New Translation of Popol Vuh Available

Popol Vuh: The Mythic Sections-Tales of First Beginnings from the Ancient K’iche’-Maya, translated and edited by Allen J. Christenson, is the second book in FARMS’s Ancient Texts and Mormon Studies series. Inaugurating the series was James E. Faulconer’s Romans 1: Notes and Reflections, which included the ancient text of the first book of Romans, a readable English translation, and general commentary on the text. Christenson follows suit with a literal translation of the Popol Vuh as well as a free, or nonliteral, translation of the text that he hopes will better communicate the flow of the narrative to the modern reader. Additionally, Christenson provides 343 footnotes explaining important details of the text, an appendix of the Guatemalan government’s official decree of the “Program of Bilingual Education” in Maya communities, and a helpful bibliography of works related to the Popol Vuh.

The Popol Vuh was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century, more than a thousand years after Moroni completed the Book of Mormon record. According to Christenson, the Popol Vuh “is the most important highland Maya text in terms of its historical and mythological content, as well as a sublime work of literature, composed in rich and elegant poetry.” Because of its exquisite poetic form, Christenson says, the Popol Vuh is similar to the epic Greek poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. In his introduction, Christenson identifies multiple forms of parallelism in the Popol Vuh, including the ancient poetic form known as chiasmus.

The K’iche’ were a branch of the Maya people that inhabited the highlands of western Guatemala before Columbus landed in the New World, and it was anonymous members of the K’iche’-Maya nobility who wrote the Popol Vuh. Christenson’s translation concentrates on the first sections of the Popol Vuh, which describe the creation of the world and its people in a time that the book’s authors call “prior to the first dawning of the sun.” Christenson explains that “both Genesis and the Popol Vuh describe an age in which people forgot their creators and were destroyed by a great flood. In the Popol Vuh, this period involved a people made of wood that walked according to their own desires, having neglected to worship the gods.”

This 298-page work is augmented with 20 eye-catching photographs and drawings pertinent to the Popol Vuh’s ancient origins. Christenson writes: “The Popol Vuh is the most important example of pre-Columbian Maya literature to have survived the Spanish Conquest. . . . The first line of the Popol Vuh declares the book to be u xe’ ojër tzij, which may be translated literally as ‘its root ancient word.’ The phrase indicates that the authors will attempt to give an account of the ancient history of the K’iche’ people from their first origin. The remainder of the book is thus seen as growing like a plant from this ‘root.’ The imagery is a beautiful expression of the K’iche”s worldview as an agricultural society.”

Christenson completed this entirely new translation of the Popol Vuh by collaborating with K’iche’ speakers native to the highland Guatemalan towns of Momostenango, Totonicapan, and Cunén and by drawing on his own knowledge of the language. As he explains, “In translating the text, I have tried to bear in mind that the results must accurately echo the voice of [the Popol Vuh’s] ancient authors so that their words may be heard again with the meaning they intended. It is my hope that I have been faithful to their message.”

Some Latter-day Saint scholars consider the Popol Vuh to be the most authentic source of ancient pre-Columbian history and religion from the New World outside canonized scripture. Although the Popol Vuh was compiled centuries after the Book of Mormon record was completed, Christenson’s translation of that work will interest enthusiasts of pre-Columbian texts and those intrigued by ancient literature of the Americas.