Image - from the publication Ancient American Poets - Translated and compiled by John Curl ANCIENT MESOAMERICAN POETS
Translated and Compiled by John Curl

The Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl
Sources and Translations

Most of the surviving Nahuatl songs can be found in two major codices, Romances de los señores de la Nueva España and Cantares mexicanos. Both were compiled between 1560 and 1582. A few songs are duplicated in both the Romances and the Cantares, attesting to their authenticity and popularity. Neither manuscript has a compiler's name attached, though there is solid evidence of the identities of both.

The Romances, containing ten flower songs attributed to Nezahualcoyotl (or eleven, depending on how one counts), were probably collected by Juan Bautista Pomar, a great-grandson of Hungry Coyote. Although no scribe's name or date is on the only existing Romances manuscript, that manuscript was discovered bound together with Pomar's history of Texcoco, Geographical Relation of Texcoco, dated 1582. The two manuscripts are of the same vintage. Pomar wrote in his own language and for his own people to conserve their history, traditions, and culture.

The Cantares mexicanos, with twenty-four to twenty-eight flower songs attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, was probably collected by the indigenous informants of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún as part of his great work known as the Florentine codex.

Since the Nahuas already had a written literary tradition before the Spaniards arrived, they learned the alphabet from the friars very quickly after their own ancient books were banned and burned. Soon many Nahuas could read and write in their own language, using the Spanish alphabet. Almost every Amerindian town appointed a notary to keep local records.

Two more of Hungry Coyote's songs are found in Spanish translation in Historia chichimeca, a history written in Spanish by Alva Ixtlilxochitl, another descendant of Hungry Coyote and surely an associate of Pomar. This book and Relation of Texcoco are the primary sources for Hungry Coyote's life and the history of his city-state, Texcoco. More of this history and a paraphrase of a Hungry Coyote poem have been passed down in Monarquía indiana, another contemporary codex by Fray Juan de Torquemada. The sacred hymns can be found in the Florentine codex, Historia tolteca-chichimeca>, and Anales de Cuauhtitlan.

The quotes from Fray Diego Durán can be found in Historia de las Indias de Nueva España (1581), the first part translated into English as The Aztecs: History of the Indies, and the subsequent parts as Book of the Gods and the Rites and the Ancient Calendar.

There is no complete translation into English of the Romances. The best Spanish translations to date are still those by Garibay and León-Portilla. León-Portilla's beautiful English renderings of some of his Spanish translations are also excellent. Bierhorst's complete translation of the Cantares is precise and scholarly in many ways but also rife with interpretations of these poems as "ghost songs." In my own English translations I have used all of these works to try to find my way to understanding the originals.

Most of the songs in both the Cantares and the Romances have no titles, and in some instances several seem to be run together. For consistency and convenience in identifying the songs, I am retaining Garibay's song numbers for the Romances and Bierhorst's for the Cantares. The song numbers are followed by the manuscript pages where they can be found.

In the original manuscripts some of the songs contain stanzas apparently interjected by the singer at the time of compilation, usually addressed to Hungry Coyote. These have been omitted here. Also omitted are a few intrusions from Spanish.

Garibay's translations of most of the ancient songs into Spanish, along with commentaries, published over three decades beginning in 1937, changed the way ancient Nahuatl poetry was studied. His classic translations of the flower songs are still the standard against which all other translations must be judged. Yet another standard Nahuatl linguist and grammarian, J. Richard Andrews, could say about his work, "At times the Spanish translation is closer to invention than translation. . ."

Translating poetry so difficult and arcane in the original, from a language so different from English, from texts so dense and intense, in which words placed together often mean something else, forces the translator to take liberties with the text. The Nahuatl texts are confusing in many places, the punctuation is inconsistent, and copyists' mistakes are so prevalent that all translators are called on to some extent to reconstruct the poems. There is ambiguity in numerous phrases, making one correct translation impossible. Because of the complex and contradictory nature of these songs, any coherent translation requires an interpretive point of view, making it open to valid criticism. That will always be the case in translations of the flower songs. Every translation is bound to be different, not only in shades of meaning but in omissions and inclusions. There will never be one definitive translation of most of these poems. The translator needs to cross vast linguistic and cultural gaps to obtain results that are understandable to the general reader.

The best modern biographies of Nezahualcoyotl are by J. L. Martínez (1972) and Frances Gillmor (1949).

The Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl

Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Fernando de
1975-77 Obras históricas. 2 vols. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Bierhorst, John, trans.
1985 Cantares mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  Cantares mexicanos. MS 1628 bis, Biblioteca Nacional, Mexico City
1945 Códice Chimalpopoca-Anales de Cuauhtitlán y leyenda de los soles. Translated by Primo Feliciano Velázquez. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Historia, Imprenta Universitaria
Durán, Diego
1964 The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by D. Heyden and F. Horcasitas. New York: Orion Press
1971 Book of the Gods and the Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Translated by F. Horcasitas and D. Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
  Florentine codex, see Sahagún.
Garibay K., Ángel María
1964 La literatura de los aztecas. Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz
1964-68 Poesía náhuatl: Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España, Manuscrito de Juan Bautista de Pomar, Tezcoco, 1582. 3 vols. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Gillmor, Frances
1949 Flute of the Smoking Mirror. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press
Kissam, Edward, and Michael Schmidt, trans.
1983 Poems of the Aztec Peoples. Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe
León-Portilla, Miguel
1962 The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Translated by L. Kemp. Boston: Beacon Press
1992 Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
Martínez, José L.
1972 Nezahualcóyotl. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica
  Romances de los señores de la Nueva España. MS CDG-980 (G-59), University of Texas Library, Austin
Sahagún, Bernardino de
1979 Códice florentino. 3 vols. Mexico City: Secretaría de Gobernación
1950-82 General History of the Things of New Spain [Florentine codex]. Translated by A. J. O. Anderson and C. E. Dibble. Parts 1-13. Santa Fe, NM: American School of Research and Salt Lake City: University of Utah
Torquemada, Juan de
1975 Monarchía indiana. 5th ed. Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa

The Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl
Ancient Nahua (Aztec) Poetry
Index The Songs of Dzitbalche
Ancient Mayan Poetry
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