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Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Question for February 2011

How did the Spanish translate what the Aztecs wrote? Asked by Brent School (The). Chosen and answered by Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

Pic 1: Moctezuma visits Cortés: painting from the Enconchado series, c.1680-1700, depicting the Conquest of Mexico. Museo del Prado, Madrid
Pic 1: Moctezuma visits Cortés: painting from the Enconchado series, c.1680-1700, depicting the Conquest of Mexico. Museo del Prado, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

I wouldn’t speak of “the” Spanish, or “the” Aztecs. Conrad Russell, who was a great historian and a clear thinker, said that no English word was more abused than “the.” We should always think carefully before using it. In early colonial times, most Spaniards weren’t interested in learning native languages or reading what native people wrote, but those who were – mostly priests, who needed to be able to talk to their congregations, and court officials who wanted to understand native testimony – often mastered the materials thoroughly. For most purposes, professional interpreters dealt with problems of communication between speakers of different languages, as they did and do in every state with more than one linguistic community.

Pic 2: Painting of the Valley of Mexico in pre-Hispanic times, Hotel Majestic, Mexico City
Pic 2: Painting of the Valley of Mexico in pre-Hispanic times, Hotel Majestic, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The people we call Aztecs spoke Nahuatl as their first language. It was also a language of trade and diplomacy in and around the valley of Mexico; so interpreters were abundant. Nahuatl is still widely spoken in parts of Mexico and presents no greater problems of translations than any other language. But, if by “writing” we mean using visual symbols that represent speech, the numbers of Aztecs who, before contact with Spaniards, used writing as a method of record or communication was small. Like most people in most cultures, for most of the past, Aztecs tended to prefer memory for keeping account of whatever was worthwhile, such as literature, religious traditions, and history.

Pic 3: The Tizoc Stone records 15 scenes of Aztec military victory over key provinces
Pic 3: The Tizoc Stone records 15 scenes of Aztec military victory over key provinces (Click on image to enlarge)

As far as we know from surviving evidence, before contact with Spaniards, they used symbolic notation only for information that was hard to remember, such as the calendar and the dates of important past events, or subject to dispute, such as different communities’ mutual political obligations, or unworthy of memory, such as taxes and prices and bureaucratic data. Symbolic notation also served as an aid to memory, especially in the use of what we might call “prompt cards” to enable priests to recite prayers and divine stories, and to help courtiers recall royal genealogies and achievements. All these practices involving what we might call writing were confined to a few members of the elite. The number of texts, before contact with Spaniards, was very small.

Pic 4: Explanation of the glyph structure of ‘Tenochtitlan’, Zócalo, Mexico City
Pic 4: Explanation of the glyph structure of ‘Tenochtitlan’, Zócalo, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

To represent words, writers usually split the words, or parts of the words, into syllables and represented the sound of each syllable with a stylised picture of an object the name of which resembled it. For instance, to express the word “Tenochtitlan,” the name of the greatest city of the Aztec world, they drew a stone (“tetl” in Nahuatl) and a prickly pear (“nochtli”).

Pic 5: Spanish gloss (explanation) on folio 58 of the Codex Mendoza
Pic 5: Spanish gloss (explanation) on folio 58 of the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

For small numbers, they used appropriate combinations of dots, each signifying “one,” and bars, each signifying “five.” Arbitrary, commonly agreed symbols represented large numbers. Texts written with these symbols or “glyphs” as we call them are relatively easy to read once you understand the system. When Spanish priests or administrators wanted to refer a glyphic text to fellow-Spaniards who could not read them, they usually added a translation. In the 1540s, for instance, when the Viceroy of New Spain sent copies of documents from the archives of the old Aztec state to Spain, an interpreter added a reading in Spanish of every glyph, line by line. Modern editions of the manuscript, known as Codex Mendoza are easy to come by.

Pic 6: Mexica scribes: detail from a screen mural depicting the Conquest of Mexico by Roberto Cueva del Río
Pic 6: Mexica scribes: detail from a screen mural depicting the Conquest of Mexico by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

I have to stress, however, that Spaniards took remarkably little interest in glyphic documents. Administrators only preserved or copied those that provided important information about taxation and power relations. Missionaries seem only gradually and selectively to have realised that it was useful for them to read texts about pre-Christian religion.

Pic 7: Detail showing gold  tribute exacted by the Spanish during the Colony, from the Codex Tepetlaoztoc, British Museum
Pic 7: Detail showing gold tribute exacted by the Spanish during the Colony, from the Codex Tepetlaoztoc, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

When Europeans arrived, Aztecs largely abandoned glyphic writing. The alphabetic system that Spaniards brought with them – the Roman alphabet – immediately appealed to writers as a good way of getting a lot of data down quickly. Almost all surviving texts in Nahuatl date from after the Spanish invasion. With a few exceptions (for the enumeration of tribute on what we would now call tax returns, and for recording place-names on maps) writers used the Roman alphabet and matched the sounds of Nahuatl as nearly as possible to the combinations of letters a reader of Spanish would interpret as standing for particular sounds.

Pic 8: Page from the ‘Doctrina Cristiana’ book written in Nahuatl in 1583 by Franciscan missionary Pedro de Gante
Pic 8: Page from the ‘Doctrina Cristiana’ book written in Nahuatl in 1583 by Franciscan missionary Pedro de Gante (Click on image to enlarge)

The texts include most kinds of literature, especially poetry, hymns, translations into Nahuatl of Christian texts, ethnographic and historical data recorded by Catholic priests who wanted to understand the cultural traditions of their congregations. For anyone who knew Nahuatl, reading was unproblematic; and for anyone who did not, professional translators were readily available. The big difficulty for Spaniards was not translating texts from Nahuatl, but translating into Nahuatl the Christian concepts for which there were no corresponding Nahuatl words, such as God, trinity, sacrament, and so on.

Pic 9: ‘Conquistadores’: illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 9: ‘Conquistadores’: illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

The question from Brent School raises, however, a deeper problem. In every culture, words convey more than plain, literal meaning: there are nuances, suggestions, implications and associations that are hard to grasp for anyone who has not grown up in the culture to which the words belong. So translation is always inadequate, and something important always gets “lost.” If we go back to the original question from Brent, “How did Spaniards translate what Aztecs wrote?” the best answer is probably, “Always easily, but perhaps never perfectly.”

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• Pic 8: Courtesy Benson Latin American Collection, General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin, downloaded from -
http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art454L-01-MapsDocsEtc/index.html
• Pic 9: illustration courtesy of Felipe Dávalos

Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto has answered 3 questions altogether:

Why did Moctezuma think that Cortés looked like Quetzalcóatl?

How did the Spanish translate what the Aztecs wrote?

What did the Spanish do after the native population collapsed [in the century after the Conquest]?

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