards who were translating oral instructions.

  2. Why aren’t they wearing white cotton gloves, which is standard practice for handling old artifacts?

  3. The Mayans had creation myths and stories very similar to other ancient civilizations. Its very hard….to say if they were somehow influenced by the spanish missionaries as they were being transcribed. The codexes layout a rich and beautifully envisioned world of the heart and soul of mayan culture.

  4. Response to Celia Sack from John Hessler, curator of the Kislak Collection:

    The manuscript was definitely written by a Spanish priest who was transliterating the ancient k’iche into Roman script sometime around 1550-60. It is one of the oldest surviving theological documents from the early contact period written in an indigenous language.

  5. Response to Marc Brenman from John Hessler:
    There are some instances where gloves are important and necessary, but with fragile paper like that found in this manuscript, the loss of dexterity is often more damaging. In this case, newly washed hands are enough.

  6. Response to Popol Vu from Garry Sparks:

    The antiquity of much of the mythic material in the Popol Wuj (Vuh in the colonial script) by K’iche’ Maya elites can be confirmed by the Maya archeological record (e.g., glyphic texts and images on ancient ceramics, murals, stelae, and, yes, even books such as the four surviving codices, though those seem to have more cosmogonic material (about the order and dynamics of the cosmos) rather than cosmogenesis material (about the origins or “creation” of the cosmos)).

    In other words, the bulk of the stories in the Popol Wuj predate the arrival Christianity to the region and are, thus, classically indigenous Mesoamerican though from a particularly K’iche’an perspective. However, given the fact that the Popol Wuj is written in a Latin (and Arabic) based alphabet, and makes explicit references to Christianity in the first and last pages, it is by definition a post-contact document. Most scholars place the writing and redaction dates of the Popol Wuj (by K’iche’ writers, in the K’iche’ Mayan language, for exclusively a K’iche’ audience/readership and not for the crown or clergy) at ca.1554-58 (i.e., 30 years after initial contact with Iberians). And the Popol Wuj arguably remains one of the–if not the–earliest if not also longest single set of religious stories written by any indigenous American people.

    This manuscript in the Kislak collection (item 1015) is written in the same alphabet as the Popol Wuj, uses many of the same key terms and phrases, and even references a couple of the same mythic characters found in the Popol Wuj. But its composition date is slightly earlier — ca.1552.

    Because of this proximity (in terms of language, historical period, and geography) this Kislak manuscript is almost as invaluable as the Popol Wuj in that sense that the two can be aligned with each other and studied with respect to
    (1) what the first Christian missionaries were pulling from Maya mythology as a partial basis to translate Christian concept to the Maya, and, in turn,
    (2) what aspects of the Christianity from these mendicants were seeping into early post-contact texts like the Popol Wuj, even implicitly or unwittingly, by Maya authors.

    In other words, because this Kislak manuscript affords us the rare chance of intertextual analysis between both contemporaneous missionary and indigenous accounts we can actually begin to answer the very question that you’ve raised regarding “if they [early post-contact Maya writers] were somehow influenced by the spanish missionaries as they [Maya myths] were being transcribed.” In fact, this appears to be the earliest set of such textual evidence that allows for this kind of intertextual analysis within the history of Christianity, in addition to within studies of religions of indigenous peoples of the Americas.

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