The founding narrative of the K’iche’ people is finally available in English verse that delicately frames the glorious adventures of the Maya Hero twins in the underworld and beyond
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: In the dawn of the world, as the land was created out of water and animals roamed the Earth, supreme beings had a hard time figuring out how to make a suitable version of humankind. Wood and mud didn’t work, floods persisted, everything was dark, and a power-hungry bird demon dictator Seven Macaw claimed to rule the realm. Until finally, a pair of twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, were born of their mother Lady Blood, impregnated by the spittle of their father’s skull. Witty, strong and full of creativity, the twins defeated Seven Macaw and set on a series of adventures, which included fighting demons, avenging their father, conquering the underworld through a game of soccer and finally clearing the path to the final, successful creation of humans: out of maize.
WHO MADE IT: “Popol Vuh,” the “Book of the Woven Mat,” is the foundation narrative of the K’iche’, a subgroup of the Maya people, who live on contemporary Guatemala territory. Passed on as an oral tradition until the 16th century, when it was written down, it was preserved in the 18th century by a Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, who transcribed and then translated “Popol Vuh” into Spanish. The source which he used was subsequently lost, and even though “Popol Vuh” was originally chanted and had prominent poetic qualities, post-colonization it had only been available to readers in Ximénez’s prose. Michael Bazzett is an American poet who lives in Minneapolis. He had previously published two poetry books, a chapbook, and had his poems featured in various publications. His translation of “Popol Vuh” from the original became the first verse translation of the text into English.
WHY DO WE CARE: Like many others, I find that there are much beauty and power in religious texts and that they have a lot to offer to a contemporary readership, even secular. But limiting this appreciation to Homer and the Bible is a thoroughly imperialist exploit. I have always been fascinated with how concise, tight, and imaginative the body of “Popol Vuh” was—while holding within itself the breadth of adventure on a par with “Odyssey” and “Journey to the West,” and none of the instructive preachiness of some foundation narratives. And I hope to see more appreciation for “Popol Vuh”, which perhaps is easier now with Bazzett’s smoothly flowing verse. In fact, Bazzett himself says in the introduction that he decided to undertake the translation because he realized that there was no version of “Popol Vuh” that would do the myths literary justice, much like Seamus Heaney’s rendering of “Beowulf” and Stephen Michell’s version of “Gilgamesh” did to their respective sources. A lofty goal, yet one that Bazzett managed to fulfill with effortless grace and apparent reverence to the fantastic world of “Popol Vuh.” He also decided to cut the narrative off when it goes into a detailed genealogy of the K’iche’: something I can totally get behind, as someone who has often failed to make it past the population census of the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament. While obviously crucial for those who still practice their faith around “Popol Vuh” as a preservation of the ancestors’ memory, for a lay reader, it takes attention away from the main events. We should separate honorary lists into separate memorials, indeed.
WHY YOU NEED TO READ: Even though “Popol Vuh” has been previously available in English with plentiful anthropological commentary, it is through this poetic iteration of the text that the English reader can assess the narrative as something truly sublime for the first time. Admittedly, it might not be as faithful in every minute detail to the original, but reading an ancient text welded in poetry is akin to walking into the Sistine Chapel or realizing oneself in the middle of Batu Caves: astounding proximity to eminence. Bazzett’s translation is simultaneously majestic and relatable for the contemporary reader, and this dichotomy is very well suited for “Popol Vuh.” After all, the narrative itself is constantly juxtaposing the marvelous fantasy world of the land before time full of animal gods and majestic beings, with the more earthly concerns of agrarian nature, as well as the twins’ prop-heavy mischief. Bazett’s language is a splendid membrane that envelops “Popol Vuh,” without obscuring the thrills and the wonders that its core holds. And extra kudos should be given to the poet for translating the names of all magical beings, including Xibalba’s residents: I’ve never come across a better selection of potential noise metal band names. Which do you personally prefer: Jaundice Fiend or Flying Scab?
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