General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 May 2019/12 Rabbit
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

Spaniards stand on Indian heads, ‘adorning’ a Mexican church today

Can you translate this poem?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Anthony: What is the translation for this poem?

”Where are we going?
We came only to be born.
Our home is beyond:
In the the home of the defleshed ones.
I suffer:
Happiness, good fortune never comes my way.
Have I come here to struggle in vain?
This is not the place to accomplish things.
Certainly nothing grows green here:
Misfortune opens its blossoms.”

Also are there any online English to Nahuatl translators? (Answer compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

John Bierhorst, translator of ‘Cantares Mexicanos’
John Bierhorst, translator of ‘Cantares Mexicanos’ (Click on image to enlarge)

To answer this, we sought the guidance of a world expert on Aztec poetry (and member of our Panel of Experts), John Bierhorst. It transpires that the ‘poem’ quoted is in fact parts of two distinct poems from the late 16th century codex Cantares Mexicanos, now recognised as the chief source of Mexica poetry and ‘one of the monuments of American Indian literature’. It was John who wrote the first complete translation into English of this classic work, in 1985.

‘Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs’
‘Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs’ (Click on image to enlarge)

As John explained for us: ‘The first four lines are from the middle of the fifth stanza of Cantares Mexicanos, Song 3 (folio 3, lines 1-2):-

campa nel tiazque? ca zan titlacatico ca ompa huel tochan in canin ximoayan yn ocapa in yolihuayan. aic tlamian.

’The remainder is from the middle of Cantares Mexicanos, song IX, stanza 1:-

ninotolinia, in aye onotech acic in pactli in necuiltonolli ye nican tle zannen naicoy cahmo ymochiuhyan, tlacahzo ahtle nican xotla cueponi in nentlamachtillia.

‘Aztec Thought and Culture’
‘Aztec Thought and Culture’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Anthony might well have found these two stanzas joined together on page 6 of Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla, a classic work written (1963) by the Honorary President of our Panel of Experts. It’s interesting to compare the two translations. Here is John Bierhorst’s version of the two stanzas together:-

Where are we to go?
Indeed, we only come to be born, indeed, our home is beyond, where all are shorn, where life is infinite, where things never end.
[... I wail,] I that am poor, I that am never touched by joy or riches. What but vainly was I born to do? Its growing season this is not. Here indeed the wretched person sprouts or blossoms not at all [and yet serenely in your presence ...]

What may be apparent is that the poet is referring to the ‘hereafter’ or next world, and expressing no doubt commonly-held popular misgivings concerning the established religious ‘line’ on life after death - much as we still do today... What is the purpose of life here on earth? Is there meaning behind all this suffering? Of course these anxieties would have been amplified a thousand-fold in the aftermath of the Spanish Conquest... The text appears to be a profound protest at the (new) lot of the Mexica/Nahua ‘Indian’ under the Spanish yoke.

What is less apparent in these lines, as John has reminded us, is that it is a warrior talking...

NOTE: John adds, in answer to Anthony’s last question: ‘As for an online English-to-Nahuatl translator, I don’t know of any!’

The Aztecs and the power of lament