The Popol Vuh, translated from the K’iche’ by Michael Bazzett and published by Milkweed Press, is further proof, for those who still need it, of the splendid and thriving Indigenous cultures of South America that existed prior to European conquest. The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation story which dates back to engraved tablets dated 200 BCE (Before Common Era) – long before the Catholic Church even existed.
That this text survives to this day is something of a minor miracle. Spanish priests threw any Mayan texts they could lay their hands on into bonfires as the works of the devil. However, one complete copy of The Popol Vuh was written by hand on paper made from bark in the 1500s and carefully hidden away. A hundred and fifty years later a rather more enlightened priest realized its value and convinced the manuscripts guardians to allow him to make a copy.
While his copy is a line by line translation it also made no attempt at delineating or breaking the story into its component parts. Just page after page of unrelenting verse with limited punctuation and random capitalization. While other translations have been made in the interim, most have been from an academic and anthropologic point of view – preserving the text but not the poetry.
With his new translation Bazzett has not only managed to convey the vitality of The Popol Vuh’s poetry, but it into a piece of literature reflecting a living and breathing culture. This isn’t just something for academics, its a book to be read and appreciated like we would any epic poem.
Okay, so most of us don’t sit down to read epic poetry for fun, but that’s not the point. We have established a cannon of literature based on the premise that epic poetry and written out creation myths only exist in so called Western civilization.
This of course discounts the countless tales told by nations and cultures around the world. Through prejudice and the false idea that writing things down is unique to one civilization we ignore the stories that are the backbone of the majority of the world.
Bazzett has taken The Popol Vuh and translated it into a form that is familiar and accessible. In fact most will find it as accessible if not more so than the translations of Homer and Virgil which we claim to be the birth of storytelling. In fact, this is a much more interesting read than either the Old/New Testaments or the Koran in their current translation.
The Popol Vuh as translated by Bazzett is an extraordinary work that belongs on the shelves of all folk interested in The Classics. It also proves that we need to start redefining our definition of that term to include works that aren’t limited to one point of view.
From South East Asia and Asia to North America and South America and the Middle East and Africa there are worlds of stories and literature. Maybe it’s time we opened our eyes to the fact we’re not the only game in town.