Posted by: Johan Normark | August 8, 2010

Improper translations

An important part of my current research on settlement change in relation to climate change is the impact of the Spanish reducción. In short, I argue that the Spanish reducción led to substantial changes in settlement strategies during droughts, such as the ceasing of settlement congregation around caves during drier phases which occurred during Prehispanic periods in the Cochuah region. The abandonment of this practice during the Colonial period had religious causes.

I am currently reading William Hanks’ outstanding book Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross (2010). Hanks is a linguistic anthropologist and in this book he focuses on the crucial importance of language in the first hundred years of Spanish colonization. Hanks’ book argues against the classic model of syncretism “in which indigenous people appear to be Christian but in fact continue to be non-Christian” (p. 8). Instead, Hanks argues that “Christian practices done in Maya appear indigenous, whereas the meanings are in fact Christian” (p. 8). This is a notable difference and should be a warning to anyone who attempts to make direct historical analogies between the ethnographic present and the Prehispanic past.

The Spanish mission had several problems to overcome in order to convert the Maya to the Christian doctrine. Spaniards were outnumbered, they did not speak Maya that well, etc. Hence, the Spaniards invested a substantial effort in producing “the grammars, dictionaries, and doctrinal materials that established the apparatus of conversion” (p. 117). Hanks shows that “the task was fraught with danger, since the entire evangelization was to be conducted in Maya: false equivalents would yield false beliefs. The translations had to preserve the original in spirit and letter, yet make sense to Maya speakers” (p. 117).

Hanks mentions at least two amusingly improper translations that for sure created the wrong beliefs: “to translate the “body of Christ” as “ucucutil cristo” […] was to equate the host with the sexual organ of the redeemer. To translate “the Lord is with thee” in the Ave Maria as “Yumbil yan auokol” was to say in Maya, “The Father is on top of you,” with all the shockingly inappropriate sexual connotations such a statement would suggest” (p. 89-90).

I wonder if Google Translate would make such improper translations as well?

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