An incantation of ancestral voices

Rabinal Achi
December 3, 2004

Dennis Tedlock presents in this eagerly anticipated book the first authoritative English translation from the oldest known copy of the K'iche'-Maya dance-drama known today as the Rabinal Achi . This is the most important of the highland Maya plays still performed in Guatemala, having survived repeated attempts by authorities, following the Spanish conquest of the Maya, to suppress dramas of this kind because of their emphasis on pre-Columbian religion, warfare and human sacrifice.

The Rabinal Achi presents the tale of an enemy warrior, captured by a nobleman of Rabinal, who recites in poetic language his history and aspirations before being beheaded before the royal court of Rabinal. The translation is invaluable for anyone working in the field of highland Maya linguistics, literature or ethnography.

The play is far more akin to poetry than prose, and Tedlock chooses his words with the sensitivity of a poet while generally remaining true to the underlying Maya "feel" of the document. He is also uniquely prepared to work with such a text, having studied and trained, along with his wife, Barbara, with a traditionalist K'iche' priest in Momostenango.

Nevertheless, an ideal English translation is a nearly impossible task. The Rabinal Achi is perhaps the least approachable of highland Maya texts. It was not composed for us. While hearing its dialogue, burdened as it is with constant repetition and esoteric language, one never loses the sense of being an outsider peering over the shoulders of its intended audience.

A half century ago, Ruth Bunzel wrote that the K'iche' claim that their formalised speech and ceremonies belong to ancient ancestral precedent, and that they consider themselves to be literally "the embodiment of their rites and ceremonies". The performers of the Rabinal Achi are never given written scripts. Instead, the words are recited by the director and the performers are called upon to remember them.

In the K'iche' language, the word for "remember" is derived from na ' ("to feel"). Once, while reciting the words of an ancient prayer, a K'iche'

priest told me that his ancestors would never die because he "remembered" their words: "They live because I live, I carry their blood, I remember.

They are not forgotten." Tedlock writes that the actors who give voice to their ancestors' words "burn offerings for the spirits of the original characters, praying for permission to make their memories visible and audible in the waking world". They are encouraged to practise at night because the events of the play took place before the dawn of the present sun. The play is not an imitation of past events, but rather a type of resurrection.

If this new translation is to be faulted, it is in not preparing the reader for the fact that the Rabinal Achi is not a matter of word choice, historical allusions, choreography or matters of staging. The play's true purpose is to give voice to ancestors who are unique to the Maya. Tedlock does his best to give us glimpses of the beauty of the original language, sights and sounds of the Rabinal Achi, but it is simply not in the blood of the non-Maya to understand and appreciate the play as a Maya would, however much anthropologists may regret this.

Allen J. Christenson is associate professor of humanities, Brigham Young University, Utah, US.

Rabinal Achi: A Mayan Drama of War and Sacrifice

Author - Dennis Tedlock
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 361
Price - £20.99
ISBN - 0 19 513974 7

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