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Mayan Poets, Storytellers Share their Ancient Language

A new book, translated by a TCU professor, highlights contemporary Mayan poets and storytellers.

Mayan Poets, Storytellers Share their Ancient Language

A new book, translated by a TCU professor, highlights contemporary Mayan poets and storytellers.

Mayan people inhabited the Yucatán Peninsula several thousand years before 16th-century Spanish conquistadores arrived to lay waste.

The Mayans, and their language, “didn’t vanish, as many people think,” said Donald Frischmann, professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies whose sixth multilingual anthology of modern indigenous Mexican writing was recently published.

The Return of Our Word (Secretaría de Educación y Cultura del Estado de Quintana Roo, 2016) highlights contemporary Mayan poets and storytellers from the Yucatán state of Quintana Roo.

Translating the works into Spanish and English might attract the larger audiences the authors deserve, Frischmann said. As is, “They are somewhat invisible beyond certain boundaries.”

Donald Frischmann translated much of the The Return of Our Word during a Fulbright-sponsored stay in Mexico in 2013. Photo by Jeff McWhorter

Donald Frischmann translated much of the The Return of Our Word during a Fulbright-sponsored stay in Mexico in 2013.

Modern Mayans, concentrated in southeastern Mexico and in Belize, speak a language passed down mainly through speech, as Spanish invaders burned most indigenous texts. Frischmann said today, about 2 million people in the region are active speakers of Yucatec Mayan.

But globalization has extended to Quintana Roo’s small villages, bringing someone else’s televised culture, engineered corn and the whisper of a better future elsewhere.

Mexican people desiring 21st-century job opportunities want to master Spanish and, perhaps, English. But Mayan? For many, it’s a relic.

To prevent the Mayan words from evaporating, some locals are breathing new life into the language, Frischmann said. “Enough talented individuals and clear-thinking individuals decided to take things into their own hands and do everything possible to perpetuate, to keep Mayan culture alive.”

One pen-wielding linguist is Wildernain Villegas Carrillo, a professor of languages and interculturality at the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo and Frischmann’s editorial partner in The Return of Our Word.

Fresh Mayan works have a twofold purpose, Villegas said. Writing in one’s native tongue “allows a more profound, intimate encounter with his surroundings, nature, with his culture, with his identity,” he said in Spanish. (Frischmann translated into English.) “It’s important to demonstrate to the world that [Yucatec Mayan] is an important language. It’s not a lost language. It’s a living modern language.”

Villegas’ poetic flavor was on display in September when he read several of his works in Mayan and Spanish to a group of about 60 at TCU. Frischmann followed with the English versions. Compared with the other languages, the vowel-dominated Yucatec Mayan was notably softer, airier. Side-by-side, Spanish sounded like a lamentation.

Donald Frischmann said translating the works into Spanish and English might attract the larger audiences the authors deserve. Photo by Jeff McWhorter

Donald Frischmann said translating the works into Spanish and English might attract the larger audiences the authors deserve.

Frischmann explained to the group how the duo’s anthology came together through fieldwork. He and Villegas, with “as much water as we could carry,” ventured through Quintana Roo’s nooks and crannies, asking locals in hard-to-find villages for directions to even-harder-to-find villages where rumored Mayan writers lived.

The book’s contributors ranged from language professors to rural farmers. Much of the adventuring and translating happened during Frischmann’s 2013 Fulbright-sponsored stay in Villegas’ home city of José Maria Morelos.

Villegas translated from Mayan to Spanish. Frischmann used both versions to derive the English. The process was difficult. For example, the TCU professor explained how he translated a poem about the ja’abin tree.

The author, Gregorio Vázquez Canché, included a reference to the flower’s “sound.” Sensible to a local, Frischmann said, but “to an English reader … what sound does the flower make?”

It’s important to demonstrate to the world that [Yucatec Mayan] is an important language. It’s not a lost language. It’s a living modern language.
Donald Frischmann

To find the correct word, Frischmann walked outside of his temporary office in Mexico to the surrounding ja’abin trees. He grabbed a flower and shook it until deciding the word “sizzle” would suffice.

Frischmann said translating the 70 poems and stories took almost six years. The work merited careful attention, as some authors were sharing their still-relevant ancestral cosmology.

“One of the most valuable lessons that we can glean from contemporary Mayan literature is an attitude of viewing the world as a living being,” he said. “It has energy. It has vibration. So everything, absolutely everything, is alive and needs to be duly respected.”