"Spanish comedias in Nahuatl: An Interdisciplinary Search for Meanings Lost and Found in Translation."

Elizabeth R. Wright, reporting on a collaboration with Louise M. Burkhart and Barry D. Sell


. . . everything is gained in translation, even, or sometimes especially, in translations that ‘betray’ the original. Or put another way, nothing is lost in translation except ownership . . .

Diana de Armas Wilson, "Transila and La Malinche: Women in Translation."

In 1640, Don Bartolomé de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a mestizo descended from Nahua nobility on his mother’s side and Spanish colonizers on his father’s, translated four Spanish theatrical texts for private reading and study by nahuatlatos (experts in Nahuatl). He thus presented a Nahuatl version of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El gran teatro del mundo, dedicated to Father Jacome Basilio, a Jesuit, and a version of Lope de Vega’s La madre de la mejor, presented to another Jesuit, Father Horacio Carochi. As well, he translated Antonio Mira de Amescua’s El animal profeta y dichoso parricida San Julián, mistakenly attributing it to Lope, and an entremés of uncertain authorship. These translations into Nahuatl, plus an earlier, anonymous translation of a Spanish play that Louise Burkhart has studied, are unique documents, in that they are the only instance of early-modern, American plays for which we can identify a Spanish original. Nahuatl, moreover, is the only Amerindian language in which there are surviving translations of early-modern Spanish dramas. In view of the theatrical manuscript’s importance, historian Barry D. Sell and anthropologist Louise Burkhart, invited me to join them to produce a trilingual (Nahuatl, Spanish, English), scholarly edition of these texts, which is tentatively planned as the second volume of the Nahuatl Theater Series of the University of Oklahoma Press. Burkhart and Sell have also graciously agreed for me to represent our project in El Paso, in the hopes of eliciting questions and suggestions from comediantes. Given that this project is in its early stages, I will, for this presentation, provide background information on Alva and his milieu, after which I will outline some basic issues about translation from Castilian to Nahuatl in the seventeenth century, concentrating on Lope’s La madre de la mejor.

Don Bartolomé de Alva, a university graduate and parish priest, belonged to a generation of multilingual scholars in seventeenth-century Mexico who worked in different Nahuatl dialects, as well as Castilian and Latin. Known primarily to us as the author of the Confessionario mayor y menor en lengua mexicana (Mexico 1634), he also served as an examiner for an important Nahuatl grammar by the Jesuit, Father Horacio Carochi, Arte de la lengua mexicana (Mexico 1645) . Of course, Carochi was also the dedicatee of Alva’s translation of La madre de la mejor, suggesting that the theatrical translations fit into a broader, Jesuit program of linguistc and rhetorical training.

Some aspects of Alva’s Confesionario that Sell and his collaborators highlight suggest the extent to which Alva worked with an acute awareness of his role in mediating between different cultures. For instance, an important issue raised in this manual centers on a perceived epidemic of alcoholism among Nahuas. Taking shape as a series of pláticas, parts of the confessional script a shaming of drunken parishioners through unfavorable comparisons to Africans, Chinese, Japanese, and perhaps most telling, to an idealized vision of a time of "good government" before the conquest, where authorities allegedly killed all those who appeared inebriated in public (Sell 26-27). The manual also makes reference to Japanese converts to Christianity, calling them "younger brothers in the faith" (Sell 32). Through his confessional manual, therefore, Alva demonstrates a conception of translation as comparative ethnography.

Turning to Lope’s little-studied La madre de la mejor, we find several points that will be fascinating to examine in Alva’s translation. The original play as transmitted in the Decimaseptima parte de las comedias de Lope de Vega (Madrid 1622) takes shape as if it were three tableaux fused together with the comedia format. As such, it might be the result of composition in several different phases, a tendency Elizabeth Teresa Howe found in her study of other lopean dramas that, like La madre de la mejor, focus on the Immaculate Conception . The overall plot follows the outlines of Saint Anne’s life as transmitted in hagiographies. In Act 1, Joaquin and Anne lament their long marriage has been childless. Making public the "sin" of barrenness, priests at Jerusalem’s temple expel Joaquin when he seeks to make an offering. This prompts both husband and wife to retreat from the city to separate, rural hideaways. But then the angel Gabriel appears to Joaquin, telling him of Anne’s pregnancy, whereupon he returns to Jerusalem. The act closes when husband and wife reunite in the city, and Joaquin celebrates that Anne has been chosen to be "la Madre de la mejor" (v. 1179). Act 2 could stand alone as an early-modern refundición of an older model of liturgical drama. Specifically, it turns on a celebration and pageant in honor of the Virgin’s nativity, using set pieces familiar from the pastoral dramas celebrating Christ’s birth. In the first tableau, shepherds and angels bring gifts. A multi-lingual pageant ensues, bringing on a series of characters who are, in reality, caricatures of groups coded as Other in Castilian-language theater. First, a Rey Indio and his servants appear. This scene conflates old and new modes of theatrical representation, as the Indian king speaks about reading the stars, as if a Magi from the medieval dramatic tradition, but then his retainers sing and dance using a familiar comedic mimicry of the supposedly colorful but nonsensical speech of a group coded as exotic, but culturally inferior. The pageant also brings on a chorus of Africans who speak in the habla de negros that John Buesterien has recently catalogued, after which a chorus of gypsies offers their words and songs of homage. Of course, this scene will be fascinating to study in the months ahead, as Nahuas displayed a strong sense of themselves as the superior, metropolitan civilization vis-à-vis other Mesoamerican groups and even Spaniards (Sell, electronic mail communication, 26 February 2001). Finally, the celebration closes as Joaquin reiterates the elogio to Ana as "la Madre de la mejor / madre de quantas lo han sido" (vv. 2177-78). Act 3, for its part, might stand alone as an auto sacramental, as it opens with the dragón infernal and his retainers, who serve to outline the aspects of Marian imagery central to the Immaculate Conception. The rest of the act, save the last scene, features chorus-like declarations more characteristic of an auto sacramental than a comedia. Then, according to stage directions, a peña opens to reveal the Virgin’s Old Testament ancestors, from Adam to David. Action turns on Joaquin and Anne’s preparations to take María, now three, to the temple. Finally, the play that evolved as a celebration of motherhood closes as a sublimation of it; that is, Anne must leave her daughter in the permanent custody of temple guardians. In the final scene, Joaquin consoles her:

Joachin: Vamos Ana, y consolaos

con que a Dios queda ofrecida.

Ana: Dichosa Ioachin su vida.

Joachin: Ea amigos alegraos

Lo que es de Dios sea de Dios

Maria no es suya, no es mia

y presente esta Maria

en el alma de los dos. (vv. 3120-27)

In effect, the third act serves as a sacrifice of the gift that acts one and two celebrate. Each of the first two acts ended with the refrain-like celebration of Ana as "la madre de la mejor," both times in the words of her husband. Yet the final act closes with Joaquin acting as God’s agent in taking away this gift. The messenger-like character identified at the play’s outset as Bato villano reprises the last words from Acts 1 and 2, though this time the words denote something different from Anne’s maternity: "Pues viuan Ana, y Joachin / porque con esto haga fin / La Madre de la Mejor" (vv. 3129-3131). In effect, the refrain that celebrated the "mother" in the previous end points now signifies "title of the play," following a common theatrical technique that here seems here fraught with new meaning related to maternal sacrifice. Though the resolution follows standard Marian hagiography familiar to readers with access to a Flos sanctorum or a pliego suelto "life and miracles," from the vantage point of the lopean comedia, it is not at all common. After all, there are few strong mother figures in his corpus, so that one play build on a madre that ends in a mother’s sacrifice might have left a profound impression. Ann’s surrender fits into the psychoanalytical model Anne J. Cruz theorizes, as an explicit case of writing the M/Other out of cultural discourses; indeed, Cruz discusses Saint Anne as an imporant normative model used to restrain women (38). At the same time, this sense of an ending brings to mind Catherine Connor’s recent suggestions about studying the endings of comedias as implied rites-of-passage. Though she discusses the marriage endings of classic comedias, her insights about the potential power of a dramatic formula might be applied to study this ending; either the mother Anne or the infant/mother Mary could be the liminal figure whose rite-of-passage would have had an exemplary value for spectators .

By itself, La madre de la mejor suggests important issues related to the study of Lope’s literary practice. Elsewhere, I have argued that Lope conflated secular and spiritual concerns when he used the campaign for the canonization of Madrid’s new, rustic patron, Isidro labrador, as a platform to present himself as a canonical author . Here too, the prologue that accompanies the first known publication of the work in the Decimaseptima parte suggests the same fusion of secular and religious conceptions of canonization, as the dedication -- addressed to a member of the king’s powerful Council of State – depicts Lope as a writer using the topos of the prophet slighted in his own land. Specifically, he laments that Spain lacks enlightened patrons of the kind that Ariosto and Pico de la Mirandola found in Italy. Also, the whole question of Saint Anne as la madre de la mejor will be intriguing to study, given that the long campaign that Madrid’s ruling elite undertook to install Isidro labrador as a new patron served, in effect, to displace the court city’s longstanding patroness, Saint Anne. This play from the second decade of the seventeenth century – precisely the time where historian María José del Río shows that the Isidro campaign took on renewed energy – provides another instance of the motif of "adulterous" love that guides Lope’s patronage discourse. But these will be issues to explore later.

For now, I would like to report on questions that have emerged in our preliminary discussions of how motherhood and famial bonds undergo translation into Nahuatl. Barry Sell has already highlighted one key area in which Alva’s translation takes shape as a comparative ethnography that judges the cultural products of the dominant power. Act 1, as I noted above, opens with a lament for Ana’s childlessness. We learn of this sadness, first through Joaquin’s solo lament, which two servant characters, Raquela criada and Bato villano, echo. When Ana appears, she and Joachin greet one another. In the Castilian original we find:

Ioachin: Ana mía.

Ana: Mi Joachin. (vv. 194-95)

But in Alva’s translation, this expression of family ties undergoes a significant revision. As Sell translates the Nahuatl into English:

Ioaquin: O noblewoman, O my beloved Ana.

Ana: My male child, my baby. (59r)

Though overall, the Alva version of La madre de la mejor abbreviates the original, cutting three acts into two and condensing the numbers of verses, this greeting scene sets a pattern for the rest of the drama, where familial greetings become amplified through formality (Sell, email communication, 12 January 2001). Thus, later in the first act, Joaquin greets Ana, saying "Esposa amada" and she replies "mi Ioachin" (vv. 1133-34); in Alva’s rendering, Ana’s reply becomes "Precious personage, my male child" (70v). The same formality guides the interactions of servants and masters. Thus, Raquela criada addresses Joaquin in the Castilian original at one point, telling him "Aquí ha entrado tu sobrino" (vv. 1392); in Nahuatl, when Raquela addresses her master, she changes the "tu" into an address form that, according to Sell, accents Joseph’s high-born status, saying "Personage, my young man."

Though we have much work to do in establishing the correlation between lines and in moving from Nahuatl to English and Spanish, we can, from previous work on Nahuatl literary expression, draw some inferences about what this transposition from familiar to formal meant. According to Sell, "one of the real departures from Spanish cultural/linguistic protocol was a feature of traditional Nahuatl polite speech that involved indirection and inversion. Put simply, direct address was usually avoided and an inversion of roles/status was employed in a complicated system of layered formality/informality (Sell, electronic mail communication, 12 January 2001). Called huehuetlahtolli ("old word" or "ancient discourse"), this formal speech pattern continued to be a key feature of Nahua identity after the conquest (. Louise Burkhart found the same translation pattern when she compared the late sixteenth-century despedimiento play, Lucero de Nuestra Salvación, by Valencian bookseller, Ausías Izquierdo Zebrero, to an anonymous Nahuatl translation. This is the only other early-modern Nahuatl play based on a known Spanish original. As Burkhart notes in explaining the move from peninsular modes of familial greetings to the formal, ritualized huehuetlahtolli: "by recasting the character’s interactions according to Nahua behavioral codes and rewriting their terse speeches as formal Nahuatl oratory, the playwright indicates that the original characters lacked the decorum and speaking skills that the subject matter demanded. The task of translation is to bring the text across the cultural divide and also to raise it up to the level of Nahuatl discourse" . In this regard, Burkhart notes an underlying paradox of the way that religious orders active in Mexico authorized native-language translations of theatrical texts, in large part because of a cultural stereotype of Amerindians as sensual, superficial people who needed live images to understand scriptural concepts. Yet those very translations took shape in a way that implied that Spanish culture might be too rustic.

Interestingly enough, if decorum represents an item found in our preliminary assessment of the translation of La madre de la mejor, it seems that a Castilian vision of idealized rusticity might be one item lost. A central character in the original lopean drama is the figure who first appears in the published text as "Bato villano." He first speaks as a stock shepherd: "rehortir, que rehortir / muesso amo me lo mandó, y me dixo, venga Bato / de los pastores del hato / que Bato me llamo yo" (vv. 82-86). But almost immediately, he transforms into a conduit for the play’s communication of theological lessons, giving an explanation of the history of the temple of Salomon (vv. 103-146), an issue important to Jesuits in the early seventeenth century. Like Lope’s San Isidro labrador, the rural dweller becomes miraculously endowed with knowledge of scriptures (Wright, "Virtuous Labor, Courtly Laborer" 231). Besides uttering prophecy in concrete, but learned terms, Bato becomes a crucial figure for conveying a cultivated, elegiac picture of rural life. Thus, when priests eject Joaquin from the temple for failing to produce any children, Bato consoles him with an ode to rural life delivered in romance (o/o). Here, there is a quite typical lopean catalog, in this case, presenting a list of rural peninsular locales and their flora, giving a long list of trees and flowers (vv. 748—793):

. . . bolued los ojos a ver,

montes, prados, y rastroxos,

cabañas, dehesas, fuentes,

huertas, viñas, pagos, poços,

todo os ofrece sus frutos,

los montes altos, copiosos,

robustos robles, y enzinas,

castaños, y sicomoros,

nogales, abetos, pinos,

xaras, enebros, madroños,

nisperos, y cornicabras,

alcornoques, murtas, ornos,

palmas, texos, azebuches,

laureles, y zinamomos . . . (vv. 746-764)

Much as these verses suggest, idealized visions of rural community underpin Lope’s original, offering intriguing parallels to Fuenteovejuna. Yet our preliminary communications about Alva’s version raise the question about how, or even whether, these changes in registers between rural and urban underwent translation. Bato appears in Alva’s version without a label that correlates to villano. Moreover, Sell’s initial examination of the manuscript suggests that the ode to rural life and catalog of flora may not have been transmitted, or was translated in abbreviated form. Sell and Burkhart’s preliminary search for Castilian loan words in Nahuatl in this scene did not yield any, suggesting either that Alva ignored foreign botanical terms or used all indigenous substitutes. At this point, the question of whether the play’s idealized vision of rural life made it across the Atlantic remains one of many we will confront in the preparation of this edition.

What we can state from the preliminary examination, however, is that Alva added a language of polite address that remained a vital aspect of Nahua culture in seventeenth-century Mexico and that he, at least once, elided a marker coding one crucial character as a rustic, Castilian shepherd. He also may have served a comment on the play’s disjointed nature – especially with respect to the second act -- in that he made three acts into two. We will need to confirm these apparent changes with various tasks, including a careful examination of available versions of the play from the early seventeenth century that Alva might have used and careful, verse-by-verse comparison of the Castilian and Nahuatl plays. But for now, we can at least propose that Alva worked with Nahua conceptions of translation that would have allowed marked transformations and implied critiques. These turn on images quite different from the Latin notion of carrying meanings from one place to another that we find within both transferre (to carry across) and traducere (to lead across) (Burkhart 100-101). In this respect, Burkhart’s study on the anonymous Holy Wednesday translation highlights one term for the process, tlahtolcuepaliztli, in which the root, cuepa, means "turning around" or "turning inside out." She thus notes that "Nahuas could have used verbs referring to crossing or carrying rather than returning or changing. But by treating translation as a turning about, a response, or a change, they avoid the fallacious assumption that translation can be a mere conveyance" . Another common term used to describe translation nahuatlatoa, which means "to speak in a clear and intelligible fashion" (Sell, electronic mail, 27 February 2001). As concerns this term, Sell suggests it bespeaks a Nahua-centric conception of linguistic transposition whereby something "barbaric" becomes more cultivated.

From our perspective as critics, these conceptions of translation in multi-lingual, multi-cultural colonial Mexico correlate with the Bakhtinian view. As his English translator Caryl Emerson notes, this model of translation turns on the "vitality of nonequivalence" in multilingual environments, which is liberating precisely because it does not presume to render images of the original, so much as "open up a gap between things and their labels" (Bakhtin xxxii). An efficacious translation, therefore, would be one that explores openings to create a dialogue in the Bakhtinian sense. In the spirit of dialogue, I would close, again thanking my collaborators for graciously authorizing me to represent them in El Paso. I would also like to express gratitude, de antemano, to fellow conference participants, as we pose some questions to you. What might scholars of the classic Spanish theater seek from a study of dramas translated into "lengua mexicana"? What material might you hope to find there when planning to teach students about the way Spanish theater moved across the Atlantic?

Texto electrónico por Vern G. Williamsen y J T Abraham
Formateo adicional por Matthew D. Stroud

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Most recent update: 03 Aug 2005