The Popul Vuh: Comparing and Contrasting Three Different Translations of the Second Creation

The Popul Vuh, a 16th century text from Santa Cruz Quiché in highland Guatemala, is seen as the great literary work of the Quiché Maya.  It is the story of a people, a compendium of myths, legends, and history.

“Every act of translation is also an act of interpretation, translators interpret an already interpreted text in order to further interpret it” (Tedlock 1989:407).


Anthropologists specializing in the study of the Maya, both modern and ancient, have used the document to promote Maya cultural continuity and authenticity.

Events in the Popul Vuh have been linked to iconography and art from as early as the Middle Preclassic in the Maya lowlands (600 B.C.) (Hansen 1992:141), to ritual events among the modern Maya, such as the Zinacantecos (1990 Vogt:111).  Aside from the reliability of using the document to explain cultures from a different area and in a time far removed from the period the document was written in, the Popul Vuh is not purely Maya.  There are strong Nahuatl and Spanish influences in the document (Edmonson 1985:130).  This paper takes a step back from the controversies surrounding the Popul Vuh and assesses three different English translations of a section known as the Second Creation.  These translations are Edmonson’s (1971), Tedlock’s (1996), and Goetz and Morley’s translation (1960) of Recinos’s Spanish translation of the Quiché text.  Striking differences are apparent when comparing these translations. This is partly due to the ambiguities in written Quiché and partly due to the aims of the translator in translating the document and the type of audience to which the translation is intended.  My research has highlighted the importance in comparing as many translations of the same text as possible (if one is not able to work from the original text), when trying to puzzle together the original structure and content of a document under study.

The nature of the Popul Vuh itself is unknown, though it is assumed to have been a hieroglyphic codex.  The document was committed to alphabetic writing, between 1550-1555, in Santa Cruz Quiché, by most probably a member of the leading lineage of the Quiché, the Kavek lineage. The original is now lost, but in the early 18th century it was found at Chichicastenango, and copied and translated by a Dominican Father, Francisco Ximénez, who was the town’s parish priest between 1701-1703 (Edmonson 1971:vii).  There are concerns over the nature of the original Popul Vuh; how authentic was the translation into alphabetic writing, how good was the translator and how faithful to the text was the translator?  Was the document to be read, recited or performed?   Did the original come from an oral tradition where the narrative would never match word-for-word each time it was recited?  There are also additions to the text and as mentioned, Nahuatl words and influence as well as European influence.  The document was more than likely several pieces of work that were added to, altered, left out or lost, and moved around within the text as a whole. What parts of the text then is essentially Precolumbian Quiché?

Translating the Popul Vuh

The Popul Vuh has been translated from Quiché 13 times, each translation having its own merits and inadequacies (see Edmonson 1971:ix for the first 11).  My paper compares three of these translations from Quiché to English.  The second and third creations are seen to be the most Mayan, relating the activities of the Hero Twins as tricksters (Class notes 2004).  For this reason I have chosen the Second Creation, using Edmonson’s organization of the text (1971:32-57).  I will be using Edmonson’s work as the basis for comparison and the terminology he employs will be followed.  The Second Creation covers the last page of Part 1 and all of Part 2 in Tedlock’s (1996:73-88) edition, and Part I, Chapter 4 to Chapter 9 in Goetz and Morley’s English translation from Recinos’s Spanish translation (1950:93-106).  There is debate over whether the Popul Vuh was originally divided up, either structurally or by content.   Tedlock and Recinos both agree that it was not broken up in any way.  To enhance readability however, both have divided it by content, Tedlock into five parts and Recinos into four parts, which are further subdivided into chapters. Recinos has followed this division as he considered this arrangement the most logical and coherent (1950:XIV). Yet, Edmonson states that the text was clearly paragraphed every hundred lines or so with a large dark indented capital and so has reproduced these divisions (1971:xiii).  He also gives these divisions titles suggestive of their subject manner in a table of contents, though they were untitled in the manuscript.  The Second Creation appears to be mixed up with the Third Creation, and it is likely that both were originally one single text with the contents of the Third Creation preceding the Second Creation (Class notes 2004).

Before comparing these translations mention should be made of the constraints within the language of the document. The Popul Vuh was probably written in an ancestral (parent language) of the Quiché (Class notes 2004).   When copied it was written in a Latin-derived alphabet which has resulted in difficulties for the translators.  Certain features of the language are not expressed, for example, vowel length, glottal consonants (except the b (p’)), and a palatal and a uvular stop (k and q) are not distinguished consistently (Edmonson 1971:xiii).  Edmonson illustrates the worst-case scenario; a word appearing as “cac” may be, “k’ak” (new or angry); “k’aq” (designate); “kak'” (a wild fruit), “kak” (castrate or lie); “kaq'” (bump); “kaq” (red); “q’ak” (retire or flea); “q’aq'” (fire); “qak” (hunt); “qa ‘ak'”(our chicken); “qa’aq” (our pig); “k aq'” (their tongues); or “q aq'” (our tongues) (Edmonson 1971:xiii). This example clearly highlights how translations of a single text can be so different!  Other ambiguities relate to metaphors and diphrastic kennings, expressions that mean something to the particular culture concerned but are not readily translatable in our culture.  A Yucatec Maya example is “rope and cord” meaning “war” (Edmonson and Bricker 1985:60).  The Quiché language can often evoke rather than express the rich symbolism of the Quiché culture and some elements of Quiché style are difficult to reproduce in English, for example puns (Edmonson 1971:xii).

There are several measures one should take before assessing these translations.  Firstly, one needs to identify the resources that were used in translating the document.  More importantly, does the translator use the copy of the original Quiché text for the translation or a translated text into his or hers native language?  If the copy of the original Quiché document is used what dictionaries were relied on, and did the translator have recourse to other resources such as ethnographies or modern informants?  Edmonson used the copy of the original Quiché document, colonial sources, and ethnographies of the Quiché culture.  As well as compiling his own dictionary, Edmonson used colonial dictionaries, which are not without their own ambiguities.

Tedlock, being an ethnographer, used a native informant to help in the translation and he relies on the modern Quiché language in translating the copy of the original document.  Tedlock is a Quiché speaker and so there was not any mediator working between the native informant and Tedlock.  Yet, modern Quiché and modern informants may be unreliable.  Modern Quiché is very different from Classical Quiché and so this can lead to incorrect translations.  Modern informants of the Quiché language can give a false etymology if they can’t recognize a word, and may often say what they feel is going to please the researcher, to fit what he or she is looking for (Class notes 2004).   Tedlock readily acknowledges that Mayan hieroglyphic texts were another source of information used in his translation (1996:16).  It is necessary, however, to keep control over space and time.  Reaching for other manuscripts from other areas, for example Oaxaca, to help decipher the text is not a valid approach; the culture spoke an unrelated language and lived far away from the highlands of Guatemala.  Conversely, nor is it valid to use Quiché texts to decipher Classic Maya lowland glyphs (Class notes 2004).  The Classic lowland Maya were far removed in space and time from the 16th century Quiché.

Using an English translation of the Spanish translation from the original Quiché text is obviously taking one more step further away from the original.  Goetz and Morley’s translation does this and it is my understanding that they did not go back to the Quiché text but relied only on Recinos’s Spanish translation. Thus Recinos is the author of the work and I will be treating the English translation as an exact copy of the Spanish version.  Translating from modern Spanish to modern English is a much more straightforward exercise.  It is inevitable that there would have been some interpretation in Goetz and Morley’s translation, but I see it as negligible.  Recinos used the copy of the original Quiché text and relies heavily on the Abbé Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg‘s 1861 translation into French, the second person to copy the document.  He also used Quiché and Kaqchikel dictionaries compiled by the Spanish missionaries (Recinos 1950:XIII).  It should be mentioned that it is unfortunate I cannot compare the translations to the original Quiché, not being speaker of the language, as this would have given me further insight into the translations.  I do believe though that comparing the English translations is a worthwhile and fruitful exercise.

The second measure one should take before assessing these translations is identifying the reasons for the translation.  Translations are always biased to the aims and needs of the translator.  Poetic license also comes into play and the resulting translation can often be quite far removed from original text.   It is important then to be aware of the rational behind these translations.  Edmonson sees the Popul Vuh as primarily a work of literature and of poetry, it cannot be accurately understood in prose.  He states that the document is entirely composed in parallelistic (semantic) couplets.  Indeed, ambiguity may be reduced if the author is writing completely in couplets and so this is what he does (1971:xi).  Edmonson’s main reason for translating the Popul Vuh was to address its style; none of the previous translations have dealt with this aspect.  He has used the preferred order of the English sentence to preserve the poetry of the Popul Vuh.  He also took liberties with Quiché grammar, transitive and active verbs are changed to passive and intransitive so that the parallelism would work better.   His interest is primarily ethnological rather than linguistic (1971:xi).   Edmonson acknowledges that he is not proficient in Mam, Yucatec, Nahuatl, or a speaker of Quiché. He is interested purely in a literal translation of style and not interpretation.  As commendable it is to produce a literal translation and keep the Mayan narrative style, Edmonson’s translation is not without its limitations.  Firstly, the literal word-for-word translation can be stilted and incomprehensible in places.  Metaphors and kennings need not be literally translated and at times a figurative translation is better (see example 14, pp.14).  Secondly, although in agreement with Edmonson that much of the Popul Vuh is in couplets, not all of it is.  At times couplets are forced together which can narrow the scope and meaning of the text.  The text being divided into lines works well for tight couplets that are semantic/syntactic parallels and even ones that are partially so.  Yet this does not work so well for triplets or with a line that has no semantic/syntactic parallelism with the previous line (Class notes 2004).

Recinos, in his preface, tells us when comparing the original text transcribed by Ximénez with the text published by Brasseur de Bourbourg, he noted “some differences, important omissions, and other changes which affect the interpretation of the Quiché document” (1950:xiii).  This stimulated him to undertake a new version direct from the original Quiché into Spanish and he wrote this as prose.  He mentions that at that time there was no complete English version of the document, and Morley became interested in rectifying this, although Morley does not explain how he went about the translation in his foreword in the book.  It is not exactly clear the roles that Goetz and Morley played in the translation, though it is likely that Goetz was the translator and Morley was the editor (Bricker personal communication 2004). Recinos was not interested in etymology and so avoided dealing with it (1950:XIV).

Tedlock is interested in how the Popul Vuh was performed.  He focuses on the modern Quiché and their ritual cycles to explain the text.  He uses the structure of modern Maya blessings and prayers as a model to follow, and this is why the text is written as prose.  The structure of modern Maya songs is different; these are often in couplet form (Class notes 2004).

Tedlock does divide the text though into paragraphs, lines and quotes. Repetition and parallelism does exist although it is kept to a minimum.  This is peculiar as repetition gives force to a performance and so it would have been more appropriate to leave it in.  As stated previously the text does have a couplet structure, but this is not used in trying to understand the text and thus patterns that are present are missed.  Tedlock emphasizes certain lines in how these would have been performed in a play, but he does not state how or why he singles out these particular lines.  We have no information on what a performance of the Popul Vuh would have been like.  Tedlock believes that the document mainly refers to a Precolumbian text, which was used in both the Maya highlands and lowlands.  The terminology he employs, combined with the illustrations in the book, supports this view (see examples 26-28, pp.18).

Finally, it is necessary to know what kind of audience the translation is for.  This can greatly influence the style and content of the work.  The Middle American Research Institute, a scholarly publication series, published Edmonson’s research.  His audiences were primarily academics and specialists in the field.  This factor is reflected in how the text was organized.  The original Quiché text is placed side-by-side the English translation and footnotes are given mentioning equivalent translations.  He tries to present the text and the translation in a form, which clarifies the problems they present.  He adheres to the Mayan narrative style keeping the semantic and syntactic parallelism, thus showing how the text could have been recited (parallelism replaces the rhyme).  Specialists in the field may prefer a literal and objective translation, one that they can work from to answer their own research questions.

The University of Oklahoma Press published Recinos’s translation, so at the outset it may appear to be a mix between a purely scholarly report and that of a bestseller.  Recinos states that, “in both the Spanish and English version of the Popul Vuh, I have tried to keep to the original text and to adjust myself strictly to the peculiarities of the Quiché language“(1950:XIII).   He stresses that didn’t want to give a literary form more pleasing to the modern reader, as this would taint the fidelity of the translation.  He also states that he tried to preserve the original construction in its passive forms and its frequent repetitions, and spelling is that of the original text (1950:XIII).  Yet, in assessing his translation, it is strikingly apparent that Recinos often interprets and modifies the text.  Words are made more evocative to satisfy the general reader.  He also changes terms to make them more amenable to the modern, Western audience (see examples 16-25, pp.15-17), and his footnotes are extremely brief.  His translation is not something that specialists in the field could analyze and work from.  Interestingly, Recinos’s book was reprinted recently (2003), Goetz now being the first author.  The change in format further supports my conclusions.  A commercial publishing house (Dover publications) rather than a university published the work.  The printed book definitely has a “bestseller” appearance and it is now illustrated throughout.  The book’s title has been changed from “Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya” to “Popul Vuh: The Book of the Ancient Maya”.  The new title reflects the document’s ties with the Classic Maya, rather than the Quiché in particular. Indeed, the photograph on the front cover of the book depicts a Maya figure from a Classic Maya lowland site (Lintel 26, Yaxchilan (Graham and Von Euw 1977:57)), clearly showing the Popul Vuh to be of Classic Maya origin.

Tedlock’s translation is the most recent of the three and as the title of his book states, it is “The definitive edition of the Mayan book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings” (1996).  It is evident from the title that the book is aimed at the general audience.  Simon and Schuster, a popular publishing company, published the work. The front cover depicts a rollout of a scene from a Classic lowland Maya vase and the text is interspersed with similar rollouts (though many without provenience), and scenes from various codices.  Maya iconography and sculptures from all over the Maya area from the Classic though to the Postclassic period are also shown. All the representations are supposed to imitate events in the Popul Vuh, and so together they verify its importance for the ancient Maya, it’s antiquity and its authenticity.   The Mayan narrative style is forsaken for readability, making it less of a strict translation.  As mentioned, Tedlock uses the modern Quiché language to translate the Popul Vuh.  The native informant translates and explains many of the words and phrases.  One positive aspect of using a modern informant is that some metaphors and diphrastic kennings that are intrinsic to Maya culture might be picked up (see example 3, pp. 9-10).  Notes are located at the end of the book if the general reader is further interested.  The location of the notes then is appropriate for the layperson but not for the scholar, who would usually prefer notes with the text.

The Second Creation

The Second Creation: Synopsis

            The Second Creation involves the trickster cycle, and the destruction of 7 Parrot, Alligator and 2 Leg (a father and his two sons) by the Hero Twins, Hunter and Jaguar Deer.  The Hero Twins and Alligator are seen as tricksters, figures common in New World myths, they are partly clowns, partly culture heroes and can also be divine (Class notes 2004).  Hunter and Jaguar Deer wound 7 Parrot.  They invoke grandparents who pretend to cure 7 Parrot with replacing his teeth with corn.  They cure his eyes by removing the metal in his head and in doing so, removed his greatness and he died.  Hunter and Jaguar Deer then take on Alligator, but the story moves away first explaining the 400 boys episode (frequent digressions from the main story are common in Mesoamerican literature and hark back to an oral tradition (Class notes 2004)).  The 400 boys try to trick Alligator into digging his own grave, but he tricks them and digs an escape route.  He leaves his hair and nails for them, then kills the 400 boys by making their house collapse in on them when they became drunk.  The story then moves back to Hunter and Jaguar Deer.  The Hero Twins take advantage of the voracious appetite of Alligator and make a crab for him as bait.  Alligator enters the mountain to eat the crab, but can’t get back out and turns to stone.  Finally, Hunter and Jaguar Deer move onto 2 Leg who is lured by the aroma of the roasting of birds.  The twins feed him a bird coated with plaster (baked earth), and he eats it and loses his strength and is destroyed. He is bound and buried in the earth.  The section ends by summarizing the destruction of 7 Parrot, Alligator and 2 Leg (again, a common occurrence in Mesoamerican literature).

The Second Creation: The Translations

            In comparing the three translations I was struck by the amount of dissimilarities in their style and content.  Although, I am aware of the difficulties within the text itself, leaving the translator with often a dozen or more quite disparate meanings that may legitimately be proposed for a particular monosyllabic root (Edmonson 1971:xi; Tedlock 1992).  Rather then going through the text word-for-word I have highlighted the main differences giving pertinent examples.  The main themes that will be discussed are: ambiguities in the text, general style and content, and each translator’s idiosyncrasies, that is Edmonson’s literal translation in semantic couplets, Recinos’s elaboration and interpretation, and Tedlock’s interpretation and associations with the Classic Maya.  To explain some practicalities, Edmonson’s translation is abbreviated as E, Goetz and Morley’s translation of Recinos’s text as R, and Tedlock’s translation as T.  Page numbers are in brackets after the text.  I have also transcribed the texts in the same format as seen in each translation. Words in bold are the focus of my arguments.

Ambiguities in the Text: Third Person

One characteristic of the Quiché language is that there is no distinction between “she”, “he”, or “it”, in the third person form of the verb.  This makes it difficult to know exactly what is being referred to and to make gender distinctions. It is left to the translator’s discretion in what they think is most appropriate.  The two examples found in the text show that each translator chose a different third person pronoun.

  1. E: “I am its sun,

And I am its light.

And I am also its moon when there comes to be one.

Great is my brightness” (32)

R: “I am the sun, the light, the moon” he exclaimed. “Great is my splendor”(93)

T: “I am their sun and I am their light, and I am also their months. So be it, my light is great” (73)

More interestingly, in this example Tedlock has chosen to translate “moon” as “months”, perhaps indicating lunar months. This could be a reference to the Classic Maya way of counting time. Many dates were astronomically important for the Maya and they incorporated the Lunar Series, within their Initial Series on stelae and monuments. The Lunar Series included glyphs denoting the position of the month in the six-month lunar trimester, the number of days that have elapsed since the last New Moon, and whether the current month will have 29 or 30 days (Bricker and Bricker 1998:198).

Interpreting the “moon” as “month” is seen again below:

  1. E: As 7 Parrot was boasting about suns

And moons (34).

R: Therefore, Vucub-Caquix

Became as vain as though he were the sun and the moon (94)

T: And so Seven Macaw puffs himself up as the days and the months (74)

“K’in” means “sun” or “day” in Yucatec Maya and the word also appears as a Classic Maya glyph. Again, Tedlock is associating the text with the ancient Maya.

A second example of the third person pronoun:

  1. E: “If you are lucky

You can probably eat him.

He just bit us.

We tried to catch him,

But we were afraid of him

Unless he has gone, you will catch him” (50)

R: “and it would be well if you would eat it! Only

it bit us when we tried to catch it and so we were afraid. We

won’t try to catch it for anything” (103)

T: “Perhaps you might manage to eat her. We were just getting bitten. We

wanted to catch her, but we got scared by her.  If she hasn’t gone away

you could catch her” (84)

This is an excellent example of the use of a Mayan metaphor.  The Hero Twins are referring to the crab they have made and are enticing Alligator to eat it.  The crab has a sexual connotation amongst the modern Quiché and according to Tedlock’s informant; hunger is a Quiché metaphor for sexual appetite (1996:246).  Tedlock has then tried to make the sexual dimension more obvious by using feminine pronouns for the crab. The whole scene below becomes a symbolic parody of sexual intercourse:

In going into the cave to catch the crab:

E: “So it would be good for you to crouch” (51)

R: “So, then, it is best that

you crawl in”(103)

T: “So you’d better enter on your back” (85)

E: He just wished

That it would go in his mouth,

Because he was really famished.

He wanted to eat it.

He tried to get down flat.

He tried to go in crouching,

And the crab was walking alone

So he came back out again (52)

R: “I should have it in my mouth already!” And he was dying of hunger. He

wanted to try to crawl in, he wanted to enter, but the crab was

climbing. He came out at once (103)

T: He wishes she were already in his

mouth, so she could really cure his hunger.  He wanted to eat her, he just

wanted it face down, he wanted to enter, but since the crab got on top

of him with her back down, he came back out (85)

Tedlock has made the sexual connotation quite explicit and this is where Edmonson’s literal translation falls short.  It continues:

E: “Didn’t you get it?” he was asked then.

“Not at all.

He is just crouching.

He was walking.

Just at first by a narrow margin

I didn’t get him.

So it would probably be good

If I go in upside down,” he said then.

And so he crouched again

When he went down.

And when he got down in

Only his kneecap showed there any longer.

It was finally made to come undone

And it collapsed (52)

R: “Did you not

get it?”

“No,” he answered, “because he was going up and I almost

caught him. But perhaps it would be good if I go in from above,”

he added.  And then he entered again from above, but as he was

almost inside, with only the soles of his feet showing, the great

hill slid and fell slowly down his chest (103)

T: “You didn’t reach her”? He was asked.

“No indeed-she was just getting on top with her back down.  I just

barely missed her on the first try, so perhaps I’d better enter on my

back,” he replied

After that he entered again, on his back. He entered all the way – only

his kneecaps were showing now! He gave a last sigh and was calm (85)

Tedlock’s informant stated that the crab was clearly a woman, as a man enters a woman on her back.  He suggested that the scene describes the trial runs for sexual intercourse (1996:248).  The humour is not lost here as he enters all the way to his kneecaps!  This scene is reminiscent of the ritual humour among the Tzotzil (Bricker 1973).  There is no distinction between the sacred and the profane and often the most serious of rituals involve sexual innuendo and humour.  I believe that Tedlock’s interpretation is correct and gives us insight into ancient Quiché humour.  This example also highlights the limitations that a word-for-word literal translation can give.  Edmonson’s translation obviously does not make the metaphor obvious and Recinos makes no mention of it in his footnotes.

Literal Translations of Names

Names of people, animals, and places are translated in different ways by the authors. Recinos in keeping with the text does not translate these names, retaining the Quiché.  Edmonson normally translates the Quiché name into English giving the general term. Tedlock is inconsistent, sometimes the Quiché is kept and other times the Quiché is translated.  When Tedlock does translate he tries to give a more specific term.

  1. E: But there was one who glorified himself,

7 Parrot by name (32)

R: Nevertheless there was a being called Vucub-Caquix who was very proud of himself (93)

T: But there was one who magnified himself; Seven Macaw is his name (73)

In the above excerpt, Recinos does not translate the name of the person, leaving it as “Vucub-Caquix”.  Edmonson gives a literal rendering, translating the name as “7 Parrott”.  Tedlock is more specific, giving a type of parrot that prevails in the Maya area.  A similar example is given below:

  1. E: Great White Pig was the grandfather’s name (39)

R: The old man was called Zaqui-Nima-Tziis (97)

T: Great White Peccary is the name of the grandfather (79)

  1. E: By the two sons.

Hunter was the name of one.

Jaguar Deer was the name of the second. (34) two youth, the

First of whom we call Hunahpú and the second, Xbalanqué (94)

T: By the two boys, the first named Hunahpu and the second names Xbalanque (77)

In example 6, Tedlock does not translate the name.  The only reason I can offer in explanation is that he deemed the original Quiché names as more exotic and so left them in.

  1. E: Now this 7 Parrot

Had two sons

The first was a certain Alligator,

While the second was a certain 2 Leg,

And Shield Bearer was the name of their mother,

The wife of 7 Parrot (36)

R: Well, now Vacub-Caquix had two sons: the first was called Zipacná, the second was Cabracán; and the mother of the two was called Chimalmat, the wife of Vacub-Caquix (95)

T: And this Seven Macaw has two sons: the first of these is Zipacna, and

The second is Earthquake.  And Chimalmat is the name of their mother, the wife of Seven Macaw (77)

Here is an example where Recinos and Tedlock would have served the text better in translating  “Zipacna” as “Alligator” as Edmonson does (Class notes 2004). There are several occasions further on in the text where the name “Alligator” fits neatly into the context of the scene.  For example:

  1. E: Only fish,

            Only crabs

He would look for in the waters,

Just for his food every day, (49)

R: And he only hunted fish

             and crabs at the bank of the river, which were his daily food (102)

T:  It’s mere fish and crabs that Zipacna looks for in the waters, but he’s

eating everyday (84)

  1. E: And so Alligator

Was bathing at the edge of the water (43)

R: Zipacná was bathing at the edge of the river (99)

T: And this is Zipacna, bathing on the shore (81)

Translating the name “Zipacna” as “Alligator” makes much more sense in both contexts; an alligator looking for fish and crabs along the water and bathing along the shore. Edmonson’s literal translation works well here.

Edmonson’s Semantic Couplets and Literal Translation

In the majority of instances Edmonson’s coupling works well and can be quite expressive.  For instance, example 10:

  1. E: He was just drooling;

His mouth watered;

He just kept gulping

And swallowing

His spittle,

His juices

From the deliciousness of the birds (56)

R: ..they made his mouth water, he yawned, and the saliva

and spittle drooled because of the smell which the birds gave off (106)

T: ..his mouth just waters, he gulps

and slurps with spittle and saliva because of the fragrance of the birds (87)

  1. E: “We are just poor.

We have nothing at all, oh son.

Just little mountains, we travel, oh son

There is one big mountain that we saw

Just coming here

It was growing;

It was climbing really high.

It was just shooting up;

It goes way up beyond all the mountains,

And there weren’t even one

Or two birds

We could catch before it, oh son.

But is it really true that you fell all the mountains,

oh son?” (54)

R: We are poor and we have nothing, young man. We

only walk over the large and small mountains, young man, and

we have just seen a large mountain, over there where you see the

pink skyIt really rises up very high and overlooks the tops of

all the hills. So it is that we have not been able to catch even one or

two of the birds on it, boy. But, is it true that you can level all the mountains? (105)

T:”We’re just orphans, we have nothing to call our own, boy. We’re just making

our way among the mountains, small and great, boy.  And there’s one

great mountain we saw that’s just growing right along. It’s rising really

high! It’s just swelling up, rising above all other mountains.  And there

weren’t even one or two birds to be found, boy. So how could it be

that you destroy all mountains, boy?” (86)

Example 11 also shows the effectiveness of using couplets.  Indeed, the “oh son” that repeats though the lines, almost gives the text a lyric-like quality. Recinos’s account is much less expressive.  Tedlock’s translation is a little better, but the use of “boy” instead of “oh son” lessens the rhythm somewhat.

At other times though, Edmonson’s coupling can appear quite stilted.  Example 12 below is a little confusing, Recinos and Tedlock’s translations are clearer.

  1. E: “It’s just a tree-

We can’t lift it”

“Shoulder it.

I’ll carry it.

Where does it go?

What sort of use do you want from it?” (44)

R: “It is only this log,” they answered, “which we cannot lift and

Carry on our shoulders”

“I will carry it. Where does it have to go? What do you want

it for?” (99)

T: It’s just this log. We can’t lift it up to carry it.”

“I’ll carry it. Where does it go? What do you intend to use it for?” (83)

  1. E: And they put in it cocksfoot for its face (49)

R: With the leaf of the ec plant which is found in the forest, Hu-

nahpú and Xbalanqué quickly made a figure to look like a very

large crab (102)

T: Next comes the counterfeiting of a great crab by Hunahpu and Xba-


And they used bromeliad flowers, picked from the bromeliads of the forests (84)

Edmonson is a word translator and he tries throughout his translation to translate rather than interpret.  In example 13, Edmonson specifically states in his footnote (1971:481) that he has used the literal “face” to the figurative “image”, or “appearance”.  Yet, his literal translations are not always coherent:

  1. E: “Only down here

It echoes

As though you were one remove

Or two removed away,

It sounds like” (46)

R: “Your calls, your words repeat themselves like an echo once, twice and so I hear well where you are” (100)

T: “As for you call, it just

echoes down here, it sounds to me as if you were on another level, or

two levels away” (83)

Edmonson states in his footnote (1971:46) that the translation for “hun elebal” is loose and he recognizes other translations for this word.  He believes that the one he proposes is the most appropriate, as it is the closest to the Quiché.  This might be true, but it does not aid understanding, both Tedlock’s and Recinos’s translations are more comprehensible. Yet, perhaps the specialist would prefer to have Edmonson’s literal translation to work from.

On occasion, Edmonson does succumb to interpretation though.  For instance:

  1. E: What was in his teeth finally came out –

The brilliant blue inlays in his mouth (42)

R: They removed the rest of his teeth which shone

like pearls in his mouth (98)

T: The last of his teeth came out, the jewels that had stood out blue from his mouth (80)

Both Recinos and Tedlock mention that the teeth themselves shone, whereas Edmonson moves a step further away from the original text in mentioning the inlays.  Tooth decoration was practiced among the Classic Maya and it was probably this practice he was alluding to.

Recinos’s Interpretations and Elaborations

Although Recinos states that he does try to stick to the original text, there are many instances throughout the Second Creation where he interprets, modifies and inserts words.

Most of the changes stem from making the text more comprehensible to the modern, Western reader.  In the two examples below (16 and 17), he uses the word “emerald” instead of “jade”. Jade is indigenous to the New World, and would not be necessarily known in the West.  The nearest equivalent, in colour that is, for the Old World would be emerald.  In these examples, he is revealing more about Spanish culture than about the Maya.

  1. E:..his wealth,

His jewels,

His jade,

His treasure (35)

R: His riches, his green stones, his precious metals, his emeralds, his jewels (95)

T: His riches, his jade, his metal, his jewels, his gems (36)

  1. E: “From silver my eyes just flash,

Shining with green jade” (32)

R: “For my eyes are of silver, bright, resplendent as precious stones, as emeralds” (93)

T: “Because my eyes are of metal” (73)

  1. E: “Reduce him down then

There in the east” (53)

R: “Lure him to where the sun rises” (104)

T: “Lure this Earthquake into sitting down over

there in the east” (86)

The cardinal directions and the movement of the sun and moon were very important to the ancient Maya.  The word “east” can be associated with a variety of things aside from a cardinal direction, such as colour and a deity (bacab).  Recinos has interpreted the word as a direction and then further translated the word as “where the sun rises” so that this could be understood by the general reader.

  1. E: “I am just felling mountains,

For I am the destroyer of them,

In the path of the sun,

In the path of the light” (54)

R: “Here I am moving mountains,

and I am levelling them to the ground forever” (104)

T: “I just scatter the mountains, and I’m the one

who breaks them, in the course of the days, in the course of the light” (86)

This excerpt is quite interesting, Recinos states that the phrase “Chi be quih, chi be zac” literally means “as long as there is sun and light” (1950:104). Yet, he does not follow this literal translation, instead giving his own interpretation.  Incidentally, this example gives another instance of Tedlock using “days” rather than “sun” in his translation.

There are also occasions when Recinos inserts words, again the purpose being to make the text more comprehensible to the general reader:

  1. E: “So let us try to shoot him.

After his dinner we might shoot him” (35)

R: “Therefore, we shall try and shoot him with our blowguns

when he is eating” (95)

T: “Well then, let’s try a shot. We could shoot him while he’s at his meal” (77)

In the above excerpt, blowguns are not mentioned in either Edmonson’s or Tedlock’s translation.

  1. E: They therefore lay in wait for 7 Parrot under the

tree (37)

R: And they lay in ambush at the foot of the tree (96)

T: They are now hiding beneath the tree of Seven Macaw (78)

Again, the term “ambush” is not mentioned in either Edmonson’s or Tedlock’s translation.  It seems that at times Recinos summarizes the upcoming events to prepare the general reader.  For instance:

  1. E: When his eyes were fixed, that was the end of the

Silver (42)

R:..piercing the pupils of his eyes, and they took all his riches (98)

T: He was plucked around the eyes, the last of his metal came off (80)

Example 22 demonstrates his preempting of ensuing events, “and they took all his riches”.  The line, “piercing the pupils of his eyes” is strange.  Edmonson states that nothing in the text specifies that it is the pupils of his eyes, which are stripped (1971:42).

  1. E: And they just hid themselves, each one separately

When they had dropped the beam down (46)

R:..and each one cov-

ered his face as the log fell noisily (101)

T:And they’ve hidden them-

selves, each one of them, after throwing down the log (83)

The extract above is seen as a mistranslation (Edmsonson 1971:46).  This rendering is probably because of Recinos’s reliance on Brasseur de Bourbourg’s work, translating the Quiché as “covered his face”.

Recinos makes the text more evocative than the other translators, as seen in examples 24 and 25.

  1. E: And so their big beam was dragged over by the boys

And then they dropped the beam right down into the hole (46)

R: Then the boys hurled the great log violently, and it fell quick-

ly with a thud to the bottom of the pit (100)

T: Meanwhile, a big log is being dragged along by the boys.

And then they threw the log down in the hole. (83)

  1. E: And then all the boys drank heavily (48)

R: ..they began the orgy and all of the boys got drunk. (101)

T: and then all

the boys got drunk (83)

Tedlock’s References to the Ancient Maya

Tedlock often chooses an ancient Maya term for a word in order to associate the text with the Classic Maya and to bolster the text’s authenticity.  In doing so, he makes his translation more evocative.  In example 26 he uses the word “lintel” rather than “beam”, as the word “lintel” conjures up the Classic Maya lintels from temples, such as those at Yaxchilan (Graham and Von Euw 1977:57).

  1. E: And they had cut

A great tree

For the cross-beam of their house (43)

R: ..after having cut down a large tree to make

the ridge-pole of their house (99)

T: ..having cut a great tree for the lintel of their hut (81)

In example 27 below, Tedlock specifically mentions the Hero Twins making fire with a drill and there is an illustration of this act from the Madrid Codex (a Yucatecan Maya manuscript), next to the text (Tedlock 1996:87).   Neither Edmonson nor Recinos mention this.  Indeed, looking at the original Quiché in Edmonson’s book there is nothing in the text itself that warrants this interpretation.  Tedlock is associating the text with activities that occurred in the Lowland Maya area (and also the among the Aztecs).

  1. E: Then the sons arranged their fire,

And they roasted their birds before the fire (55)

R: Then the boys built a fire and put the birds on it to roast (105)

T: And then the boys made fire with a drill and roasted the birds over

the fire (86)

  1. E: “Why they are two devils!” (39)

R: “What could it be, but those two demons” (97)

T: “What is it but those two tricksters!” (79)

In example 28 above, Edmonson and Recinos use the words “devils” and “demons”, probably because the term “Q’ax tok” was translated as “devil” in dictionaries compiled by missionaries (Tedlock 1996:242). Edmonson (1971:39) states that the term means ‘”pain stab” but recognizes that it refers to demons who cause suffering and pain, and appropriately translates the term in this way.  Tedlock’s translation is further removed from the Quiché as he calls the Hero Twins “tricksters”.  As mentioned, tricksters play an important part in New World mythology and so he is again trying to promote the cultural continuity and authenticity of the work.

General Style and Content

Tedlock, like Recinos, at times make the text more comprehensive so that it is understandable to the general audience.  For instance:

  1. E: “And it is I who shake the sky

And sunder the whole earth” (37)

R: “I am he who shook the sky and

made the earth tremble“(96)

T: “As for me, I bring down the sky, I make an avalanche of all the earth” (78)

In the above excerpt Tedlock interprets the text giving the word “avalanche”.  Edmonson and Recinos just mention the earth trembling.  Interestingly, it is “Earthquake” who is speaking (translated as 2 Leg by Edmonson and left as Cabracán by Recinos).  If Tedlock was going to make the line more comprehensive, using “earthquake” would have been much more appropriate than “avalanche”.

  1. E: “We are just poor” (54)

R: “We are poor” (105)

T: “We’re just orphans” (86)

In example 30, Tedlock has made the text more evocative, the plight of the Hero Twins more distressing.  The use of evocative and expressive words is part of Tedlock’s narrative style.  See the excerpt below:

  1. E: So then all of a sudden the face of the earth

just became bright (32)

R: It was cloudy and twilight then on the face of the earth (93)

T: This was when there was just a trace of early dawn on the face of the earth (73)

There are occasions when Tedlock gives a more colloquial translation, which is probably due to the reliance on the native informant. This is reflected in examples 32 and 33:

  1. E: “Ahah! It is done!

Very good!

We’ve done it to him!

He’s dead!” (46)

R: “How well we have succeeded in this! Now he is dead” (101)

T:”Right on! He’s been finished

“Very good! We’ve done him in, he’s dead.” (83)

  1. E: And groaning was the mouth

Of 7 Parrot because of his teeth (40)

R: ..the lord who was screaming because his teeth pained him (97)

T: Seven Macaw was yelling his mouth off because of his teeth (80)

Both Tedlock and Recinos try to avoid repetitions which is part of the Maya narrative style:

  1. E: What kind of poison can you make?

What kind of poison can you cure? (41)

R: What can you

do?  What do you know how to cure? (98)

T: What sweets can you make,

what poisons can you cure? (90)

The following excerpts (36-39) demonstrate the subtle differences in meaning of the three translations from a single text:

  1. E: When people were made

By Former

And Shaper (34)

R: How man was made by the Creator and the Maker (94)

T: When the people were vanquished, done in by the mason and sculptor (74)

The text above differs in translation between man being made, people being made and people being vanquished, killed by the mason and sculptor.

  1. E: “It might not be good to have my teeth out;

It is just because of them that I am lord.

My decoration is my teeth

And my eyes” (42)

R: “It is not well that you pull my teeth, because it is only with them that I am lord and all my ornaments are my teeth and my eyes” (98)

T: But perhaps it’s not good for my teeth to come out-since I am, after all, a lord. My finery is my teeth – and my eyes” (80)

There are subtle distinctions in the meaning behind removing the lord’s teeth and eyes, which results in his death.  Edmonson and Recinos’s translations are similar; the lord’s life force is in his teeth and eyes and he will die without them.  Tedlock’s translation alludes to something different; a lord should display his teeth and it would be distasteful for him to appear as lord without his teeth.  Tedlock’s translation then does not explain the action that occurs afterwards, the removal of the teeth and eyes and the lord’s subsequent death.

  1. E: Let us dig a big hole here,

And then we’ll make him go down there

in the hole (44)

R: Let us make a big hole and push him

So that he will fall into it (100)

T: Let’s dig a big hole for him, and then we’ll throw him

down in the hole (82)

Each translation differs in the excerpt above, from making someone go down, to pushing someone who then falls, to throwing the person in.

  1. E: Only the curer got it:

The gems (42)

R: The healer took all the emeralds and precious stones (98)

T: Only the doctors got

The jewels and gems (81)

We have here the terms “curer”, “healer” and “doctor”.  All have subtle differences in meaning, the latter (Tedlock’s version) being a modern term.

Diphrastic Kenning

I have found just two examples of diphrastic kenning in the Second Creation and both are indigenous to other cultures. This might be coincidental, although I believe that these reflect the cultures’ influence in the document.

  1. E: Already there was heaven

And earth

But totally hidden was the face of the sun

And the moon (32)

R: The sky and earth existed, but the faces of the sun and the moon were covered (93)

T: The sky-earth was already there, but the face of the sun-moon was clouded over (73)

The example above comes from Yucatec Mayan literature, where “heaven and earth” means “up and down” and thus “all space”, and “sun and moon” means “beginning and end”, thus “all time” (Edmonson and Bricker 1985:60).  The Yucatec Maya always linked space and time together and so the text, particularly Edmonson’s translation, may be read as “space but not time existed”.

  1. E: “So tomorrow we’ll see,

And the next day we’ll see” (47)

R: “Tomorrow we shall

look, and day after tomorrow“(101)

T: “And tomorrow we’ll see, and on the day after tomorrow“(83)

The meaning behind “tomorrow, a day after tomorrow” for the Aztecs was, “a time toward which we are going-a few days” (Class notes 2004).  This kenning can be seen in both Tedlock’s and Recinos’s translations.  Both translators may be alluding to Aztec influence, rather than its actual presence in the document, as Edmonson does not translate the line so explicitly.  Yet, we know for certain that there was Nahuat influence in the Popul Vuh (Edmonson 1985:130), so this example probably reflects that influence.

Discussion and Conclusion

             Each version of the Second Creation serves a particular purpose and audience and so in this respect each translation is legitimate and well executed.  The appropriateness of the translation depends on the needs of the reader.  Edmonson’s literal translation following the narrative style of the Quiché Maya is most suited to the scholar and anyone interested in its poetic value.  His work is definitely closest out of the three to the original and he is the only one who includes the Quiché text.  Although, in reference to the quote at the beginning of this paper, all translation is interpretation, it is the degree of interpretation that is crucial.  The limitation with Edmonson’s version is that he was interested primarily in the structure of the text, and so the content, grammar and syntax are not dealt with.  Both Recinos’s and Tedlock’s versions are suited to the general audience and both are written as prose.  Although Recinos states that he did not change the text in any way to make it more pleasing to the modern reader, there are many instances within the Second Creation where he does.  In agreement with Edmonson (1971:x) his writing can be loose and interpretive at times.  His translation is the most far removed from the text.  As mentioned at the outset, it is Goetz and Morley’s translation of Recinos’ version that I am using and I am assuming they made a straightforward translation.  To enhance readability, Tedlock makes the style more expressive and evocative and illustrations pervade his text.  His version may well be of interest to the ethnographer and those attracted by its connection (however dubious), with the Classic lowland Maya.

The aim of this paper is to show the disparity between different translations of a single text (the Second Creation) from the Popul Vuh.  Reasons for the disparity center around, (1) which account of the text is used; that is a copy of the original, or a translation into one’s native language, (2) what resources are used; colonial dictionaries, scripts from other areas or modern informants, (3) possible ambiguities and peculiarities within the language that the text is written, (4) to what purpose the translation was made and, (5) to whom the translation is written, that is the general public, historians, academics or specialists in the field.  These differences also highlight the inappropriateness and unreliability of trying to link architectural remains and artefacts of the ancient Maya to specific events in the Popul Vuh.  My research has demonstrated the importance for the ethnohistorian (whether he or she is able to translate the original text or not) to compare as many translations of a single text as possible.

References Cited

Bricker, Victoria R.

1973    Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Bricker, Victoria R. and Harvey M. Bricker

1998    Calendrical Cycles and Astronomy. In Maya, edited by P. Schmidt, M. de la Garza and E. Nalda, pp. 193-205. Rizzoli International Publications, New York.

Edmonson, Munro S.

1971    The Book of Counsel: The Popul Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala. Middle American Research Institute Publication 35, Tulane University, New Orleans.

1985    Quiche Literature. In Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by V. R. Bricker and M. S. Edmonson, pp. 107-32. vol. 3: Literatures. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Edmonson, Munro S. and Victoria R. Bricker

1985    Yucatecan Mayan Literature. In Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by V. R. Bricker and M. S. Edmonson, pp. 44-63. vol. 3. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Goetz, Delia and Sylvanus G. Morley (translators)

2003    Popul Vuh: The Book of the Quiche Maya. Dover Publications.

Graham, Ian and Eric von Euw

1977    Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 3, part 1. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge.

Hansen, Richard

1992    The Archaeology of Ideology: A Study of Maya Preclassic Architectural Sculpture at Nakbe, Petén, Guatemala, University of California.

Recinos, Adrián

1950    Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya. Translated by D. Goetz and S. G. Morley. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Tedlock, Dennis

1989    The Translator: Or Why the Crocodile was not Disillusioned: a play in one act. In The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field, edited by R. Warren, pp. 163-170. Northeastern University Press, Boston.

1992    The Story of Evenadam. In On the Translation of Native American Literatures, edited by B. Swann, pp. 406-425. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

1996    Popul Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. Revised Edition ed. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Vogt, Evon Z.

1990    The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, Fort Worth, Texas.

One response to “The Popul Vuh: Comparing and Contrasting Three Different Translations of the Second Creation”

  1. GVogel says:

    Thanks so much for this essay! It helped me choose a translation.

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