Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nahuatl Theater Volume 3: Spanish Golden Age Drama in Mexican Translation. Edited by Barry D. Sell, Louise M. Burkhart, and Elizabeth R. Wright. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, April 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0806138787, $49.95. 420 pages.
Review by Bradley Montgomery-Anderson, Northeastern State University, Oklahoma
from SJC post 2 (10/13/08)

Starting in 2004, Nahuatl-language dramas have begun appearing in a projected four-volume Nahuatl theater series, of which Spanish Golden Age Drama in Mexican Translation is the third. In the current volume the editors present three dramatic pieces and a short farce, or “Intermezzo.” When the Spaniards first conquered Mexico in the sixteenth century, they needed a language to communicate with a large indigenous population. The imperial language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, already enjoyed great prestige as a language of empire and trade, and pockets of Nahuatl speakers were found throughout Mesoamerica and as far south as Honduras. While the pre-contact Aztecs had a pictographic system rather than a true writing system, they were in contact with the Maya to the south who did possess writing. The Spanish colonizers, recognizing the importance of the language, created a Latin-based writing system for Nahuatl and used it as a lingua franca. The desire to evangelize created a demand for Nahuatl-speaking priests, and the new alphabet adapted for Nahuatl was easily received by a culture with a high regard for the written word. The result is a large body of Nahuatl-language texts, the largest collection of colonial texts in an indigenous American language.Don Bartolom√© de Alva, a fluent Nahuatl-speaker of mixed royal Aztec and Castilian ancestry, adapted and translated these plays from the original Spanish. Three introductory essays, as well as a preface with biographical information on Alva, alert the reader to the importance of these texts. The Nahuatl elements in these indigenized dramas are aptly explained in Louise Burkhart’s introductory essay “Nahuatl Baroque: How Alva Mexicanized the Spanish Dramas.” In another essay Barry D. Sell describes the relationship of the translator with Father Horacio Carochi, the author of the most important colonial-era Nahuatl grammar. “A Dramatic Diaspora,” by Elizabeth R. Wright, explains some of the sociolinguistic factors at play in the creation of the dramas and shows how Alva deftly combines elements of Spanish Baroque with native Nahuatl elements. One thing that makes these works especially fascinating is the process of Mexicanization they underwent as Alva adapted them to local sensibilities. These transformations are made apparent by the editors’ decision to present them in four side-by-side columns: the first is the original Spanish play, and the second an English translation. The third column, on the facing page, has the Nahuatl version, and the fourth has the English translation of this text. This layout allows the reader to compare the Nahuatl adaptations with the originals.
In “The Great Theater of the World,” a Eucharistic play that is the first drama presented, Alva often has the piece’s allegorical characters use Nahuatl-appropriate metaphors. In an especially striking example, the original Spanish “Praise the Lord of Earth and Heaven, the Sun, the Moon, and the stars; let the beautiful flowers, earth’s hallmark, praise him” (90)” becomes, “Let our hearts and words sprout jades, hatch motmots; intertwined with sacred popcorn flowers they extol the master of heaven and earth” (91). In "The Animal Prophet and the Fortunate Patricide," the character Irene is transformed into Malintzin; in the original the protagonist’s servant declares, “I’m Vulcan. My father was a Roman who had the custom of naming us children after gods, and so he called me Vulcan, after a well-known god” (170). In Alva’s adaption this becomes, “I’m Tizoc. My father is Mexicatl. They gave us royal Mexica names that are feared everywhere in the world” (171). In the indigenized form of the drama, several layers of cultural interpretation overlay the Spanish version of the story of St. Julian the Hospitaler. This old European legend tells of a nobleman who leads a holy life after unknowingly killing his parents in a jealous rage, an event foretold by a dying deer he had shot while hunting. The third drama, “The Mother of the Best,” is based on apocryphal gospels and portrays a couple, Joachim and Anne, who discover that their previously childless union is to bear fruit in the person of Mary, the future mother of Jesus. Alva’s version of this play ends with a beautiful example of Nahuatl aesthetics when a Mexicanized Archangel Gabriel announces the destiny of the infant Mary: “And moreover, the heavenly Atotoztli, the turquoise bellbird, will give birth in her girlhood to the great and royal child” (403).
Spanish Golden Age Drama in Mexican Translation has an abundance of information for those interested in colonial Latin American culture, religious history, cultural contact, and linguistics. Nahuatl language scholars will find much useful data in these texts for studying the impact of Spanish on the language. The editors have chosen to preserve Alva’s original linguistic commentaries within the texts, a feature that will help the language scholar to understand the complexities of translating between these two very different languages and cultures. They have done an excellent job, both in the introductory essays as well as in the layout and presentation of the texts. An additional feature that might render the texts more approachable would be a very brief grammatical sketch of the language; such an addition would give a greater appreciation of the Nahuatl language itself and enhance the side-by side comparisons. There is some discussion of the Nahuatl writing system, but it would be an improvement to have this information in a more complete format, perhaps with a few examples from the Nahuatl texts to exemplify the pronunciation.Burkhart and Sell state in the first volume of the series that this project aims “to establish the place of these dramas in the literary canon of the Americas” (xix). This third volume offers an engaging look at the beginnings of a new hybrid culture, a dynamic Nahua-Catholic literature created for a sophisticated and literate indigenous public. These texts represent a great cultural might-have-been; Spanish eventually became the dominant language as Mexico slowly became Hispanicized, and the culture of written Nahuatl eventually died out. Anyone interested in cultural aspects of the Columbian Exchange will find these dramas, and the excellent essays that accompany them, a fascinating read.

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