“Creation is ongoing. It’s not something that existed in the distant past,” said Michael Bazzett, poet and translator of “The Popol Vuh,” as he highlighted that text’s present-tense description of the inception of the universe.
“The Popol Vuh,” the sacred book of the ancient Maya, presents that civilization’s complex creation myth, painting a cosmogonical picture of one of the Western Hemisphere’s most advanced peoples, doomed to foreign conquest and widespread destruction.
In its pages, heroes embark upon adventurous journeys, forces of good struggle against those of evil, cataclysmic events shape and reshape worlds; literarily, “The Popol Vuh” is less a religious text as it is a poetic epic. Despite some noteworthy “echoes of Genesis”—they do have a flood—the Mayan creation story bears greater kinship to the likes of “Gilgamesh,” “Beowulf” and the Homeric epics.
Bazzett’s new publication is preceded by a number of English translations, but he felt something was missing from those. To translate words from one language to another can only convey meaning so far where poetry is concerned. As an award-winning poet, Bazzett’s mission was not scholarly, but artistic in nature.
“I approached this task as a poet, a reader, a teacher,” he said. “There are a number of wonderful translations in English, but they’re scholarly and in prose.”
Reading “The Popol Vuh” as originally written, one notices “a number of structural techniques, rhythms and cadences that cry out for it to be a poem,” he explained.
Drawing influence from other poets-turned-translators like Robert Fagles, Seamus Heaney and even J.R.R. Tolkien, whose poetic translations of canonical epics are widely considered definitive, Bazzett sought to preserve the innate lyricism of “The Popol Vuh.”
His final product has achieved just that, garnering The New York Times’ coveted Best Poetry Book of 2018 award.
As he approached this project, Bazzett found his scholarly predecessors extremely helpful, especially the prose translation by Allen Christenson, a professor at Brigham Young.
“I used his transliteration as a scaffolding,” Bazzett said.
Another unusual advantage Bazzett enjoyed was the fact that unlike some of its European counterparts, K’iche’—the language in which “The Popol Vuh” was originally recorded—is still spoken by millions in Central America today, and has undergone little philological evolution in the ensuing centuries.
Where languages like Greek or English, for example, have developed to the point of unrecognizability in some cases, the Spanish conquest of the Americas yielded one unexpected result. Since the conquistadors insisted upon the total adoption of their own Latinate tongue, K’iche’ was only used in certain settings and did not evolve as much.
“Because Spanish became the predominant language, K’iche’ wasn’t quite frozen in time, but it didn’t develop the same way as other languages do,” Bazzett said.
Bazzett’s presentation at The Community Library, made possible by Professor Mac Test and the Boise State University English department, will largely take the form of a poetry reading, but the author will provide plenty of historical and cultural context, and will likely read certain segments in the original K’iche’, though he jokingly admitted his accent needs some work.
This is a free event, and will take place Thursday, March 28, at 6 p.m. in the library’s lecture hall.
Visit comlib.org for more information.