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

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.


  1. Celia Sack
    March 16, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    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. Marc Brenman
    March 17, 2018 at 12:55 am

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

  3. Popol Vu
    March 18, 2018 at 9:23 am

    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. Wendi Maloney
    March 19, 2018 at 11:00 am

    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. Wendi Maloney
    March 19, 2018 at 11:13 am

    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.

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